Procedural votes have been quite rare in the past quarter of a century, with some years during that period registering none. The two procedural votes in 2017 marked the first time since 2000 that the Security Council had more than one procedural vote in a calendar year. On 24 October 2017, a Russian motion to postpone a meeting during which it would cast the first of its three vetoes to prevent the renewal of the Joint Investigative Mechanism on the use of chemical weapons in Syria was defeated. Then, on 11 December 2017, China called for a procedural vote in an effort to block the Council’s consideration of the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK); however, for the fourth consecutive year, the motion to discuss the situation in the DPRK passed.
Security Council voting procedures are governed by Article 27 of the UN Charter, which distinguishes between votes on “procedural matters” and those on “all other matters”. All decisions (i.e., resolutions) require at least nine affirmative votes to be adopted, but those on procedural matters, unlike those on “other matters” (or substantive matters), are not subject to a veto by one or more of the permanent members. Thus, when voting on procedural matters, a negative vote cast by a permanent member does not in itself defeat the decision, and the draft will be adopted, so long as it garners at least nine votes.
On 14 April 1949, the General Assembly adopted resolution 267(3) on “The problem of voting in the Security Council”. In this resolution, the General Assembly recommended to the Security Council that it consider as procedural several types of issues listed in detail in an annex. These included inter alia:
- submitting to the General Assembly any questions relating to the maintenance of international peace and security;
- requesting the General Assembly to make a recommendation on a dispute or situation with respect to which the Council is exercising the functions assigned to it in the Charter;
- requesting the Secretary-General to convene a special session of the General Assembly;
- approving annual reports to the General Assembly;
- holding of meetings at places other than the seat of the UN; and
- establishing subsidiary organs the Council deems necessary for the performance of its functions.
Nonetheless, divergences of view persisted throughout the UN’s early history regarding what constituted a procedural or substantive issue. This often necessitated a vote first on the nature of the matter—i.e. procedural or substantive—followed by a second vote on the matter at hand. The first vote was referred to as a vote on the “preliminary question”, in keeping with the terminology used at the San Francisco conference that established the UN. Depending on the outcome of the vote on the preliminary question, the Council would then proceed to a procedural or substantive vote.
Over time, Council practice indicated an acceptance of the procedural nature of certain issues. These have included, for example, whether or not to include an agenda item, to convene or suspend a meeting, to call for an emergency session of the General Assembly, or to extend invitations to participate in Council meetings.
Procedural votes were common during the Cold War. From 1946 to 1989, 153 procedural votes were recorded. However, they have occurred with much less frequency in recent decades, with members often arriving at procedural decisions by consensus. At times, painstaking efforts to achieve consensus could perhaps be avoided if there were greater willingness to table a procedural motion for a vote.
Between 1990 and 2017, there were 21 procedural votes. Of these, 12 were votes on requests to participate in a meeting, six were on whether to adopt an agenda item, one was to postpone a meeting, one was to adjourn a meeting, and one was to suspend a meeting.
Certain patterns have emerged. In the early 1990s, the procedural vote was almost exclusively used to determine participation in meetings. From 1990 to 1992, there were 11 procedural votes (all of which passed), ten of which pertained to the participation of the Permanent Observer of Palestine in Council proceedings and one of which focused on whether to suspend a meeting on the Occupied Palestinian territories. These votes took place at a time when Israel and the Palestinians were embroiled in the First Intifada. After 1992, there was not another procedural vote in the Council until 2000.
Since 1990, 18 of 21 procedural votes have succeeded. Nonetheless, the vote tally on these procedural motions has demonstrated how controversial they have been. None of them received more than 11 affirmative votes, and five of them received the bare minimum of votes (nine) needed for adoption. Furthermore, procedural motions have often related to issues that had been or would be the subject of vetoes. Drafts on Israel/Palestine have frequently been vetoed by the US. There have also been procedural motions related to Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Syria since the mid-2000s; resolutions on these issues have been the subject of vetoes.
The fact that procedural motions are not subject to the veto is particularly relevant to the voting patterns. In 17 of the 18 cases since 1990 in which a procedural motion was adopted, one or more of the permanent members registered a negative vote. In other words, these 17 motions would have failed if the veto had been in play.
The three procedural motions that failed to pass since 1990 happen to be based on proposals by Russia. The first occurred on 23 June 2000 regarding whether to allow several speakers to participate in a meeting on the Balkans; the second, during the same meeting, was a vote on whether the Permanent Representative of Serbia should be permitted to participate in the meeting (S/PV.4164). The third was the Russian proposal to postpone the meeting on Syria on 24 October 2017 during which Russia vetoed a draft resolution that would have renewed the Joint Investigative Mechanism.
Six of the seven most recent procedural votes, dating back to 2005, have concerned whether to adopt the agenda in order to hold a meeting on a controversial issue. In these six cases, this entailed Council engagement on politically charged country cases—Zimbabwe (2005), Myanmar (2006), and as noted above, the DPRK (2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017).
The fact that procedural votes are occurring more frequently—there have been five since 2014, whereas there were only two in the decade prior to that—may be a reflection of the difficult dynamics in the Council in recent times, as well as the willingness of members to push for the Council to address specific issues, in spite of opposition from some members. Procedural votes can also be viewed as a useful way to of raise awareness and create a record of the Council’s efforts to engage on critical issues.