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Role models, The National 08.03.2011

Youngsters in Abu Dhabi have been tackling the world’s problems in a Model United Nations, debating the issues, practising diplomacy and passing resolutions. Jo Wadham finds out what they learnt in the process

On February 25, little reported at the time, the UN delegate from Iran, together with the delegates from Norway, Brazil, Argentina, Lebanon and Poland, supported a motion in favour of the abolition of weapons of mass destruction. Before urgent calls are placed to embassies around the Gulf, I should add that this took place at a model United Nations conference, AKMUN, held at The British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, and the delegates were students honing their diplomacy skills.

Model United Nations conferences have been held for more than 50 years, with the Harvard National Model United Nations, dating from 1955, claiming to be the oldest. Students, from school age to university, acting as delegates of various UN countries, engage in heated but structured debate. As Jad Abi Esber, aged 17 and one of the AKMUN directors, explains: “Basically the MUN is a simulation of the UN. The delegates find solutions for problems that the leaders of the world are trying to find solutions for.”

Model UNs mirror the real UN right down to the terminology used in resolutions and modes of address. At AKMUN, 51 pupils from The British School Al Khubairat, the American International School Abu Dhabi and Al Raha International School, and 14 visiting students from the Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma in the United States, represented 25 countries across three committees: Energy, Environment and the Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc). They considered issues from water scarcity to debt in the Middle East, migration and weapons of mass destruction.

Over three days the delegates presented carefully researched position papers for their assigned countries, heard each other out then negotiated alliances and put together resolutions for each committee to debate and vote on. At the end of the conference, awards were presented for “best public speaker”, “most knowledgeable speaker” and “best position paper”.

“It’s really amazing what you learn,” says Sara Al Sayegh, aged 17 and another student director of AKMUN. “You get put in these positions where you are debating something that you might not really believe in but you have to represent the views of your country you are representing. For example, in a previous MUN, I was Iran, and I was in the Human Rights Council and it was a really difficult position for me, but once you get into it, you forget that you are your own person, you get into the shoes of an Iranian person.”

Participating in a Model UN provides students with the opportunity to research an issue of global importance, while at the same time learning about another country’s geography, political structure and economic priorities. Tamara Al Khayat, 18, co-chair of the Environment committee, says that participating in previous Model UNs, including the DIAMUN conference in Dubai last year, has taught her that the world is not as black and white as she first thought: “Sometimes it even changes your opinion. Before I started research, I thought ‘I’m so against it’, then when I see why certain countries do what they do, you kind of bend what you believe.”

“It’s very enlightening about the UN system and how decisions are made,” observes Safya Morshad, aged 18, co-chair of Ecosoc. “It teaches you about the way the world works.”

The Global Model UN (GMUN) is the only MUN organisation based in the UN headquarters in New York. At its global annual conference, around 1,000 university students from around the world are invited to attend, many of whom will have cut their teeth on school-level MUNs such as AKMUN. Of the delegates to GMUN, 28 are selected to lead the conference and spend a week at UN headquarters attending workshops and meeting UN officials.

“Our aim is to expose students who are interested in working in international organisations, even in their national governments, in foreign ministries, to how the UN functions,” explains Yvonne Acosta, the chief of education outreach for the UN’s department of public information. “The UN is a very complex organisation, so if you can begin to appreciate it at such an early age you are way ahead of many of your contemporaries.”

Resolutions passed at the forums organised by GMUN may actually affect world policy too. Last year’s resolution was presented to the Meeting of Ministers and this year’s will be presented to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, next year.

The UN’s desire to encourage Model UNs is not entirely altruistic. It is way of grooming future delegates and officials and of ensuring its own survival. “Whether they become national leaders or leaders of non-governmental organisations, or they go into international organisations, they will be better global citizens as a result,” argues Acosta.

Taking part in a model UN provides an opportunity for occasionally truculent teenagers to learn the arts of compromise and negotiation, a key asset to being a diplomat.

Addressing the opening ceremony, the British ambassador, Dominic Jermey, drew on his own experiences as a diplomat working with the UN to motivate the participants: “Coming to an impasse, coming to a disagreement and failing to find a way forward on the world’s biggest problems if you really were representing a country at the UN would mean that something in the real world wasn’t going to happen. Some peacekeeping operation won’t take place, some humanitarian crisis won’t be addressed, because you couldn’t reach agreement. That is a risk you shouldn’t be taking.”

The teacher behind AKMUN, the school’s deputy head of secondary, Louise Jenkins, is very proud that the event, organised by the students for the students, was such a success. She hopes that, in addition to the debating, communication, computer and leadership skills they will have practised in organising and participating in a model UN, they will walk away with a better appreciation of the world around them. “I would hope that they would question what they read a lot more, look for different sources and compare sources of information.”

Shahzaib Elahi, 17, another student organiser of AKMUN, recalls attending a Model UN where one student became so incensed at another delegate’s position that he declared war on his adversary’s country. “Not really in the Model UN spirit!” he laughs.

Happily, no such incident occurred at AKMUN, but as Paul Coackley, the principal of The British School, summarised in his closing address on the last day: “This conference is an excellent example of what a real education is about. It’s about so much more than what goes on in a classroom.”

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