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US Students Still Learn About UN Workings First-Hand - 2003-04-18


European leaders have called for a central role for the United Nations in rebuilding war-shattered Iraq, but the failure of the world body to avert the U.S.-led operation has many people questioning its effectiveness. Still, many American high school students want to learn about the U.N.'s potential to solve global conflicts. At Harding High School in Charlotte, North Carolina, they're learning about it first-hand.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the cafeteria at Harding High School turns into a center of international diplomacy. Today, representatives of the United States and Saudi Arabia are discussing the war in Iraq.

Boy, for United States: "We are not at war with Islam, but at war with terrorism. While dedicated to peace in principle, we realize that sometimes it must come from the barrel of a gun."
Girl, for Saudi Arabia: "Have you any proof of a connection between the terrorism of 9/11 and the Iraqi regime?"

There are 35 students in Harding High's Model U.N. Club, mostly juniors and seniors. They're savvy, well-informed, and they can probably name more world leaders than the average American can. They also have varied perspectives on world events, since many of their families come from other countries, Nigeria, Costa Rica, China, Vietnam.

The concept behind the Model U.N. is for students to credibly represent and defend any country in the world even if they personally disagree with that country's policies.

At lunch with his friends, Kaustabh Pimputkur says it's not easy. Since I'm from India, I had to represent the country of Pakistan last year. And that was really tough for me," he says. "It's challenging to think about it from their point of view."

Harding's Model U.N. Club is good at this so good that last fall, it won a state competition representing the countries in the Bush Administration's "axis of evil." The club didn't win by passing resolutions or gaining the moral high ground but by playing its roles most convincingly.

These kids are good friends. But they don't think in lockstep, especially when it comes to the war in Iraq, and what went wrong at the United Nations. Senior Mark Johnson says the U.N. has become so ineffective it's practically obsolete. "This whole situation's just a perfect example," he says. "Either way it failed. I believe the right thing was to go into war in Iraq… it didn't do that. And if you did believe war in Iraq was wrong, it didn't stop it."

But fellow senior Hanna Reitzel says the United States should not have disregarded the will of the majority of the nations on the U.N. Security Council. "Although I'm a citizen of the United States, I still see from the world perspective that's completely unfair. And being more powerful doesn't make you a better nation. And I don't think it makes you more diplomatic, either. I don't think you have the right, as a more powerful nation, to override other nations," she says.

Most of the students do agree that the Bush Administration's decision to go to war despite opposition from the Security Council has left the U.N. weaker. That makes student Thomas Miller worry that the world body might become just a humanitarian organization, rather than a force shaping world events. "Even if the U.N. is allotted the role of making sure Iraq recovers from war and recovers in the right way, I think them taking on that role immediately assigns them this secondary position in world affairs and that if you give the U.S. the right to be the aggressor in all these things then the U.N. just becomes a cleanup job," he says.

These nascent diplomats talk about reforming the United Nations by enlarging the Security Council or making the Security Council more egalitarian by eliminating veto power and permanent members. But more than the structure of the U.N., says senior Philip Reeves, what needs to change is the mindset. "I just think U.N. members, they should take a more open approach to the world and look at it from a world perspective, instead of focusing on their individual countries' needs," he says.

The students at Harding High suggest the diplomats in New York could benefit from learning a little more give and take, like they have.

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