16 April 2020
UN Bodies Formalize Silence Procedure for Decision-making during Pandemic
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The UN General Assembly and the UN Economic and Social Council adopted a version of the silence procedure for making decisions amid limitations on in-person meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The silence procedure provides UN Member States with at least 72 hours to raise objections on a draft resolution or decision, and allows for explanations of position.

Voting is not currently possible in this scenario for technical reasons.

The UN General Assembly and UN Economic and Social Council each have adopted a temporary methodology for decision-making while the COVID-19 pandemic prevents in-person meetings at UN Headquarters. The decision-making method is known as the “silence procedure,” a version of which Member States have already been using to reaching agreement informally.

On 27 March 2020, the UNGA adopted decision 74/544, titled ‘Procedure for taking decisions of the General Assembly during the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.’ The decision notes “the limitations recommended on meetings within the United Nations premises as precautionary measures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19.” Circulating the proposed decision for adoption, UNGA President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande said that from his consultations with the Assembly’s General Committee, “it is quite clear that we all agreed that, under the prevailing extraordinary circumstances, the General Assembly has to be able to take essential decisions related to the Organization.”

According to a step-by-step document on applying the silence procedure, the UNGA President will circulate a draft of a decision or resolution to all Member States, specifying the deadline for raising an objection and allowing at least 72 hours. At the same time, the draft is to be made available on the UN’s Official Document System in all official languages, except in extraordinary circumstances. Any information from the Secretariat on programme budgetary implications is to be circulated at the same time.

To make an objection, Member States can send a letter or Note Verbale via email to the UNGA President. The President will inform all Member States that the silence has been broken. The President then may choose to refer the draft decision/resolution and the objections to: the sponsors of the text; the co-facilitators of the UNGA-mandated processes for the 74th session; the Chair of the originating Committee; the Office of the UNGA President; or a facilitator designated by the President to lead further consultations. Any revised drafts would follow another round of the silence procedure.

If there are no objections within the specified time period, the UNGA President will circulate a letter confirming adoption. The step-by-step process also includes options for making an explanation of position. The document indicates that it is not technically possible to hold a vote under this temporary procedure.

All decisions and resolutions adopted via the silence procedure will be noted by the UNGA plenary at its first possible meeting in the General Assembly Hall.

For ECOSOC, on 1 April 2020, taking into account the UNGA’s agreement on the methodology, President Mona Juul circulated a proposal enabling the Council to adopt decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Council adopted Decision 2020/205 on 3 April, and the procedure is in effect until the end of May 2020 unless extended through the same procedure. 

According to the step-by-step guide, when the ECOSOC president intends to circulate a draft decision or resolution under the silence procedure, she will first consult the Bureau. Bureau members will then consult with the members of their respective regional group. The document notes that information about this consultation will be posted on ECOSOCPlace before a proposal is sent on silence procedure.

The draft is to be circulated to all Members of the Council with copy to all other Member States for their information, under a silence procedure of at least 72 hours. If the silence is not broken, the decision is considered adopted. 

If objections are raised, the ECOSOC President may choose to refer the text and the objections to: the Vice-President responsible for coordinating matters under the item concerned; the sponsors; the co-facilitators of the ECOSOC processes for the current session; the Chair of the originating subsidiary body; or a facilitator  to lead further consultations.

Other steps in the procedure are similar to those under the UNGA procedure, including the circulation of programme budgetary implications and the placing of the draft text into the UN’s document system in all official languages. Like in the UNGA, all decisions taken through the silence procedure will be noted at the first plenary meeting held “after the cessation of the precautionary measures as soon as the circumstances allow.” [UN News story on UNGA silence procedure] [All COVID-19 updates from ECOSOC President

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