Mention the words “United Nations” and you are likely to get an instant straw poll on peoples’ opinions about this organisation. Some people would tell you it is a reactive body and a waste of time, others may tell you it upholds whatever may be left of the principles of democracy and international harmony.
Whatever their stance may be, it has been brought back to the fore of the brightest minds of the Asia-Pacific region recently. The 2008 Asia-Pacific Model United Nations Conference was held from July 6-11 in Adelaide and brought more than 500 delegates from around Australia, the Asia-Pacific region and the world to engage in and debate issues in a UN context.
Some chose the platform to show off their political prowess, others chose the occasion to network and build contacts for the future. Most of the “delegates” were there on a mission. No, not the kind you might think. This wasn’t just about aid work or giving to charitable causes, far from it in fact. Think instead of committee topics such as the independence of Kosovo; the displacement of the world’s indigenous peoples; and the future stability of Iraq and you begin to think irony, bigotry, political chest-beating and countries buddying up to bring down those who dare question them.
These are all reflections of the media coverage of such events. The recent Zimbabwe elections, which we all know were fair and wide open, saw international media have a field day with the human rights abuses and undemocratic behaviours that were in abundance. The UN, as commonly happens, threatens to weigh in and bring its big brother EU to sort it out. The usual suspects are proposed - sanctions, condemnations, military interventions and so forth.
Of course the real question is - just how much can a university student get out of a UN conference without actually visiting The Hague or New York? At the AMUNC opening ceremony on July 7, the honourable delegates found out quickly after former Federal MP Alexander Downer gave a candid keynote address on the topic of “Challenges and change: A time for new thinking and its relationship to the United Nations”.
Mr Downer spoke at the AMUNC opening ceremony to about 500 enthralled participants and organisers. Confident, charismatic and satirically ironic as he so often has been, Downer spoke at length about the intricacies of the UN.
“Its [United Nations] relevance has grown because of the nature of the sort of issues the world has had to address in recent times,” he said.
The United Nations Security Council and the issue of Zimbabwe was the focus of Mr Downer’s speech and he paid much attention to the issues and problems faced by the “real” United Nations and its operations.
“In the case of Zimbabwe, its human rights abuses are appalling - they are a matter of significant discussion and focus in the UN Human Rights Council,” he said firmly.
“I don’t want to leave you with anything more than a mixed impression of the United Nations … I think a lot of the idealism of the United Nations is well founded and its criticisms are perfectly reasonable,” he said.
Which raises an interesting question - were there delegates participating who represented countries notorious for human rights abuses? Just for the record, the Human Rights Council had representatives of Australia, France, Zimbabwe and China to name a few, all human rights abusers in their own right. Having taken the unusual step of dining with these delegates on that same evening, it was interesting to see how few of them seemed phased by representing such countries and the attitude that this reflected.
“There are a lot of countries within the United Nations system, for a whole series of geopolitical reasons that think it is polite to be defensive of the regime of Mugabe - that is the honest truth,” he continued.
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