Model United Nations: a call for a more critical implementation
Whilst recognising the dedication and commitment of the students participating in the Model United Nations (MUN) programme, Kyle Kopsick suggests it is in some aspects the way MUN works is flawed and a change of approach is needed.
The Model UN
The Model UN program provides high school and college students the opportunity to engage in global politics through simulations that emulate various processes of the United Nations. Some of these processes include drafting resolutions, making speeches, and negotiating with allies and adversaries. The overarching purpose of the program is to have students navigate UN procedures while encouraging international cooperation to “resolve problems that affect countries all over the world.” (United Nations Foundation, 2013).
During simulations, students represent a particular country in different multilateral bodies, such as the Security Council and the Human Rights Council. Their task is to propose resolutions and solve the world’s most profound political issues through diplomacy. The resolutions created often deal with human rights abuse, armed conflict, poverty, hunger, and immigration. Students explicitly act on the behalf of their assigned country, which means they are required to put forth proposals and votes that are realistic to their country’s politics and history.
I have observed official Model UN simulations in various private high schools located in Ecuador. My initial observations were overwhelmingly positive. I was, and still am, thoroughly impressed with students’ focus, dedication, and enjoyment of the Model UN process. Students were consistently prepared with copious notes and were engaged for hours during the formal, and often tedious processes of the simulations.
On the surface, it is hard to critique a program that creates this kind of student dedication and engagement. The format challenges students to conduct relevant research on their assigned country and on the history of other countries potentially involved in a resolution. Moreover, students learn that there are multiple perspectives to complex world issues.
However, a deeper look at the Model UN uncovers some major concerns. These issues are no fault of the students, but are instead a result of the uncritical rules that are inherent to the Model United Nations program.
Problems with the Model UN
The major issue at the crux of the Model UN is the encouragement and perpetuation of lopsided global politics and power dynamics. Because students must uncritically accept and push for their country’s interests, they are restricted from truly critiquing potentially selfish positions and, more broadly, the functions and dynamics of the United Nations.
Thus, an important ethical question surfaces: if students are meant to push their country’s self-interests unconditionally and strictly follow the formalities of UN procedures, exactly what is the purpose of the Model UN?
The simulations seem to serve more as an advertisement and self-congratulatory pat on the back for the UN than a justice-orientated catalyst for critical thought and action. In the Model UN, preservation is valued over change and “neutrality” over justice.
This encouragement of uncritical action can be seen through two common examples. The first deals with students serving as realistic mouthpieces for their given countries, while the second addresses the particular countries that have actual power in the simulations.
If a student who represents Russia on the Security Council is involved in the passing of a resolution that deals with Syrian refugees, the student is required to act in the interests of Russia. This could very well result in the vetoing of a resolution that provides aid to refugees fleeing a warzone. In this situation, a student is mandated to make a decision that benefits the interests of a certain country rather than making a decision that is just. While the student may understand that their decision is immoral, they are nevertheless encouraged, and ultimately congratulated, for making a decision that falls on the wrong side of justice. This expectation to carry out the most realistic positions of a particular country, regardless of the ethics or morals related to the issue, shuns critical thought and results in applause for the legitimate frustrations and critiques of the United Nations.
During simulations, it is clear that countries who have more political capital (i.e. former colonizers, superpowers, and/or countries from the Global North) and control what is and what is not discussed. Whether one observes the Security Council or the Human Rights Council, countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and China have a dominant presence over the Council. When countries from the Global South do talk it is in response to a country from the Global North. This shows students that certain countries deserve more control and that the current power dynamics within the world and the UN are non-questionable. Students subtly learn that there are only certain times when “smaller” countries should propose solutions to issues that they themselves are almost always the ones experiencing.
If the Model UN is seriously interested in preparing students to solve world problems, the program would support a more critical and justice-orientated approach. Below are three suggestions to help implement a more critical UN Model that encourages authentic decision-making and critical thinking:
- Organize a critical reflection period that allows students to question the workings of the United Nations collectively and attempt to better the functionality of the organization
- Have students work to create proposals from the perspective of the more marginalized countries, instead of having to please the countries with the most political capital
- Have students solve issues using two different formats, one that follows the typical UN procedures and another that is less rigid and leaves space for more creative, and less diplomatic, approaches to problem solving. After completing both, compare and contrast the results of resolutions to analyze affordances and limitations.
If we want students to be the creators of a more just and peaceful world, we must give them the opportunity to question and propose changes to the status quo. Otherwise, we are merely perpetuating the same problems that we set out to solve. The United Nations is an organization with unmatched international recognition, prestige, and influence. Students who wish to be part of this organization because of their noble desire to better the world should be given a constructive and critical space to explore and propose solutions to the world’s problems. The Model United Nations could certainly provide this needed space, but only after a more critical evaluation of the functions and implications of the program.
Kyle Kopsick graduated with a M.Ed. from Peabody College at Vanderbilt University in 2015. He currently teaches History in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at Colegio Alberto Einstein in Quito, Ecuador.
His research interests focus on applying critical and postcolonial theory to educational contexts.