How relevant is the UN?

After the Asia Pacific Model United Nations Conference, Alison Rawle reviews the current position of the UN.

There are 500 of us sitting in the Great Hall at the University of Sydney.
It looks like a chapel with its stained glass windows and lofted ceiling. The sandstone walls echo the expectant shufflings and whisperings of the audience as we wait for the entrance of Dr Jose Ramos Horta.

He is the foreign affairs minister for the world’s newest nation, Timor Leste. He is greatly respected and his presence has been saved for the last day of the conference.

People keep twisting in their seats to see if he has arrived and when he finally enters there is instantaneous applause from the audience.

A young lady in front of me even stands, as do others and he hasn’t yet spoken.

The applause continues as Ramos Horta, with the stature of a soldier, walks up the middle aisle.

He is dressed in understated clothing, with no business suit but a modest, grey shirt. As he approaches the lectern, there is complete silence in the hall.

The Asia-Pacific Model United Nations Conference was held at the University of Sydney from July 6 to 11. The week was one of debate, draft resolutions and speaker sessions. It involves university students from across Australia and some from Asia, who come together to represent the various member states of the United Nations.

With everything from the presence of a Secretary General, to the island of Mauritius represented on the UN Environmental Program, the week was one of diversity and passionate debate.

The main purpose of the conference is to simulate the processes and structure of the UN.
As the conference’s Secretary General, Tharshan Wijeyamohan said in his welcome, “[The Secretariat’s] vision is for a United Nations Conference that will be intellectually stimulating, constantly thought provoking and socially captivating.”

His vision, and that of the Secretariat, was for a conference that would do justice to “the esteemed institution from which it gains its name”.

The conference involves young people in debate, the workings of diplomacy and awareness of issues facing the international community. Most of the participants are advocates of the United Nations. They are believers in its important and continuing role in international relations.

The week is about fostering a sense of leadership and empowerment among students. Wijeyamohan says, “While a growing number may be questioning the effectiveness, relevance and scope of the United Nations, it is vital that the youth of today hold the ideals of the UN foremost in their thinking.”

It is the first day of the conference and Jason Yat Sen Li is describing the various levels of leadership. His younger brother, captain of the 13B’s cricket team, has devised an elaborate pre match warm-up session for the team.

Comprised of a lap of the oval and an extensive stretching routine, Yat Sen Li is saying that however small or insignificant an action such as this appears, it is an example of the inspiration gained from being a leader.

While not mentioning whether they won the cricket match, he says that everything “goes back to having a crack, having a shot”. Yat Sen Li is a lawyer with extensive experience in leadership.

He has worked for the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva and has attended many global conventions about justice and international relations.

His opening speech sets the ideology for the conference. He finds it depressing that the relevance of the UN is being questioned and inspires the young delegates to believe that what they are engaged in is worth while.

“Never underestimate the impact you can have on your community, your country, the world,” he says.

The Asia Pacific Model United Nations Conference provided a microcosm of current debate that surrounds the position of the UN in the global community.

The UN’s continued relevance in the face of increasing unilateralism was the question that underpinned the week.

As the Secretary General, Wijeyamohan said: “It is impossible to ignore the striking backdrop that current international affairs are providing.”

Since America went to war on Iraq without the support of the UN, the position of this international body has been hotly debated by the world’s media.

The delegates at the conference were aware of such issues as whether the UN reflects the current nature of globalisation or still participates in the world of 1945, whether it is effective or ineffective and whether it demonstrates true democratic processes.

The conference is about vision and forward thinking. It is based on the assumption that the UN is still an essential part of international diplomacy and must remain so in the 21st century.

The question remains though, are the “ideals” of this “esteemed institution”, as Wijeyamohan put it, still able to function practically in the current system?

“I have no answers. I have mostly questions for you,” Jose Ramos Horta says. He begins by speaking of when he visited the genocide museum in Cambodia. “I came out of it feeling ashamed of being a human being and angry with the rest of the world,” he says.

He believes the world did nothing for the Cambodian people and so they were slaughtered in their thousands. It was left to Vietnam to intervene.

He speaks also of the rule of Idi Amin in Uganda where thousands of people were also killed.

“Because of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of other countries, because of the principle of respect for state sovereignty, the organisation of African nations did not discuss the issue, let alone consider an authorised humanitarian intervention,” he says.

Again it was left to the unilateral action of another country to intervene.

He speaks of Kosovo and the shock of such a situation occurring in the middle of Europe. He arrives at the issue of Iraq, discussing the wars waged on Iran and Kuwait.

While he does not mention whether America’s recent invasion of Iraq was justified or not, his discussion of all these countries is about the legality and morality of unilateral action.

His question to the audience is if lives are saved and freedom preserved, then perhaps such action is required when the UN fails to protect the world’s citizens.

He asks: “why this silly inability or failure of the UN system to face the challenges, the problems [confronting] the world?”

He suggests there is need to reform the UN. However, he says, “In the mind of many countries reform of the UN does not mean profound, serious, political and structural reform to adjust the Security Council to address present challenges or realities.”

He suggests that reform is considered a method of cost cutting.

Ramos Horta suggests that the UN does not reflect the contemporary reality of the global landscape.

“Is it right that the Security Council remain exactly as it was in 1945- with five permanent members who own their seats because they possess nuclear weapons?” he asks.

He believes there should be more diversity in the Security Council and questions why some countries that have legitimate claims to be there are not.

For example, India, he says, is the largest democracy in the world.

Brazil is the ninth or 10th largest economy in the world while he says Japan is only ever considered by the international community when it is reminded of World War II. In addition he asks: “Is Russia the representative of the whole of Eastern Europe?”

Ramos Horta speaks of the criticism frequently directed at the Secretary General of the UN. He argues that the Secretary General is an individual.

If the UN requires reform or fails to prevent carnage in the world, responsibility lies with the member states.

Therefore, he asks: “Did the UN fail in Cambodia, Rwanda, Kosovo and elsewhere? Maybe the member countries are the ones to provide an answer. Why did they fail?”

Two young East Timorese men are sitting in front of me and I wonder what they think of this speech. What do they think when their country has so much future partly gained through international intervention?

And so Ramos Horta speaks of East Timor. He has great pride in his country and says that the East Timorese have achieved freedom through their illusions and hopes.

The UN mission, building on the strength of this, is successful. Ramos Horta believes in the importance of the UN.

He says it can “compliment peace, nation building [and] consolidation of security”.

He knows it is not possible to argue that the United Nations is irrelevant to the world when it has contributed to the independence and freedom of a nation.

While he argues that reform is needed, he says to the delegates not to be disillusioned with the UN.

He finally issues them with a challenge.

“Do you have the necessary determination, the stamina, the imagination to lead?”

He asks this coming from a country that knows of such strength and that achieved its freedom through believing that it was possible.

The seventh annual Asia-Pacific Model United Nations Conference - which ran between 7- 14 July - was organised by students for students from across the world.
It was intended to expose tomorrow's potential leaders and decision-makers to the intricacies of the workings of the United Nations.