The fairy-tale world of Model United Nations
Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
An accurate portrayal of the U.N. would demonstrate to young adults that, despite the occasionally valuable humanitarian work carried out by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and a handful of other specialized bodies, the organization has a history of massive corruption, bureaucratic incompetence, and highfalutin gasbaggery. An accurate portrayal would not conceal the U.N.’s spectacular failures. Rather, it would teach students that it was former secretary general Kofi Annan who, as director of U.N. Peacekeeping, reportedly advised against the use of force to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It would inform students about the graft surrounding the oil-for-food program in Iraq; the theft of half a million dollars by a U.N. official, who used the proceeds to buy (among other things) first-class plane tickets to Las Vegas; and the sexual abuse of children entrusted to the care of U.N. peacekeepers on several continents. The simulated Human Rights Council—whose real-life members include the likes of Pakistan and Venezuela—would be exposed for the Orwellian joke that it is. An accurate Model U.N., in other words, would display the more numerous failures in addition to the meager successes.
Far from instilling an accurate understanding of the world body as it is, however, Model United Nations elevates the global debating club to a religion. It indoctrinates impressionable teenagers in the alleged merits of world government. It stigmatizes arguments in defense of America’s freedom of action. (“No one cared about sovereignty,” a high school friend recalls from his MUN experiences. “No one could spell sovereignty.”) And for six decades, it has induced generations of Americans to view the United Nations as more than just a forum for discussion—as an unmitigated good.
A delegate’s first step in preparing for any MUN conference is to draft his country’s position paper. Every participating high school is assigned at least one country to represent, in a process generating furious competition. Typically, big, well-established schools receive the countries they request, invariably major powers, starting with the United States, Russia, and China, while newcomers and lesser schools get Slovenia and Gabon. After the countries have been doled out, students are placed on committees, ranging from the Security Council (most desirable, as the only U.N. body with any power) to the Social, Humanitarian, and Cultural Committee, always an unwieldy monster as it boasts the most members and the most banal subjects (“Recognizing the Humanitarian Need for Clean Water,” “Social and Cultural Rights of Refugees and Displaced People,” and so on). The position paper is meant to state briefly the country’s stand on issues before the committee. Once the conference convenes, delegates cooperate in small groups to draft mock resolutions to solve the problems of the world.
To discover how the jargon, triteness, and impracticality of U.N. hyperbole take hold of young minds, I had to look no further than my own high school position papers. “Throughout history, the African continent has had its share of violent conflict,” read one opening sentence. “Ukraine believes that biological and chemical weapons pose a serious threat to every man, woman, and child who lives on this earth,” I declared in another, before explaining that these weapons “are dangerous, with wide-reaching effects.” In a paper about the militarization of space, I suggested one way to stymie it would be to make countries pursuing space technology “promise to use it only for peaceful purposes.”
My position paper for the Disarmament and International Security Committee about the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention optimistically declared that “all nations which have already signed the treaty must reaffirm their allegiance to it. Without honesty, no worldwide resolution can be successful.” While I was adamant that nations violating the convention must face “consequences,” I did not specify any. Later in the paper about unconventional weapons, I recommended that the “international community,” that nonexistent entity about which high school students and world leaders alike rhapsodize, “provide humanitarian aid to countries which agree to dismantle their biological weapons arsenals. . . . Food and other living supplies would be given to states which cooperate with the United Nations, and perhaps moneys from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.” This has been tried, of course, with North Korea, and the dismal results are well known.
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