Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Consensus Definition:

A decision achieved through negotiation whereby a hybrid resolution is arrived on an issue, dispute or disagreement, comprising typically of concessions made by all parties, and to which all parties then subscribe unanimously as an acceptable resolution.

Related Terms: Standard

Often used in the development of international standards whereas minimum requirements of products or process are established not by vote upon opposing proposals, but by consensus.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) (and its counterpart the International Electrotechnical Commission or IEC), which develops and then publishes technical specifications derived from a consensus process, describe consensus as follows:

"Consensus: General agreement, characterized by the absence of sustained opposition to substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests and by a process that involves seeking to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments. Consensus need not imply unanimity."1

consensus meetingFurther, another joint ISO-IEC document (ISO/IEC Directives, Part 1, Procedures for the Technical Work) indirectly identifies the shortcomings of the consensus decision-making process:

"Consensus, which requires the resolution of substantial objections, is an essential procedural principle and a necessary condition for the preparation of international standards that will be accepted and widely used.

"Although it is necessary for the technical work to progress speedily, sufficient time is required before the approval stage for the discussion, negotiation and resolution of significant technical disagreements.

"National bodies need to ensure discipline with respect to deadlines and timetables in order to avoid long and uncertain periods of dead time. Similarly, to avoid re-discussion, national bodies have the responsibility of ensuring that their technical standpoint is established taking account of all interests concerned at national level, and that this standpoint is made clear at an early stage of the work rather than, for example, at the final (approval) stage.

"Moreover, national bodies need to recognize that substantial comments tabled at meetings are counterproductive, since no opportunity is available for other delegations to carry out the necessary consultations at home, without which rapid achievement of consensus will be difficult."

Both the 1994 World Trade Agreement and its predecessor, the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade deferred, in the first instance, to a consensus decision-making process. Article IX of the Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization:

"The WTO shall continue the practise of decision-making by consensus followed under the GATT 1947.

"The body concerned shall be deemed to have decided by consensus on a matter submitted for its consideration, if no member present at the meeting when the decision was taken, formally objects to the proposed decision.

"Except as otherwise provided, where a decision cannot be arrived at by consensus, the matter at issue shall be decided by voting."2

A WTO document adds:

"The above procedure does not preclude a Member from requesting a vote at the time the decision is taken. Consequently, if any Member has a particular problem with a proposed decision ... it should ensure its presence at the meeting in which this matter will be considered. The absence of a Member will be assumed to imply that it has no comments on or objections to the proposed decision on the matter."3

For example, §6 of the World Health Organization's 1995 Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Establishment of the Inter-Orgnization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals, which created a ruling body known as Inter-Organization Coordinating Committee (IOCC):

"... recommendations and decisions of the Inter-Organization Coordinating Committee (IOCC) shall be taken by consensus among the representatives of the participating organizations present at a meeting of the IOCC."

There are numerous examples of the deference for the process of decision by consensus not only in the development of industrial standards but also in terms of political governance. Again, from the 1996 Declaration of the Establishment of the Arctic Council, at §7:

"Decisions of the Arctic Council are to be by consensus of the members."


  • Arctic Council
  • ISO/IEC Guide 2:2004, Standardization and Related Activities -- General Vocabulary [NOTE 1]
  • World Health Organization, Inter-Organization Programme for the Sound Management of Chemicals (IOMC)
  • World Trade Organization, Agreement Establishing the World Trade Organization [NOTE 2: we have incorporated an official footnote to the Agreement within the extract to make the extract more readable.]
  • WT/L/93, Decision-Making Procedures Under Articles IX And XII of the WTO Agreement -  Statement By The Chairman as Agreed By The General Council on 15 November 1995 [NOTE 3]

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