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Some Differences Between the United Nations and Model United Nations Conferences

Written by Brian Endless, American Model United Nations International
Reviewed by Dr. Jean Gazarian, Senior Fellow, UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR)

The following are a few of the differences between UN practices and the typical practices of Model United Nations conferences. Note that these differences usually exist for one of three reasons:

  1. Model UNs run on a much shorter time frame than the UN (a typical conference is one to four days) and thus different practices are needed to fit the work required into that time frame
  2. Model UN conferences are attended by students rather than professional diplomats, and the educational requirements of students sometimes suggest that practices which are different from the UN be followed
  3. UN practices are sometimes very hard to find, and many Model UN organizers are only familiar with the most public portions of what the UN does.

The points listed below are based on significant experience at a wide variety of Model UN conferences, as well as significant research into UN practices both through written sources and interviews with diplomats serving at the UN and Secretariat members.

Summary.

Part I: Resolutions
Part II: Caucusing
Part III: Speakers Lists
Part IV: Seating Arrangements
Part V: Rules of Procedure
Part VI: Bloc Spokespeople
Part VII: Consensus
Part VIII: Conclusion

Part I: Resolutions

UN Practice: The UN often circulates several provisional draft resolutions before any final draft resolution ever comes to the floor. These are usually initially sponsored by one or a small group of countries, who then work with others in an attempt to move toward a consensus document. During this process, several draft resolutions may be combined together, either with the authors purposefully combining their ideas, or with a few ideas from different drafts combining into one central draft resolution. An important note here is that it is highly unusual for a draft resolution to reach the floor before it is ready to be adopted, typically by consensus. Draft resolutions are not moved to the floor for discussion — rather they are discussed and changed behind the scenes until a draft exists that everyone (or nearly everyone) can agree on. In some UN bodies, provisional draft resolutions are printed in blue ink, with final draft resolutions on the floor in black ink — this gives the sponsors an opportunity to revise their text in its provisional blue version, prior to moving it to the floor. The final draft is then moved to the floor in what usually amounts to a formality, allowing for any last minute changes (amendments from opponents, etc.), for public speeches by various states, and for nations to explain their votes. Also, the UN would never have two drafts of similar resolutions reach the floor at the same time. While it is possible for two draft resolutions on different areas of a topic to be brought up separately, similar resolutions would be worked out before any formal text reached the floor.

MUN Practice: At most MUNs, multiple draft resolutions may reach the floor at the same time. These drafts are often very similar, and while a process of combining and amending them does take place, it is not unusual for similar draft resolutions to be voted on at the end of a meeting. This process is different from the UN primarily because of the condensed time frames. Many conferences find it difficult to push students to come to consensus on one draft resolution on a topic in the course of a one to four day conference.


Part II: Caucusing

UN Practice: 95% or more of the UN’s time is spent in behind-the-scenes caucusing, where country representatives and their staffs get together to confer on the topics, work out differences, draft solutions, compromise and attempt to reach some kind of consensus. This is typically done after meetings, in hallways, side conference rooms, and after-hours parties or other events. Caucusing on any given topic may occur over a period of weeks or even months. Another form of caucusing are the many meetings of regional and other bloc groups which occur at the UN on a daily basis, often to try to reach a consensus within the group and present a consistent face on the issue to the rest of the world. At the UN, however, it would be very rare to take a break from formal meetings to caucus. Formal meetings typically run their course, with most delegations speaking once, and with only appropriate breaks for meals or the end of the day. Caucusing then occurs outside of formal meetings.

MUN Practice: Again because of time constraints, Model UN’s simulate caucusing in a way that might not be familiar to a delegate at the UN. Model UN caucusing is typically done as a break from the meeting (often called a “Suspension of the Meeting”), in which the member states stay in the meeting room and break up into their regional or other bloc groups. Very often, a few states will speak during formal meeting times (e.g. at a microphone, in front of the room), and this will be followed by a 15-30 minute (or sometimes longer) suspension of the meeting in which all delegations will break into groups and work out differences/solutions in a very informal way. For multi-day conferences, the practice of students meeting after hours to discuss issues is actually a very close simulation of one part of the caucusing that goes on at the UN.


Part III: Speakers Lists

UN Practice: typically, formal meetings at the UN work on a speakers list. These lists are usually in English alphabetical order, starting with a random country. In a typical formal meeting, each country will speak once, possibly with additional right of reply at the end of the meeting if a response to another country is required. After each country has spoken once, the formal meeting closes. When smaller groups (blocs, etc.) meet at the UN, they may choose to utilize speakers lists, or more typically the chairperson may recognize speakers as they signify their desire to speak (often by raised hand or a note sent to the chairperson). These less formal meetings may involve nations speaking multiple times in a session. Also, the Security Council and some other smaller bodies utilize another form of debate known as “informal consultations.” During an informal consultation, the delegations all sit around a table and speak freely, bound only by the norms of diplomatic courtesy. The chairperson may enforce courtesy if necessary, but in other ways is not involved in recognizing speakers. The UN Security Council spends most of its time together in these “informal consultations.”

MUN Practice: Model UNs utilize a variety of ways in recognizing speakers. Many conferences always have lists of speakers, with a delegation allowed to add its name to the end of the list after it speaks in order to speak again at a later time. Other conferences utilize a less formal means of debate, with delegations raising their placards (or hands in some cases) for the chairperson to recognize them to speak. Still other conferences combine this with a form of “informal consultation” for smaller bodies similar to that utilized by the Security Council as described above.


Part IV: Seating Arrangements

UN Practice: at the UN, delegations are seated in English alphabetical order, with the delegation to the front and right of the dais selected at random. For the General Assembly session, the Secretary-General draws a name each year to determine which country will sit in the front, right hand corner or the hall.

MUN Practice: Model UNs will typically use one of two forms of seating, either a) duplicating the UN by pre-setting placards in order, or b) passing out placards to delegations before they enter the meeting room and allowing the students to sit in whatever seats they choose.


Part V: Rules of Procedure

UN Practice: The UN utilizes formal rules of procedure such as those of the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council (copies of these rules are available through the UN Bookstore.) These rules are written in the form of brief guidelines, and are in practice supplemented by a broad range of precedents and informal procedures. A UN staff member assigned to assist the committee will often help the chairperson with rules interpretations, but a number of diplomats (many of whom are elected to chair committees) are very skilled at utilizing and interpreting the rules. Chairs may occasionally make rulings with little precedent, which will typically stand if not opposed by the body. The “Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council” is an excellent source for some of these unwritten rules on the Security Council side. A number of excellent books have also been written about General Assembly rules. A few examples of rules used in UN practice, but not written anywhere in the formal rules, include passing resolutions by consensus and the no action motion. As the UN rules are open to interpretation, there is actually some dispute among experts as to which rules may apply. An example of this is the “point of information,” which either does not exist at the UN, or which is an excellent procedural tool, based on the varying opinions of consulted UN experts.

MUN Practice: Model UNs use a wide variety of rules, from those based in Roberts Rules of Order (which are very different from UN rules) to some variant of the written UN rules. Model UNs typically incorporate additional rules beyond the UN to better allow for the procedures needed for a one to four day simulation. A few Model UNs also attempt to research and incorporate some of the unwritten precedents utilized in UN rules. One example of an often misused rule in the Model UN context is the Point of Order. This rule, which is utilized at almost every Model UN conference and also exists in the formal UN rules, is intended to point out problems with a usage or interpretation of the rules. At Model UN conferences (more so in the United States than elsewhere) this rule is often heavily abused to interrupt speakers and the flow of debate. At the UN, it would be considered highly discourteous to utilize the rule in the same way — it is used only rarely when a true infraction of the rules has occurred. The “right of reply” is another rule that is frequently misused at Model UNs, where it is typically resorted to as recourse when a country is insulted by another country’s speech. At the UN, such insults are much less frequent, or are diplomatically masked so that the insulted party would not want to reply. Right of reply at the UN is simply a tool to respond to a speech or comment by another country — since a delegation will typically only speak once at a meeting, a right of reply at the end of that meeting can allow responses or clarifications to points which are brought up.


Part VI: Bloc Spokespeople

UN Practice: It is typical at the UN for each bloc (whether regional or diplomatic) to elect a spokesperson for some period of time. This country is then responsible for presenting the consensus opinion of the bloc on the issue at hand. Other countries in that bloc that choose to speak on a topic may then refer to the speech by the spokesperson, possibly noting where their country’s perspective differs from the bloc. Bloc leaders are typically diplomats who are highly respected for their personal abilities, as well as for their country’s positions.

MUN Practice: Bloc spokespeople are rarely used in an MUN setting, primarily because there is not time to do so. At most MUN conferences, students attend the conference and do not know many of the other participants in advance, or the perspectives of many other countries. Debate and caucusing time are used to learn these perspectives in an effort to pass a resolution, and there is rarely time to form a cohesive bloc policy or elect a leader who would be acceptable to all parties.


Part VII: Consensus

UN Practice: At the UN, it is usually considered desirable for a draft resolution to pass by consensus, meaning that no nation felt that it needed to object and vote “no” on the draft. Note that nations wishing to abstain do not break a consensus (except in the Security Council). Consensus decisions are taken without a vote, but abstentions are often recorded. On average (this varies by body) more than 70% of all UN resolutions now pass by consensus. It is not possible for all resolutions to pass by consensus, as there may be nations that are the target of action in a resolution who will not agree to a solution. Consensus became more popular in the UN starting in the 1980s, particularly after the end of the Cold War. Prior to this time, many votes featured a small majority of nations condemning the practices of other nations, thus making a dramatic diplomatic statement. Starting in the 1980s, nations realized that this practice was not solving problems, and turned instead to attempts at greater compromise. The basic idea was that, if a government which is outside of international norms can be convinced to not oppose a resolution, that government is more likely to change its behavior and implement the positive steps suggested in the resolution.

MUN Practice: Resolutions at Model UN conferences rarely pass by a consensus (e.g. no nations voting “no”). Resolutions are typically passed with a contested vote, and often that vote is just over a 50-50 split. This is unfortunate, in that the lesser time available for the Model UN conference in some ways forces delegations to “settle” for a final document, when in reality a final document may have required significantly more time to complete. In other cases, students work very fast and well together, work hard to compromise and incorporate in the viewpoints of others, and are able to craft a document which either reaches consensus or comes close. Consensus takes a significant amount of time (sometimes working for an entire conference on just one resolution), effort, and willingness to include all perspectives — this can be one of the most difficult skills for students to master.


Conclusion

This document sheds light on just a few of the more visible differences between Model UN Conferences and the actual work and practices of the United Nations. While Model UNs properly strive to simulate the United Nations, this is not always possible. Finding information on how the UN actually operates should be a paramount concern of Model UN organizers. On the other hand, it is not always possible to duplicate UN practices, especially when those practices occur over the course of weeks or even months. With a one to four day long Model UN session, it is likely that some changes in UN practices will be necessary to allow the students a positive educational experience. Also, the fact that the students participating in Model UNs are not professional diplomats, with the experiences and resources incumbent in that position, is often an important factor to consider when simulating a UN body.

Model UN conference organizers, and the schools which attend Model UN conferences, constantly need to balance their ability to simulate against their desire to impart knowledge of the organization they simulate. Whenever possible however, there is no substitute for seeking out full information about the organization(s) a conference will simulate, and then utilizing that information to provide the best simulation possible given each conference’s unique circumstances.


If you have any lessons on MUN teaching or planning, or on substantive UN issues, which you would like included in this listing, please e-mail us at pubs@amun.org. AMUN will gladly credit your organization with authorship and provide links to your conference or program.

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