Proposed amendments to voting rights do not fall on fertile grounds

Proposed amendments to voting rights do not fall on fertile grounds

Under international law, the doctrine of one state, one vote is widespread. Also within CITES, each proposal that is tabled is voted upon by the now 186 Parties to the Convention in that manner. This means, each Contracting Party has the same right to vote on increasing or decreasing the protection of species, irrespective of the species’ range. In other words, when, for instance, an uplisting of polar bears is discussed, Tonga has the same right to vote on this issue as does Canada – even though Tonga is not affected by any uplisting nor is it engaged in any polar bear trade. This doctrine can be found in Rule 26 of the Rules of Procedure (RoP) of the Conference of the Parties (CoP).

Many issues within CITES require a simple majority, such as the adoption of regulations or decisions. These are not legally binding. Others, however, require a 2/3 majority. This concerns the amendments to the Appendices, which are indeed legally binding for the Parties.

Against this backdrop, Botswana and Zimbabwe tabled a proposal to amend the RoP, and especially Rule 26, based on the presence of a species’ population in a certain country. The proposal criticises the injustice of the present rules regarding the effects of CITES decisions on those countries with good conservation outcomes. The proposal states:

The voting procedure as provided for by Rule 26 is unjust under the current circumstances where countries without significant populations of species are determining the voting outcomes on issues whose impacts do not affect them in any way, yet burdensome on parties with significant populations.

CITES, 2022, p. 1

While the two proponents defended their position in the opening plenary, others opposed the proposal based on the view that it would breach with the one state, one vote doctrine under the UN Charter, Article 18 (United Nations, 1946). Parties such as the European Union, the United States, Argentina, Niger or Senegal, to name a few, expressed their opposition to the proposal since an amendment would also mean that voting would become significantly more complex. This is because, according to the proposal, “Parties with larger populations shall be allocated more votes in comparison with Parties with smaller populations using a formula to be decided by the CoP” (CITES, 2022, p. 2). Voting would consequently require significantly more efforts to be concluded.

While from a procedural perspective this opposition appears justified, especially in light of the strained resources of the Secretariat, from an international law perspective it does not. Although it is true that the doctrine is applied in all major conventions, it is the European Union which breaks with it. In its Council of the European Union – the regular meeting of Ministers – a different voting system exists when votes are cased on proposals by the European Commission and by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This is known as ‘qualified majority voting’, describing two simultaneously met conditions:

  • 55% of Member States vote in favour (15 out of 27)
  • the proposal is supported by Member States representing at least 65% of the total EU population (European Union, Undated).

More than 80% of the decisions of the Council are taken in this manner, therefore making it the ‘standard’ voting procedure in the Council. In essence, Botswana’s and Zimbabwe’s proposal aims to establish a qualified majority voting system based on the idea relating to species abundance within a Party’s national boundaries. We content that this view is a necessary step to introduce new ways of thinking during a time when many paradigms are changing. That said, the proposal is very vague and does not address migratory species, species with insufficient data or species beyond national jurisdiction. In order to move this issue forward, a more concise presentation is needed.

The CoP still needs to conclusively decide on this agenda item. It is very likely, however, that it will not be adopted, given the resistance the document has seen. Whether the two proponents will table a revised version of the proposal during this CoP or a later CoPs remains to be seen. This proposal, however, is an important contribution to the discourse on justice within the Convention.


CITES. (2022). Proposed amendment to Rule 26.

European Union. (Undated). Qualified majority.

United Nations. (1946). United Nations Charter.

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