The right to veto shall not be used for censorship

Most, if not all, international organizations make decisions based on consensus. It means a decision can be made only when all member states agree. This rule of procedure gives power to every single member state the power to veto a proposal even if it is supported by an overwhelming majority. This rule is based on the premise of international law that all states are sovereign and equal. You do not see this rule of equal distribution of veto power often among business or social organizations formed by individuals, because it would probably stop the organization from doing anything. That is why strong will for and good faith in cooperation are keys to the success of international organizations.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is an international organization responsible for managing the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. Member states agreed to work together to establish a representative network of marine protected areas (MPAs) after the Johannesburg World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002. After years of preparation of scientific work, five proposals have been tabled. So far only two of the proposals have been agreed upon. The main opposition comes from two particular member states.

There is an interesting fact in the negotiation. Those two opponent member states have raised many concerns about the proposals, but have never proposed any revision suggestions to the proposals in the plenary meetings. The proponent states had to guess what they really want and propose revisions themselves. This is problematic because first, there is no guarantee the opponent would come onboard because of those revisions, and second, the revisions may harm the interest of the members already on board. Though in reality most of the changes were tolerated by the members supporting the proposals already.

This fact made me think of media censorship and social media censorship in China. Everything people put online or on paper was censored. If people post a short video on Bilibili, sth like Youtube, it tells the content creator to wait for a moment for approval. My video of the UN vice General Secretary Sha Zukang’s speech at a UNEP side event of the Rio+20 conference has never made through that scrutiny. One interesting part of that censorship is that there has never been an open and clear line about what people can not say, so people who want to publish just have to guess and self-censor. This is exactly what some proponents of MPAs in the CCAMLR had done.

I did not make this connection until I heard a podcast interviewing some media professionals in Shanghai. They were asked if they fear the censorship system. One lady answered that when their products were censored, she felt humiliation and anger. I could totally relate to that. And because in a recent discussion about the MPAs in CCAMLR, I mentioned the revisions to the proposals by the proponents without specific suggestions or openly stated national interests from the opponents. I suddenly realized the consensus-based decision-making rule just gives power to every member to censor others without even notifying others of the basis of that censorship.

No, the consensus-based decision-making procedure should not be used that way. This is not just some moral judgment but also based on the calculation of international politics. Because the sense of humiliation and anger caused by the censorship could grow to a point where the good faith and will for cooperation drains. At that point, like-minded members could and might work together under some new mechanism. Both sides need to read the table carefully to see who could be the ‘left behind’ if that happens. To avoid such a scenario, it is the majority’s responsibility to integrate the interest of the minority. At the same time, the minority needs to state their interests and offer revision suggestions clearly. In the global commons such as the high seas and outer space, it is much easier for states to find common ground and work together.

The premise that all members of the international community are sovereign and equal is the starting point for spontaneous orders. International institutions are still evolving. All members of the international community should cherish their membership and the trust and good faith offered by other members. Because those are not granted.


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