Rewriting (UN) History

The Israeli War of 1967 was only one of the events that students from all over the world brought back to life at the Historic Model United Nations in Vienna this October

Sixty delegates from 17 nations participated at this year’s Historic Model UN in Vienna | Photo: Thorsten Staufer

“Delegates, come to order,” demands a young man in a gray suit and knocks impatiently on the table. When things settle down, he adjusts his tie and, with brows furrowed, begins to examine the group. There are 17 of them, all dressed nicely, clinging on to their placards in eager expectation of the next motion. The U.K. is sitting next to the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., while Argentina, Brazil and China have taken their seats at the other end of the table. Nigeria and India face the Danish chairs, while the observers from Israel, the United Arab Republic, Syria and Jordan form a faction to the left of the chair.

But instead of New York, where UN Security Council meetings usually take place, this committee is holding its session in the conference rooms of Webster University Vienna. And instead of real diplomats discussing current crises, it is students from all over the world trying to find new, innovative solutions to old, unresolved conflicts. They had come from India, Singapore, Italy, Romania, Germany, Switzerland, Afghanistan, Hungary, Egypt, and Venezuela to join with Austrian students to simulate four different historic Security Council sessions.

Organized by the Academic Forum for Foreign Affairs (AFA) and held from Oct. 18 to Oct. 21, the Historic Model United Nations conference is one of its kind. Very common in the English-speaking world, Model UN simulations usually deal with current (and not historic) issues related to the work of deliberative bodies such as the Security Council. Taking on roles as the representatives of their assigned countries, students become delegates and – after long hours of extensive research and diligent preparations, of writing position papers and familiarizing with the complicated rules of procedure – endeavor to become knowledgeable “experts” on their country’s position and the issue at hand.

The Model UN dates back to the 1920s when American colleges started organizing simulations of League of Nations debates, and is thus older than the United Nations itself. Since then, American students have nurtured this tradition, with the Harvard National Model United Nations (HNMUN) being the world’s oldest continuous College Model UN conference, celebrating its 55th anniversary this year.

Gregor Waldauser, Vice-President of AFA and inventor of HISTOMUN, sees the enormous impact of MUNs worldwide.

“The students of today’s MUNs are tomorrow’s ambassadors, secretaries of state, defense ministers or political advisors,” he said. Thus, trying to rewrite history seems to be a good way to start.

This year’s delegates were faced with a range of complicated, controversial and historic issues: the Israeli 1967 War, the 1982 crisis in the Falklands, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the 2001 Afghanistan operation “Enduring Freedom” were once more in the limelight of international attention – at least for the 60 delegates.

“Honorable delegates, may the board remind you not to raise your placards while another delegate is still speaking? Thank you!” The United Nations Security Council Number 1 on the Six Day War did not appear to adhere to the rules of procedure at all times during debate, getting dragged away by the enormous impact of our discussions. After all, we were the ones to solve the crisis at stake.

Traveling through time, we went back to June 1967 – a period when the tensions in the Middle East were once again tightening, a crisis that is still unresolved today. In the first week of June 1967, fighting broke out between the Middle Eastern states. Israel had pre-emptively attacked its neighbor Egypt after it had started moving troops into the Sinai while also closing the Straits of Tiran, thus effectively blocking Israel’s only waterway to the Red Sea.

Delegates fiercely negotiating in the committee on the Six Day War | Photo: Thorsten Staufer

Among the delegates who were to tackle this pressing problem, experienced Model United Nation participants as well as total newcomers had come to the Austrian  capital. Their reasons, however, differed.

“HISTOMUN offers you new perspectives to old conflicts,” says a student from Vienna. “Mistakes that were made in the past can be avoided by trying to find new innovative solutions.”

For those solutions, three days of heated discussions with raised voices, disappointments that went hand in hand with some “glorious” successes ahead of us.

“Let’s not turn this into an ego issue!” says the delegate of the United States, “We must not let the region become a chessboard for political maneuvering.”

India steps in and takes the floor: “This is an emergency. Stop bargaining, we need a ceasefire as soon as possible!” After finally having agreed on the urgent need for a cessation of hostilities, a motion is being raised.

“Motion for an un-moderated caucus for the time frame of 15 minutes, however, delegates staying seated.”

“Is anybody seconding this motion?” Fifteen placards are raised high at once, within the fraction of a second. The vote clearly passes, the small conference room on the third floor of Webster University is filled with desperate shouting and accusations. All of a sudden, the notion of the United Arab Republic’s recognition of the State of Israel comes through. Stunned faces, silence for a second. Are we rewriting history?

“Say this, and I will call the High Command to have an immediate ceasefire agreement,” the Israeli delegate says breathlessly.

The debate is clearly out of control. The delegate of Syria demands a new chair. This being clearly out of order, the President raises his firm voice: “Delegates, please read the rules of procedure! Once and for all, you cannot change the chairs!”

Despite apparent disciplinary problems, the Israel committee did come up with what the delegates believed to be much more sustainable, constructive and peaceful solutions than what our “colleagues” had agreed upon 43 years ago. An immediate ceasefire agreement as well as the establishment of a peace-building commission “are the first steps in the right direction,” the Danish chair pointed out in his concluding remarks.

While the Falklands committee and the Afghanistan Security Council made similar positive experiences, the Rwanda delegation proved “that we can do even worse,” as its Chair put it. Expelling UN troops from the country, genocide was allowed to happen in an even more tragic manner than in the real event of 1994.

But maybe this is what such simulated conferences are all about: The answer to the question “why and how was this allowed to happen?” is usually not a straightforward one. By putting yourself into the shoes of another country as its representative in a Model UN, one does in fact gain valuable insights into the intricacies of diplomacy, negotiating and decision-making.

The future of HISTOMUN, however, is uncertain. Next year?

“I don’t know yet. The Academic Forum for Foreign Affairs is not willing to organize another HISTOMUN for reasons I am not at liberty to discuss,” explains Waldhauser. However, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

“The HISTOMUN doesn’t necessarily have to be in Vienna, it could, like the WorldMUN, go all around the world. I would be happy to cooperate with organizations or universities worldwide to arrange another HISTOMUN. After all, it’s my baby and there are enough historic topics left …”

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