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Noise in a Vacuum

Inside Harvard’s World Model UN Conference

by BINOY KAMPMARK

It all seems like the sweet idealistic guff of elementary school. Ideas are yet to form their hard lines, and one entertains hopes that a bully will get his comeuppance eventually.  Good will triumph, and the murky world shall be ordered.  But a model United Nations Conference is as good as any for such an experiment.  There will be the cynics, the cold realists, the mountebanks, the entertainers and the fools.  Aspirations eventually go the way of all flesh.  The one certainty about such occasions is the boon for the economy of the host city – 2000 delegates from over 65 countries are not turning up impecunious.  Many have money to burn.

Melbourne is playing host to the twenty-first Harvard World Model UN Conference that has managed, the organisers proudly claim, to visit to six continents.  Antarctica, muses the secretary of the model conference, might be next.  This is not merely for show.  It is considered one of the world’s largest international student-led youth conferences, first held in Miedzyzdroje in 1992 with the removal of the Iron Curtain fresh in memory.  Locals might well have been suspicious at such smug triumphalism on the part of their American enthusiasts, but internationalism has always had different meanings.

The agenda this time around is what the world will look like after the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, including eight targets in health, education, finance and human rights (Science in Public, Mar 19).  Heavy stuff, though immediately, one senses that the fluff will invariably find its way into proceedings.  Any guess is as good as another.

The conference itself is being held at a monster of a venue – the infamous “Jeff’s Shed” named after the bombastic former premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett.  The auditorium featuring the opening addresses on Tuesday were a show case about what is lamentably wrong and intriguingly right about the United Nations.  A smoke ceremony featuring indigenous dancers who looked like they had just gotten out of bed started the show.  This was an ersatz UN effort down to a tee – the ceremonial indulgence, speeches so dull they were soporific.

What is all this in aid off?  The excited musings of hormonally charged undergraduates, certainly, with the idea of a “Global Village” filled with theme songs, copious food and bottomless drink.  The big boys and girls were insisting there was more to it, with the mock lobbying and jousting over resolutions and platforms.

One thing was getting clearer: the UN was getting a grand whitewash.  The master of ceremonies was, oddly enough, a chap named Adam Smith.  A few in the audience half-expected the Scottish economist to appear via hologram.  Instead, it was a functionary schooled in the right phrases for the occasion.  We were to be treated to an “Olympics of the mind”, and, in a true mangling of language, a feast of “thought leaders”.

Messages of welcome were pre-recorded by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who spoke of the chance of the “unique opportunity” for “delegates from around the world” to “experience the challenges of international negotiation and diplomacy” and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who re-iterated the “power of young people to change the world”.  At no point was there even that humorous aside from George Bernard Shaw that youth is very much wasted on the young.

Nearest the mark, in terms of describing the complexity and the near futility of the UN experiment, was former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, self-proclaimed mastermind behind the responsibility to protect doctrine he gave form in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs.  (Fittingly, he was initially introduced with a slip of the tongue: “Gareth Evidence”)

The responsibility to protect has been remorselessly twisted and cranked since its mention.  While it’s all well to scold governments for their brutality and indifference to populations, the question of who polices that doctrine has never been satisfactorily answered.  If Libya was an example of such a move, then we might have to lay that one to rest. Be wary of who is doing the protecting.  Not that this troubled Evans, who claimed with deadpan certainly that “lives were saved” by the NATO intervention.  Pity the people of Syria, he suggested, who have seen no equivalent will.

For Evans, attempts at reforming the organisation proved ambitiously “quixotic”.  The Security Council was all too often a hostage to power.  The General Assembly remained a giant chat room.  The UN showed instances of graft and corruption.  It proved unwieldy. Despite this, it was still “better value than bankers and hamburgers”. The denizens of Goldman Sachs and Burger King might disagree, but at least on that score, Evans might have a point.  Certainly, if one considers a few of the success stories be it in health, be it, however mixed, in Cambodia during its transition to a post-Khmer Rouge state, we might see some reason for a measured, if very sober optimism.

The UN is a hydra headed beast that should be in mourning for itself.  But it costs less than people think, does more than people know, and stumbles as much as its members allow it to.  It is the imperfect creature international communities have made it.  While it is tedious to hear the strained promises of “ideas” that will “transform” the world, ideas need a place to seed.  If there are any worth remembering from this gathering, beyond the crafted slogans, the deals and the post-kiss hangovers, then it might have been worth it.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com