This week I am accompanying a group of 12 Al Akhawayn University students to Antalya, Turkey, for a Model United Nations session. A Model UN simulates the procedures, protocol and practices of that largest of international organizations. There are two basic types of Model UN, “national” sessions aimed mostly at high school students of a given country and “international” sessions which can attract college students from around the world. The session being held in the seaside resort of Antalya this week (March 4th to 8th, 2013) is international.
My involvement in this activity is almost accidental, like crashing a party in full swing. The students themselves are the ones who have organized it. Most are enrolled in a three-credit Model UN undergraduate course while others are members of AUI’s Model UN student club. The course is being taught by my colleague, Professor Jack Kalpakian, who is also faculty adviser to the club. Jack was unable to accompany the students to the actual event and suggested I do so in his stead. I am here as an “observer” whereas most of the students are “delegates.” Delegates actually get to participate in the proceedings as representatives of various countries (never their own). On the other hand, observers such as myself only get to observe in silence. One of the students, Ms. Kenza Isnasni, is a graduate student and is too old to be a delegate (delegates can be no younger than 16 and no older than 25) so she is attending as an observer as well.
This is the ninth annual international Model UN to be organized by the Turkish umbrella association (consult the event’s official website here). Over 600 participants are attending. About two thirds of them have come from abroad, from countries as far away as the United States of America and Pakistan. Several major UN councils and agencies, such as the Security Council, the International Criminal Court and the Human Rights Council, are being simulated here. Other international organizations which operate (more or less) under the UN charter: the IMF, the OECD, the Council of Europe and NATO have also been included. Even the antiquated League of Nations has been resurrected from the grave for this pedagogical exercise.
International Relations are not my field of expertise and this is my first experience with a Model UN. My contribution to the excursion is purely administrative. I am sure I am learning more than the students under my guardianship, and that is for the best, really. The students are the ones who drive the event, from the national-scale Turkish Model UN Association down to the various local clubs and associations in attendance. The greatest pleasure for me here is observing all these enthusiastic intelligent young people organize themselves, get things done and sort problems out (I am not referring to the world’s problems, yet. I am referring to problems relating to the organization of such a large and complex international event).
The entire event is framed by the UN Charter, statutes and rules of procedure. The students, many of whom (but by no means all) are majoring in International Relations/Studies or Political Science, have all received training in these procedures prior to their arrival. For some, this is their second or third participation in some form of simulation (other international organizations: the Arab League, the EU, also operate simulations along the same lines). All the proceedings at this event are being conducted entirely in English. This is quite an accomplishment in itself as only a handful of the delegates can claim English as a first language.
Language is not the only challenge faced by the student delegates. The parliamentary procedure being followed, while somewhat simplified, can be quite daunting. Motions and draft resolutions and amendments have to be tabled and seconded and debated. Objections to them have to be heard and various types of votes on them have to be taken. Trained committee chairs and co-chairs, also students, guide the delegates through the process and, in most circumstances, delegates are given only a minute or a minute and a half to present their positions or express their concerns. It takes a lot of discipline, and some mastery of the art of oratory, to do this.
As noted above, this is not my field. I am of limited use to students seeking advice on issues and procedures. One of them, representing South Africa on the “future” UN Security Council of 2028, asked me what the point is of drafting a resolution on Tibet when everyone knows in advance that China will veto it. I had no answer for her. As I said, I am probably learning more here than the students are.
Watching the 2028 version of the UN Security Council deal with a sinking oil tanker in Tokyo Bay (possibly the result of a terrorist attack) and the resultant catastrophic conflagration of coastal petrochemical facilities has gripped me. The most fun I have had so far has been observing the mock League of Nations grapple with the problems of 1938-1939. Minutes of the proceedings are being recorded by typewriter and interventions are being timed with a stop watch. Very authentic! Predictably, and this is the measure of the worth of the simulation, the League of Nations is proving unable to formulate a response to Germany’s Anschluss with Austria, its annexation of the Sudetenland, or its occupation of rump Bohemia-Moravia.
The world was a mess in 1939. It is a bit tidier today. When I was the age of these students I pretty much blamed fifty-year-olds for the problems of the day, i.e.; the re-escalation of the Cold War, the Apartheid regime, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Third World debt, runaway corporate greed, etc. How could they let this happen? I was not naïve. I was well aware of how powerful institutions functioned, how political processes were subverted, but I couldn’t help thinking that my parents’ “post-war” generation was letting the world down, failing to act responsibly vis-à-vis future generations. Now that I am 50 years old myself, I can understand if the twenty-somethings attending the Model UN hold my generation responsible for today’s ills.; the endless War on Terror, the continuing occupation of Palestine, climate change, runaway corporate greed…
My generation (to continue with this ’60s concept) is now in power nearly everywhere. US president Barack Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkell were born in 1961, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper in 1959, UK prime minister David Cameron in 1966 and Moroccan king Mohammed VI in 1963. Are we doing a better job managing the world’s problems than our parents did? They, after all, were responding to the inadequacies of the generation of ’39. From this perspective, our current crop of leaders are doing far worse than they. The inadequacies of the post WWII global architecture, the Bretton Woods institutions and the UN system, are well enough known to analysts and critics. Yet they are being perpetuated despite all. There is no push to restructure it. Carry on, muddle through and leave it to the next generation to deal with the consequences. This is highly irresponsible and, possibly, this is one of the things student delegates at the Model UN in Antalya are learning this week.