Holding out hope for the United Nations

Sharon Fawcett - Getting it Right (Shane Magee/AQ)

I have a love-hate relationship with the United Nations.

I love the idea of 193 nations working together to solve international problems of economic, social, cultural, and humanitarian significance. But I hate that U.N. members place priority on their national agendas, often preventing the body from formulating solutions to global issues.

I hate the reality that, since its founding in 1945, the U.N. has failed to accomplish its goal of maintaining international peace and security. But I love that, in spite of its failures, the U.N. continues to attempt to fulfill its purpose of “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”

I’m writing this column during a break in meetings at Harvard National Model United Nations in Boston, where a delegation from St. Thomas University is taking part in simulated U.N. sessions. My experience with Model U.N. over the past two years has helped me better understand both the U.N.’s failures and its potential.

Model United Nations gives students opportunities to discuss some of the most pressing challenges facing today’s world. It’s hope is that delegates will make their own national interests secondary to cooperating in the formulation of achievable solutions to global challenges. But, as with the real United Nations, that doesn’t always happen. Last year I learned how easy it is to fall into the trap of self-serving competition.

It began with the crush of humanity, as more than 3,000 delegates waited to gain entrance to the opening ceremony and seize the best seats. Scores of suit-clad, sweaty bodies were jammed together in the hallway like sardines in a can, anxiously awaiting the opening of the doors, the signal to stampede. Diplomacy and cooperation were temporarily suspended.

Later, as I represented my assigned country of Uruguay in committee sessions, I was surprised at how quickly my personality was transformed. I’m not usually a competitive person, but as the session began and speeches were made, I swiftly surmised who was on my side and who wasn’t.

While attempting to find legitimate solutions to the scourge of human trafficking—the topic my committee was addressing—I fell headlong into the “us against them” mentality.

I now realize that the spirit of cooperation was only shared with those who shared my views. It was an ugly lesson in how national interests become problematic when attempting to solve global problems.

This year, however, I feel more optimistic. As an advisor rather than a delegate, I have the opportunity to study other students in their roles. I’m impressed by their diplomacy and the way they cooperate with representatives of other nations, acknowledging differences in policy, but agreeing to set them aside while working to resolve the issues at hand.

As I observe groups of st students from 40 nations huddled together and hard at work—cooperating, negotiating, and listening—I see how the United Nations was designed to operate and I start to love it again.

Model United Nations provides opportunities to meet students from around the world, learn about their countries, and forge friendships.

Opportunities like these build understanding. And the fruit of understanding others’ perspectives is the realization that what affects one member of the global community affects us all.

Mohandas Gandhi named this concept sarvodaya—“the well-being of all”—and proposed that human beings have the responsibility to care for one another. At its core, that’s what the United Nations is about, although sarvodaya often seems lacking in the politics of U.N. members.

While I struggle with conflicting feelings toward the U.N., Model United Nations conferences give me hope that international cooperation and peace-building is possible.

It could be that some of the students who take part in these events may one day use the skills and understanding they develop, to redeem the U.N – and care for the world.