How Decisions are Made at the UN

The annual session of the General Assembly opens every year on the third Tuesday of September and runs for a year.  The work of the GA follows a cycle of debate, negotiation, decision, implementation and reporting.  Model UN simulations focus exclusively on the first three phases of the cycle.

There are three general components to the decision-making process that are crucial for anyone participating in a Model UN simulation to understand: debating, negotiating, and taking action. This section will provide an overview of these three components and highlight what aspects are important to include in Model UN simulations. In addition, it will highlight what gets lost in most MUN simulations when the implementation phase is neglected.

Setting the GA agenda

At the beginning of each new session of the General Assembly, the GA plenary and its six Main Committees are allocated agenda items to consider.  The items on the UN agenda represent the UN’s priority issues.  The main goal of each GA session is to take action on each agenda item that has been allocated to the GA for its consideration. “Considering” an agenda item involves first discussing the item and then adopting one or more resolutions on that item.

According to Article 10 of the UN Charter which defines the Functions and Powers of the GA, “ The General Assembly may discuss any questions or any matters within the scope of the present Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any organs provided for in the present Charter, and,…may make recommendations to the Members of the United Nations or the Security Council or to both on any such questions or matters.” In other words, resolutions adopted by the GA on agenda items are considered to be recommendations and are not legally binding on the Member States. The only resolutions that have the potential to be legally binding are those that are adopted by the Security Council.

Why consensus is important

This explains why Member States consider it so important to adopt a resolution that has the widest possible agreement among Member States. Before taking action on a draft resolution, they spend hours discussing every word in the resolution in the hope of reaching agreement on the text. When consensus on the text is reached all of the Member States agree to adopt the draft resolution without taking a vote. Adopting a draft without a vote is the most basic definition of what consensus means. If 192 Member States agreed on the text but there is just one Member State that requests a vote, then consensus is not reached.

If a GA resolution is not legally binding then the best way to encourage all Member States to implement the recommendations expressed in a resolution is to get all of them to agree on the same text.  When a resolution is adopted by a simple majority, those that did not vote in favour of a resolution on a particular agenda item will be less likely to implement the actions on an agenda item that are recommended in a resolution.

When the UN was created in 1945, there were only 51 Member States and resolutions were adopted by a vote. Today, in contrast, there are 193 Member States and roughly 80% of the General Assembly resolutions are adopted by consensus, that is, without taking a vote.

When you adopt resolutions by a vote, you only need to get a simple majority to agree on the text of a resolution. You don’t need to care about or try to understand the perspectives of the minority who disagree. This process is divisive.

When you adopt resolutions by consensus, you have to be concerned about the viewpoint of everyone and engage in negotiations that often result in compromises so that different points of view are taken into consideration. This process is inclusive.

Given the dramatic increase in Member States over time, reaching the widest possible agreement is more vital today than ever. Because the General Assembly’s resolutions are recommendations and not legally binding on Member States, reaching consensus has evolved as a way to ensure the widest possible implementation of GA decisions.

In Model UN simulations, delegates do not even consider implementation and therefore have not learned the value of reaching consensus over voting. Most resolutions at a MUN conference are adopted by a vote. This way of operating is stuck in the past and does not reflect how the UN has changed. Moreover, by valuing voting over reaching consensus, most simulations do not model the negotiation process that is required in order reach consensus. You cannot truly understand the UN as an institution without understanding the decision-making process as it has evolved at the UN since 1945. This guide aims to assist organizers in modifying their simulations of the GA so that it reflects these changes.

More about consensus

As mentioned above, consensus is reached when all Member States have agreed to adopt the text of a draft resolution without taking a vote. However, reaching consensus is not the same thing as being unanimous. It is important to note that consensus does not mean that all Member States agree on every word or even every paragraph in the draft resolution. Member States can agree to adopt a draft resolution without a vote but still have reservations about certain parts of the resolution. The important point is that there is nothing in the resolution that is so disagreeable to any Member State that they feel it must be put to a vote.

When Member States have reservations on elements of a draft resolution that they have agreed to adopt by consensus, those who are not sponsors of the resolution have the opportunity to explain their position either before action is taken or after action is taken on the resolution. When Member States know that their reservations can be included in the public record of a Committee’s deliberations on an agenda item, it sometimes makes it easier to agree to consensus.