The first rule of Model United Nations is you must talk about RUMUN. The second rule of Model United Nations is you must talk at RUMUN. This was apparent from my first sit-down with the society president to the last laugh in the closing ceremony. Then again, when you are re-creating the world’s greatest talking shop, chances are there will be nothing but that. After a weekend of debates and discussions, arguments and anecdotes, I can only say I have never enjoyed being sat in meetings more than I was that weekend.
Let me clarify this. On the face of things, a Model United Nations could not seem duller. You spend hours stuck in rooms with several students, debating topics to possibly the most strict debate format imaginable, under a rapidly increasing time pressure to come to what is usually a near impossible consensus. This could not, however, be further from the truth. One might describe it as a highly regulated strategy game, with delegates pushing and bending the rules, setting one off against the other and at times actually making an incredibly reasoned and impressive speech in favour of a regulation that many could barely muster the strength to talk about! And far from being designed for the nerds and policy-wonks the process is incredibly inclusive, with first time delegates given every assistance, and often keeping up with the practiced veterans with ease, some of whom left with awards and commendations for the future. Yes, it does take some knowledge of your topic, but no more than a few evenings worth of casual research, more important is a willingness to speak and, let’s be honest, the ego to think you can win. The conference here did fall down at times, with personal pride overtaking reasoned debate, but if you’re going to ask 200 people to argue for 3 days this has to be expected.
What exactly happens at one of these conferences? Well you are greeted in the all-embracing arms of Palmer G-10, where one might be forgiven the assumption that a business conference or professional debate was occurring. Rows of suited students sit before what can only be described as a thoroughly impressive panel of notable speakers and serious looking members of the secretariat. For an inaugural conference, there was a wealth of knowledge and experience present, with the guest speakers including a former UN undersecretary and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, rounded out by University regular Sir David Bell, who for those of you who have not met him sound much more Scottish than first appears! Almost immediately after this, delegates head eagerly into the first hour of meetings, all of which flowed with a professionalism that was expressed afterwards by both speakers, and one can see why. The next two days are dominated by whatever committee each delegate has chosen, each of which is set two topics to ruminate upon, discuss in their sessions and eventually come up with a UN resolution, which depending on type is passed either further up the ladder, usually to the UNSC, or passed straight to the secretariat. It is in this second step, the discussion that the most time is taken and quite frankly the most fun to be had. See Drama in DISEC for a more in depth look, but briefly these are the wheels around which the whole conference turns, and as seen below can be catastrophic if one of them falls off the wagon! It’s very much like an absurdly regulated, energetic seminar in many respects. One chair even lamented his member’s distinct lack of reading anything on their subject, leaving them well behind the rest on sending their final resolution. Chairs are the powerhouses of debate, the rule sheet treated as gospel that is simply unbreakable, and utterances such as “Canada, you have been warned” are more common than you might expect. They to seem to take their roles as seriously as many of the delegates, if not more so, developing whole persona to maintain order in session. One particular Chair seemed at first rather prickly and strict, barking orders like he was playing Jeremy Paxman at a Mock University Challenge, but when approached personally turned out to be one of the most pleasant people at the conference, going so far as to copiously thank me for some minor note-passing I had been doing for him.
This is not to say the delegates don’t do their part! It’s astonishing; the depth into which the delegates can immerse themselves in their respective fields is unrivalled in any society I have witnessed. More than a month before the conference many were working on their position papers, attention paid to foreign policy was paramount and many followed to the letter, although I would agree that producing a duplicate paper in Pilipino, as the delegate for the Philippines did, is taking things somewhat too seriously. There is little question on the morality of such policy positions too. One of the more interesting debates of the weekend was in ECOSOC, with an incredibly belligerent delegate, representing a North-African nation, maintaining that homosexuality was in fact criminal, and refused to back down despite repeated pressure from almost every other delegate. This was mostly dealt with in a light-hearted manner, with the delegate seeming rather embarrassed at times to give such an extreme position, and was later seen to have little in common with any known foreign policy, but the commitment was clear to see. Flexibility in country is often actively encouraged, over the course of the weekend some delegates willingly changed nation in order to keep the debate flowing, and there were always two or three voices of opposition, for which all were grateful.
Topics ranged from the mundane to the mildly outrageous, and despite what many would consider extremely restrictive guidelines for debate the speakers are uninhibited, with the debate flowing smoothly and with a certain amount of humour. One ECOSOC session involved ten minutes on the economic downsides of summarily hanging homosexuals, followed by a motion to table the issue and “go down the pub”, this was to my amazement rejected by all but three delegations, although it was only half four. This particular debate was surprisingly in-depth, which I was soon to discover was somewhat of a staple of MUN debating, covering all topics from the legality of the councils position, through impacts on national sovereignty and the councils legislative portfolio (a position quickly corrected by the chair) to motions towards three more moderated caucuses and a procedural vote, all in the space of twelve minutes. Sitting through several of these one can barely imagine managing four, five hour sessions (with coffee breaks), with the sheer amount of politicking that occurs every ten minutes, and yet the environment has been relaxed and enjoyable in almost every room, save the constantly shifting secretariat and their endless twitter update. Unmoderated, the council descends to Dol’che-vita and the water fountains, and yet still they continue to debate and deal. At one point, I made a chance remark to a delegate on his way to the latrines, who stared at me as if I had broken some illusionary fourth wall and should return to my underworld press room from whence I came! Despite every delegate having their inevitable Apple Mac open in front of them there was no sign of Facebook, their screens buzzing instead with every kind of deal or data available. I cannot stress the seriousness with which the conference is held, and yet surprisingly the unmoderated sessions seem more relaxed than the coffee breaks, in which huddled groups pour over the latest joint resolutions.
In the end, almost every committee managed to get one or both of their resolutions passed, the with notable exception of DISEC, who spent so long arguing over Libyan sovereignty and the arms trade that they were only able to pass one resolution, which was subsequently vetoed twice by the security council. These are not just broad themes either, often these are voted on clause by clause, ranging from around 10 to 15 causes and sub clauses, written in excruciating diplomatic language and often amended just to change the important first few words, or change “sincere” to “resolved”. Here many of the more experienced delegates show their colours, their knowledge of the loopholes and rules allowing them to slow down or speed up debate, and using ploys to deceive an opponent or a well-placed Point of Personal Privilege to break up another member’s speech. As time became more of a factor, people began to make way for the power players, the G20 countries or the more powerful speakers, and generally this lead to some kind of consensus, through either agreement or, as the Delegate to the USA in DISEC put it, “sheer tiredness”. It should be added at this point that this is anything but the only facet of the experience, as socials and dinners after the first two days of the conference had left many tired and many more hangover, making it that much more difficult to concentrate but had little effect on the overall effort of many.
After two days of haggling, nagging and bragging the conference finished with a final closing ceremony. A much more relaxed affair, awards were received by the best delegation, Bath University taking the honours, and by the best delegates, which were often chosen to the incredible surprise of the winners, This is an honest assessment of the quality of the speakers here, the decision of who to award must have been extremely tough in almost every case, not a decision I would have wanted to make. After a laugh at the expense of many, more intense delegates and much self-depreciation from the Chair-people, the conference ended in a sea of tired but pleased faces, and the secretariat went for a much needed sleep. Personally, it was a delight and a pleasure to be a part of such a huge undertaking, even in a small way. These kind of conferences, and Sir John remarked to me, are an amazing way to bring out the debater in every student, and invaluable to those looking to go forward in any walk of life. In many ways, it is the most frivolous kind of seriousness one can imagine, students as always bring their own unique, amusing and clever flair to the proceedings of an organisations many deem to be at times ineffectual and somewhat meaningless. Here’s hoping that some of what happens at these events eventually transfers to the real thing, from what I saw, it can only help the world today. For those of you who feel like taking something like this up, I thoroughly recommend you give it a try. I know I wish I had.
Credit goes to Adam Roberts, the political editor in Spark, the RU student paper for sharing his RUMUN experience and the RUMUN media team for helping me in live blogging for Best Delegate. Congratulations to all the award winners and the Secretariat team for a superb weekend at Reading, England this year. Secretary General: Daniel Beitler, President: Daniel Sawko and their exceptional team who cordially welcomed the delegates, chairs and guests as VIPs; I truly lived every moment at RUMUN 2012.