Team SA to debate at Model UN

Participants at the 2008 SA Model UN
conference in the Cape Town Metropolitan
Council debating chamber.
(Image: SA Model UN)

The imposing headquarters of the United
Nations in New York.
(Image: United Nations)

The Johannesburg Model United
Nations gets underway. (Image: American
International School of Johannesburg
)

Janine Erasmus

At the end of March a team of young South Africans heads to the US to represent their country at an international Model United Nations debate hosted by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The South African participation is organised by South African Model United Nations and Education Africa.

The silver-tongued team has come through a series of testing events on both a provincial and national level, to claim their place in one of the world’s foremost schools debating competitions. From 2 to 5 April 2009 Team South Africa will face up to 2 500 other pupils from all over the world.

The Model United Nations (UN) authentically simulates specific UN organs or conferences, such as the General Assembly, Security Council, World Bank, International Court of Justice or the Human Rights Council. Conferences may also replicate intergovernmental organisations such as the European and African Unions, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

Model UN programmes are run in schools and universities all around the world. In Africa there are programmes operating the length and breadth of the continent, including the Cairo International Model UN, the East African Model UN, the Johannesburg Model UN, the Nigerian International Model UN, and the Zambia Model UN at the International School of Lusaka.

Stepping into diplomatic shoes

Debates are modelled on those held in the UN General Assembly and, to further recreate the atmosphere of that hallowed chamber, pupils are required to step into the shoes of international diplomats of UN member countries.

Each team is assigned a country to represent, and must convincingly embody the policies of their allocated country in various spheres, such as relevant international issues, debate and consultation, and development of solutions to world problems. Teams must therefore research and thoroughly understand their allocated country’s political, economic, social and cultural policies.

The 2009 conference will feature a number of key committees including the UN Development Programme, the 2007 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Bali, The UN Human Rights Council, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Crisis committees include Iraq 2003, the UN Security Council, the World Health Organisation, and the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC.

All these structures are designed to give participating pupils an in-depth experience and understanding of global issues through investigation, communication and diplomacy.

Debating their way to the top

The Model UN programme was established in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. For pupils, the first step to debating on the international stage is participation in training workshops at provincial level. Schools are briefed on rules and procedures, as well as the topics of debate. Each team of four – two from an under-privileged school and two from an advantaged school – is allocated a country to represent in the debate.

These teams then go forward to the provincial competition, where both topics and adjudicators are selected with the assistance of the UN. The winning team from each province becomes eligible to take part in the national event, and is assisted by a university tutor, usually from a political science or international relations background, in their preparations.

The stakes are high as this is the stage during which the national team is selected. The national team comprises 12 members – the four from the winning team and one each from the other eight provinces.

The finals for the 2009 international event took place in Pretoria in October 2008, with debate focusing on two hot topics; humanitarian intervention versus sovereignty in the case of Myanmar following Cyclone Nargis; and the indictment of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court. KwaZulu-Natal walked away with top honours, and a further eight pupils were selected to complete the team.

Education Africa, a Johannesburg-based non-profit organisation, co-ordinates the programme while the United Nations Information Centre assists with policy direction and adjudication.  The South African Model United Nations provides tutoring and topic selection, and chairs the debates.

South Africa’s young public speakers have done the country proud in previous years, and it is expected that the 2009 event will be no exception. In 2006 the team walked off with nine out of the 12 international awards, taking two Outstanding Delegate awards, three Honourable Mention awards and four Mentions for their representation of Nigeria.

In 2008 Team South Africa, representing Tanzania, brought home the award for Best Delegation as well as two Honourable Mentions. And nine of the 12 students won individual awards for outstanding performances in their individual committees.

Stuart Meyer, chair of the schools development programme of the South African Institute of International Affairs, commented, “It was a wonderful time to be South African. Seeing our pupils walk down the aisle of the mighty hall of the General Assembly, two small dots to thunderous applause as they received their prizes, was a truly emotional moment marking a great achievement.”

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