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Model United Nations How young people learn diplomacy

What if the United Nations were called upon to resolve a Game of Thrones conflict? Swiss student Natalie Joray writes about the appeal of taking part in Model United Nations events, where she has role played resolving real and fictional disputes.

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The first time I participated at a Model United Nations (MUN) conference, I didn’t really have a choice. Our teacher signed up my entire class half a year before the event, and we only agreed to it since it meant getting out of school for a couple of days.

As the date approached, we had long forgotten about it. Suddenly, we had to prepare, and this meant working in pairs to write a ‘position paper’ about the stance of a country randomly assigned to us.

The organisers of this particular conference, held at the University of Baselexternal link, did a great job especially considering it was made for unmotivated high school students who were only looking forward to the free food and being away from school. Or maybe that was just my class?

The conference itself was incredibly exhausting. Even though I admit that I hadn’t done enough research on my topic - the drug trafficking policy of the Netherlands - there were other participants who presented absurd ideas that did not match their countries’ positions in the slightest. And having to debate non-stop for eight hours takes its toll, especially when you are ill prepared and have never done anything like that before.



Natalie Joray as delegate at a MUN conference (courtesy Natalie Joray)

Natalie Joray as delegate at a MUN conference (courtesy Natalie Joray)

(swissinfo.ch)

I swore I would never do it again especially when I look back at what I wrote about the Netherlands’ policy. It was embarrassing. But I’m also proud since I decided to continue and think I’ve come a long way since then.

Next stop

The next stop was Zurich, then The Hague, followed by Salerno, Utrecht and Rome.

Participating in various MUN conferences has not only taught me the obvious skills of debating, reaching agreements and defending opinions that are not my own. It has also taught me how to travel as light as possible while still having a business suit for each day of the conference, how to iron blouses and dress pants with a hair iron, making coherent speeches despite being completely hungover and last but not least: how to dance without making a complete fool out of myself.

While these skills might not be as useful for everyone as they are for me, and while they can also be acquired in many other ways, there are very few other opportunities that are as fun as participating at a MUN conference.

Additionally, MUN immerses you in a topic far more than any class or lecture on politics, economics or history since it is interactive and opens your eyes to different views.

Another skill is learning how to do research in advance of a conference.

I absolutely love to immerse myself in a subject. 

Conflict resolution

To be well prepared for a MUN, you should not only know what your assigned country thinks, but you must also have a general overview of the subject matter. This can be anything from a timeline of conflict resolution measures taken by the UN or other international bodies to understanding all the different treaties and alliances that your country and other countries are part of, and the role of NGOs.

Depending on which country you are representing, it can either be very easy or very difficult to find information.

Translating texts from the website of a country’s foreign ministry or having to read endless reports is as much a part of the preparation as watching comedy shows or reading through masses of propagandist news articles.

But having little knowledge of your country’s position on a topic can be both a blessing and a curse. While one might think it is easier to represent a state if you know what you have to talk about, having little information can make it easier to debate and find a diplomatic middle way without losing face or being accused of not representing your country correctly. 

Dramatic coffee breaks

These conferences are more than just educational. Besides the very orderly sessions held according to the rules of procedure, there is also a lot of gossip, social events and coffee breaks, which everyone uses to continue defence of their country’s positions and to form alliances and develop strategies. There is a lot of drama involved.

It is an extremely satisfying experience to have a resolution finally passed, especially if it takes several attempts to gain the two-thirds majority needed (or worse, the goodwill of all five veto powers of the Security Council).

MUN is also a great way to expand one’s knowledge of current affairs that go beyond politics. Talking to people outside of the formal sessions can open your eyes to many other things.

Besides the classic United Nations committees, such as the various General Assemblies, the Security Council or the Human Rights Council, MUN offers sessions that simulate NATO, the EU, the African Union and the Arab League. 

Game of Thrones

MUN events can also include simulations of the International Court of Justice or various crisis councils, even two or three crises that require a large backroom staff to organise.

While most committees have a real-life counterpart, there are also ones that are purely fictional, including a simulation of conflicts depicted in George Martin’s ‘Game of Thrones’ series.

While most MUN events are held exclusively in English, there are also committees run in other UN working languages, such as French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. Smaller local conferences intended to introduce high school students to the world of ‘MUNing’ might also have committees in the locally spoken language.

The typical MUN participant is a student enrolled in international relations, political science or economics. But everyone is welcome to participate.  A committee simulating the World Health Organization might for example be of interest for a student of medicine, while those focusing on energy or the environment, could be attractive for people majoring in engineering or related fields of study.

Of course, MUN is not for everyone. You must have an interest in debating and it is crucial to have the ability to represent the opinions of other countries, even if they go against your own.

For me, attending MUN conferences is a great opportunity that I do not take for granted. It has helped me grow as a person, has made me less shy and more confident in my writing, debating and language skills. The conferences have also played a large part in my career plans and the degree in international relations that I will be pursuing at the University of Geneva later this year.


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