April 6, 2009

Hundreds Debate in Model U.N.

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560 students from 36 high schools around the world congregated in Ithaca this weekend to attend the annual Cornell Model United Nations Conference. This year’s conference attracted students from Hong Kong and South Africa, and generated an atmosphere of eclectic intellectual discussion for aspiring social thinkers and political debaters.
The Cornell International Affairs Society introduced the conference at Cornell in 2002 to provide an interactive political debate experience for both its hosting collegiate members and for visiting high schools delegates.
Beginning last Thursday, the CMUNC welcomed the broad array of participating high schools to the Cornell campus. These high school groups were divided into 12 sub-committees, ranging thematically from “Disarmament and International Security” to “Climate Change to the Peloponnesian War,” and provided a forum to debate their researched solutions to various international problems.
“The debate is structured around parliamentary procedure,” said Brian Cannon ’10, the director of public relations for this year’s conference. “Students simulate international negotiation and are forced to problem-solve cooperatively … It mirrors real situations, and offers them a practical perspective.”
Boris Shkuta, a high-school junior from Princeton, NJ, said his family immigrated to the U.S. from Russia ten years ago. Despite his interest in international policy, Shkuta is unsure whether he wants to devote himself to a life of politics. For him, this year’s conference at Cornell was about discussing issues that he finds socially relevant, and improving his own skills in communication.
“This is my third Model UN conference. Often you will see a small, select group of students speaking for everyone, but that’s not the case here. [Now] I feel more comfortable speaking in front of the crowd,” said Shkuta, whose sub-committee, the United Nations Development Programme, focused on sustainable development, natural disasters and worker empowerment
Other sub-committees addressed issues ranging from blood-diamond trade and West-African conflict, to drug trade and kidnapping in the Americas, to the repercussions of apartheid in South Africa.
“Crisis Committees,” the smallest debate groups, were comprised of more experienced students from each high school. Averaging fewer than 25 delegates, the CMUNC stated that these sub-groups “entertained some of the most heated political issues to date and often included pressurized decision-making in the form of conference-generated crises.”
Stephanie McGowan ’09, the undersecretary general for general assembly committees for the conference, explained that these groups are even more “focused on debate.” As part of the Crisis Committee, students engage in a “midnight crisis,” in which they are “woken up in their hotel rooms at midnight, and must confront a matter of urgent importance.” While such issues range from a crisis in Africa to a Persian invasion of Greece, McGowan said that they accurately reflect the urgency of a real political disaster.
A highlight of this year’s conference was Ramu Damodaran, the deputy director for partnerships and public engagement, outreach division, at the Department of Public Information of the U.N. in New York City. Damodaran served as the keynote speaker at the CMUNC’s Opening Ceremony on Thursday.
Damodaran previously acted as chief of the U.N. Civil Society Service, member of the Departments of Peacekeeping and Special Political Questions, and as the executive assistant to the Prime Minister of India from 1991 to 1994.