© Amelia Broodryk/ISS

Vote-based decisions could sharpen the Peace and Security Council

Using the ballot as well as consensus would strengthen and accelerate the AU’s ability to deal with conflict situations.

Chief among the many conflict situations discussed by the African Union Peace and Security Council (AU PSC) in 2023 were the coups in Niger and Gabon. Unlike in previous years, council deliberations were tense due to the divergence of national and regional positions on how the council should respond.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had pushed for the PSC to endorse its decision in the Niger case – but council members from other regions resisted. West Africa’s PSC representatives Ghana, The Gambia, Senegal and Nigeria advocated for blanket sanctions against Niger’s de facto authorities, suspension of the country from the AU, and deployment of troops to restore constitutional order.

Other members, mainly from Southern Africa, notably South Africa and Namibia, opposed West Africa’s demand. After prolonged debates and intense lobbying aimed at reaching consensus, the PSC dragged its feet before suspending Niger from the AU nearly three weeks after the coup occurred. This was not in keeping with the PSC’s principled norm of swiftly suspending countries that contravene the Lomé Declaration against unconstitutional changes of government.

When the PSC’s discussions on Niger split along regional lines, the option of voting as a means to decide outcomes was broached. While some policy makers have rejected the idea, others believe it could lead to swift and more robust decisions.

Since its inception in 2004, the PSC has consistently made decisions through consensus

The council’s reluctance to vote stems from fears that it could cause fragmentation. But as a statutory mechanism available to the PSC, the ballot shouldn’t be ruled out, especially when there are intense differences in positions. In Africa’s current volatile context, timely resolutions are vital. Should the council not consider voting to overcome tensions?

Article 8(12) of the PSC Protocol states that decisions are primarily made by consensus. If that isn’t possible, decisions on procedural matters may be taken by a simple majority vote. On all other issues, a two-thirds majority vote of PSC members is needed. Since its inception in 2004, the council's more than 1 184 decisions have consistently been made through consensus, with member states lobbying peers to back their stances.

This approach has been challenging, particularly as the AU Constitutive Act and PSC Protocol provide little guidance on its implementation. In the case of a stalemate for example, it’s unclear whether the voting process is time-bound. Consequently, deliberations are often prolonged, and the resulting consensus isn’t necessarily the most helpful outcome for the council.

Against this backdrop, the debate on voting is gaining weight in certain AU policy circles and among experts, as a way to make swift and impactful decisions. Some argue that the council’s reluctance shouldn’t cause member states to fear the ballot, given that voting would accelerate decision making and bring consistency and transparency to the process.

Debates aimed at reaching consensus meant the PSC acted nearly three weeks after Niger’s coup occurred

While lobbying occurs during both voting and consensus-based decision making, an over-reliance on consensus in cases of intense divisions could allow minority interests to dominate outcomes. Some experts suggest that voting could produce similar outcomes, but since empirical data from PSC practice is lacking, such arguments remain speculative. Voting might not be a panacea, but council decisions and dynamics in 2023 showed why the ballot should be considered.

Along with the Niger case, other contentious issues confronting the PSC last year were sanctions against countries undertaking unconstitutional changes of government. When the AU’s draft sanctions framework was discussed in May 2023, conflicting positions among states which could have been decided by voting delayed the process by several months. The framework was eventually adopted in November 2023. Had it been put to the vote, adoption may have been faster, as most states approved the draft.

Another major issue that could require voting is North Africa’s rising interest in claiming its third PSC seat. Current thinking in policy circles is that ECOWAS could relinquish its fourth seat to North Africa, which has only two seats. Some Southern African council members deem this fair, as it aligns with the AU Constitutive Act and PSC Protocol principle of equal representation. But ECOWAS maintains that representation should be proportional, based on the number of countries in regional blocs.

Another option is increasing the PSC’s seats from 15 to 17. One of the additional seats could go to North Africa, while the second would be a floating seat to be rotated among other council members, excluding ECOWAS countries. ECOWAS opposes being excluded from the rotation.

The PSC’s reluctance to vote stems from fears that it could cause fragmentation

The PSC has not officially addressed the issue of North Africa’s seats, but interviews conducted by PSC Report reveal tensions in behind-the-scenes discussions. Council members are unlikely to agree without voting on the issue. If talks aimed at reaching consensus are protracted and don’t yield tangible results, that could create rifts in the council.

While the PSC has made strides with consensus-based decision making, it is time to consider voting when there is a clear lack of agreement. This flexibility aligns with the PSC Protocol and would help resolve tensions and overcome delays that threaten the cordial relations necessary for a strong council. To further refine its working methods, the PSC should also consider establishing contexts and timeframes that should automatically trigger voting. 

This article was first published in the ISS PSC Report.

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