Model United Nations (MUN) is a UN role-playing activity that takes place throughout the world. Students1, aged anywhere from 13 to 21, act as delegates from different delegations – normally countries, but also bodies like the World Bank and UNESCO. Delegates are required to represent their countries' views, whether they be Denmark or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Students both organise the conferences and act as the officials – these include the Secretary-General (SG) and the President of the General Assembly, as well as many other lesser roles. Delegates will then participate in debates on a wide range of current topics, and attempt to offer solutions to problems facing the world, while neither starting wars nor failing to compromise.
Role playing scenarios, with persons acting out politically important positions, have been active for 90 years. They began with the League of Nations in the 1920s, before graduating2 to Model United Nations after 1945. With each alteration in the structure of the real UN, conferences have amended their design and scale, such as with the enormous rise in member countries. Alignments occur similarly with any procedural change, such as the need to be silent throughout a delegate's speech.
Claiming the title for the longest running conference are Harvard and Far West; both saying that they were founded in 1951. As well as these colleges, the National Model United Nations conference has run since 1923 in New York, with certain event trips to cities such as Xi'an in China and Quito in Ecuador.
Students will learn about and practise their public-speaking skills, improve their knowledge of the UN, and learn how to make a resolution at the MUN. Clubs at a local level, and activities and classes within schools and universities allow training of delegates by those who have experience in conferences. More officially, the Dominican Republic has incorporated MUN into its official high school curriculum. With well over 50,000 students currently participating in MUN, it is not hard to find a club where you can go and find out what it is all about. A majority of active members are found within a few countries, though, since 2000, the spread of delegates has risen dramatically.
Since its establishment, MUN has spread quickly, and continues to grow each year. Conferences occur in 50 different countries, and delegates are drawn from over 150 countries. Due to the wide range of countries and languages spoken, conferences must choose which language to use. Most organisations use English, with some using French. A common option is to have some committees of delegates using one language and some using another. Israel, for example, uses Hebrew and English, whereas Brazilian conferences normally use English, despite speaking Portuguese as their main language. International schools are very active in participating in MUN, and so normally speak the language that lessons are taught in, usually English.
Conferences can be of any size, but require more than one school or college. Many smaller ones have only 50 students, while THIMUN3 in the Netherlands hosts up to 5,000 delegates from 150 countries. The length of a conference ranges widely as well, with two or three days being standard; however, one-day conferences are becoming increasingly common, and some of the larger conferences run for a whole week.
The student officers make up the Secretariat4 – within MUN the standard layout is: one or two Secretaries-General, several Deputy Secretaries-General, President of the General Assembly, President of the Security Council5, a Head of Admin and a Head of Security. Different conferences may add press or IT control to their personnel.
When the delegates arrive, they will have prepared6 one or more resolutions on topics within their committee. These committees normally include the first six listed below, and occasionally the final three. Each delegation that visits the conference usually contains one delegate for each committee.
Political – resolves things that pertain to countries and politically motivated events.
Human Rights – focuses on current human rights abuses, also sometimes on how to reorganise and prevent future problems.
Ecology and Environment – covers matters from preventing corporations abusing indigenous populations to protecting Antarctic wildlife.
Economic and Social – highlights issues between countries and their economies and more global financial troubles.
Disarmament – covers a range of disarmament issues such as small arms trafficking to armed satellites to cyberspace.
Security Council – resolves security and war issues between countries and their indigenous parts. It is the only part of the UN that can demand actions. The Security Council often calls ambassadors from any delegation that is relevant to any topic being debated.
Health and Youth – focuses on children and the problems arising from modern situations, such as the safety of children in war zones.
International Court of Justice – settles the equivalent of legal cases between countries, with judges from different countries deciding the correct judicial opinion.
Special Committees – one-off committees that can cover any range of matters. These are established before a conference to focus on just a single topic, as opposed to a normal committee's four topics. Committees can sometimes be established within the conference with no warning – these are crisis resolutions that must be built and debated in only a couple of hours. Given that many of these scenarios are made up, certain countries will find themselves responsible for actions which they didn't know about until 30 minutes beforehand.
Lobbying and Policy Statements
At the beginning of a conference, delegates try to lobby others to sign for their resolution; if a delegate has enough signatures, then their resolution will be debated. The number of signatures varies, of course, depending on the numbers in committee. During lobbying, delegates may merge their resolutions if they feel that they would complement each other. This is vital in gathering signatures, since with more people come more signatures.
Before debating, each delegate gives a brief policy statement, which explains their country's views on the topics to be debated. The delegate will also give a summary of what issues they will be focusing on, and how modern events will affect their debate. These could include events that affect their policy towards certain countries or towards certain issues, and especially towards the United Nations.
These are the main point of MUN; resolutions are the bedrock of debate. During each resolution, the submitter will try to convince the committee that their resolution eliminates all the various flaws on the topic concerned, leaving no loopholes and still being viable. Other delegates will speak against saying that the resolution is awful and will undoubtedly lead to the Planet of the Apes... well, something like that, anyway.
As well as speaking for and against, at the end of each speech several people may ask questions of the speaker. These are often small attacks, with the questioner pointing out holes in the delegate's reasoning, or asking about how an event would be dealt with by the resolution. Alternatively, a friendly questioner may offer an easy question or just give some support to the delegate.
Those who think the resolution can be improved can submit amendments to change it. These amendments can then be debated like a mini-resolution, with some for and some against7. Eventually, the amendment will be voted on, and will either pass or fail. If it passes, then delegates have a new resolution to debate. When all is finished, the resolution itself can be voted on, and if it passes, clapping is in order.
Once a resolution has been passed, delegates tend to think they can relax, but they might find out that their resolution has been submitted to General Assembly (GA). If they thought that speaking to 50 people was stressful, then they must now try to convince up to 3,000 people that their resolution is worthwhile. This is particularly daunting when countries that might not have been present within committee debate suddenly make their views known.
General Assembly is when all (or as many as possible) of the delegates come together to debate one resolution from each committee. No amendments are allowed, and so delegates must try to convince others that their resolution is perfect, or have it voted down.
General Assembly is also convened at the beginning and the end of each conference for opening and closing ceremonies. The opening ceremony has speeches from the SG and the guest of honour, as well as other, more interesting additions. The closing ceremony involves saying goodbye to everyone, giving prizes to delegates and thanks to those who made it possible...and lots and lots of clapping.
Almost all universities, worldwide, use an alternative style of MUN debate to what is used at school level. This alternative style (sometimes known as 'Harvard style') has a few significant differences, including the following:
No Ready-Made Resolutions - instead of delegates coming with at least an attempt at a ready-made resolution and then attempting to gain signatures during lobbying, it is apparently decided that university students have too little time on their hands and so resolutions are instead constructed solely during debate8.
Two Topics, Two Resolutions - as a result of resolutions being written within committee, almost all committees and councils will have just two topics9 and will only pass one resolution on each topic - as soon as one is passed the committee automatically moves onto the next topic. The need to write a resolution (alongside debating the topic) normally takes a day's worth of debate, and frequently more, meaning that there is a reasonable probability that a committee will actually fail to pass a resolution on the second issue (or in extreme cases, even reach debate on it).
Style - whereas at school debate consisted mainly of speakers discussing the resolution and amendments, Harvard style adds certain extra features so as to better allow for the construction of resolutions. These includes caucuses of two types: moderated caucuses, which focus debate down to a specific part of the greater issue; and unmoderated caucuses, which are breaks from formal debate, where delegates may amble around, in theory using the time to write resolutions, or, as the case may be, talking to those who you plan to see at the socials later in the evening.
Additional challenges brought in at university level MUN relate to not simply the debate, but also to the running of both the societies and the conferences. The Secretariat is also responsible for carrying out tasks that are almost always managed solely by adult staff members at Under-18 level. The most important of these include: financing, ensuring the safety of participants, and observing various legal requirements.
United Nations Support
The United Nations offer support to MUN and have set up an organisation for the sole purpose of cooperating with various conferences. Certain, very prestigious buildings are offered without charge to conferences that would not be able to deal with the increasing influx of delegates who wish to participate. Examples include the United Nations headquarters in New York being used for opening and closing ceremonies by conferences present there.
As well as building support, the UN contributes even more concrete support in the form of large numbers of speakers to educate delegates, both within conferences and in hundreds of schools for training. Financial support has been offered in helping poorer delegates to attend conferences and classes.
As well as the United Nations, various governments and their foreign ministries have given their assistance. Ambassadors often give personal replies and strike up conversations concerning policy of their governments over certain issues, allowing a richer, more accurate role playing of delegations far outside many delegates' experience.
The assistance provided is not all one-way; resolutions passed within the most prestigous conferences are forwarded to the UN to be examined to see whether they contain any ideas that could be used within the real world. As a result, parts of MUN resolutions have been used to help solve crises within the world.
The Important Stuff
As well as role-playing, effective political debate and learning to compromise, there are a whole set of issues that make up MUN.
Note passing – as delegates must be silent, they are required to bring 50 sheets of notepaper, 5 will be used for planning resolutions, 5 will be for congratulating good speakers and 40 will be used for flirting with delegates sitting on the far side of the room.
Superlatives – the chairs, who run the debates, get to remove their strict and effective control here and allow votes for a wide range of important issues such as which delegate will be a dictator in the future.
Socials – the discos in the evenings where multi-country relationships and even marriages are born. Delegates party away the evenings in, well, chaos.