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US Students Still Honing Diplomatic Skills at Model United Nations - 2004-05-25

More than 50 years ago American students began honing their skills in diplomacy through a program called "Model United Nations." While at first only available to mostly white students at top schools, the program has now spread to America's more diverse urban schools.

"Can I have decorum please delegates, OK, thank you very much. OK are there any motions on the floor? Yes, delegate from Namibia."

More than 2,000 students from 130 schools recently packed the Jacob Javitz Convention Center in midtown Manhattan for negotiations on some of the world's most pressing problems. Following United Nations protocol in assemblies and committee meetings, students tackle issues like the trade in so-called blood diamonds, drugs, weapons and poverty.

"We're discussing the amount of light weapons that should be able to enter the country..."
"Everyone in this whole thing is pretty much against the sale of illegal diamonds..."
"I'm really trying to tell her about peacekeeping. Because troops are dying because they don't have proper equipment and stuff like that. So I was trying to put her on that issue and she was trying to put me on her topic..."
We're just taking a break now because we're kind of tired..."

In some cases students spend as much as a year preparing for this conference, where they act as diplomats representing a country they were assigned months ago. They learn about the history and society behind their nation's policies so when they attend this summit, they can serve as accurate representatives.

Model U.N. has long been a part of the curriculum in some American schools, but for most of its history it has bypassed many inner city students. With an initiative called "Global Classrooms" Model U.N. is reaching schools where the student population looks and sounds more like the United Nations.

Lauren Popkoff teaches at a local secondary school called Brooklyn College Academy. "It is largely a black and Hispanic high school, we have many immigrants from a lot of different countries. Many from Russia, some from Nigeria, a few from Asia and quite a few from the Caribbean," she says.

Ms. Popkoff says students in her diverse school regularly experience the cultural and social conflicts that can influence international disputes. She says the model U.N. forum is a good way to work though some of these issues. "There are conflicts of not necessarily interests, but culture clashes. "Well, why can't they go to a dance, why is she dressing that way, what's with the thing on the head? Why do I have to take off my baseball cap if she gets to wear her headscarf?" So those issues have to be explained and dealt with and this is a great forum for them to say, well this is my culture and this is why we do it and they learn from it and then there are really not any problems - once they understand what's going on," she says.

Back in the general assembly's first committee of African nations, student diplomats are trying to reach a resolution on reducing weapons smuggling. The negotiations are going well. Two delegates representing the Democratic Republic of Congo say they are optimistic that a resolution will soon be passed.

Rep 1: "Yeah, we'll have one right before lunch."
Rep 2: "Yeah, before lunch, get out early."
Rep 1: "There doesn't seem to be too much opposition here."
Rep 2: "Yeah, everyone is here for the same core cause so we should all be on the same page."

John Woods and Jeremy Dyer say many student diplomats in the negotiations are committed to ending poverty and war, establishing strong international ties, improving economies. Negotiations at the Model United Nations appear to avoid much of the bureaucratic gridlock that critics complain plagues the real United Nations.

Molly Campbell of Stuyvesant High School explains why the students appear to be more efficient negotiators than the diplomats. "I think that we might work together slightly better than the real U.N. does because we're actually willing to bend our countries' policies in order to work together. And I think that actual countries' representatives might not be so willing," she says.

Ms. Campbell also says the diplomats could even learn something from the students. "I kind of hope that sometimes the real U.N. will take cues from what we decide on and if not using all of our policies they might look at what we've decided and say, 'Hey, that's a good idea. Perhaps we should put that into effect'," she says.

Hundreds of thousands of students now participate in program summits in more than 100 countries. With the program's growing popularity, organizers say many future U.N. delegates have already begun their career training.