The United Nations virtually moved to Kerala this week when nearly 100 students from schools and colleges assembled for a 'UN Replica' which recreated the United Nations in its most authentic form. The event was organised by the Kalam Smriti International to celebrate the life of former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, to mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations and to mark the conferment of Special Consultative Status on the Smriti by the ECOSOC, a principal organ of the United Nations.
Basically, it was impeccable play acting, but strictly in accordance with the rules, regulations and established procedures of the United Nations. Even the sartorial traditions of the world body were observed. Every delegate was properly attired in suits or national costumes. They followed the etiquette of delegates by addressing each other as "distinguished delegates" of their respective countries. They identified themselves with the countries allotted to them by learning their history, customs and manners by researching and reflecting the positions of those countries meticulously, accurately and convincingly.
The agenda items which were discussed in the replicas of the General Assembly and the Security Council were matters of current concern internationally. In the General assembly, the agenda item was Climate Change and in the Security Council, it was the burning question of Afghanistan. The debate was realistic, but at the same time, the speakers added their own embellishments to strengthen their arguments. Much of what was said by the young delegates went beyond the restrained approach of their older counterparts and added fresh dimensions to the issues they were discussing. They were aware of the sensitivities of the issues, but felt that the delegates should be more innovative, inventive and forceful. For instance, the voice of many delegations on Climate Change was more powerful than that of people like Greta Thunberg, who has become the voice of the young people against the governments which disregard the compulsions of taking measures to save the Earth from perdition.
The unanimous demand of the world to have an inclusive government in Afghanistan, free of terrorists, was forcefully expressed by the young delegates, but took care to bring out the nuances in the positions of countries like China, Pakistan and Iran. The resolutions adopted followed the trends of the resolutions recently adopted by the General Assembly and the Security Council, but many ideas not articulated in the UN also found a place in them. France fought for every word in the resolution with China. They were not just acting out the UN drama, but also making a contribution to the global thinking on climate change and Afghanistan.
The invited schools and colleges gave great attention to the selection of their representatives and, therefore, the quality of the participants was very high. Another interesting feature was that nearly 90% of the delegates were women. Speaking from the comfort of their homes, they seemed uninhibited in expressing their views in a fearless manner.
Ambassador T S Tirumurti, the Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations and a former President of the Security Council, inaugurated the UN Replica. While all of us were play acting, he brought a sense of reality and thrilled the youngsters with an inspiring speech and enlightening answers to their questions. It was like Gandhiji playing the lead role in a play on his life!
I spent several hours with the delegates in a practice session, taking them through the various procedures and practices. I emphasised that the UN is a conservative organisation and that civility and courtesies of the old world are considered essential. Though the geopolitical situation has changed beyond recognition after the Cold War and many issues have disappeared from the agendas of the General assembly and the Security Council and the positions of member countries have changed, only the substance has changed, not the form. It is like the software of the diplomats has changed but not their hardware. The young delegates absorbed these points and there was no violation of the etiquette at all.
The delegates were anxious to participate in the debate both in the General assembly and the Security Council because it gave them an opportunity to speak from the podium. The podiums were unreal, but the magic of technology made it appear as though they were speaking at the UN itself. The General assembly hall had the golden background of the podium and the Security Council was adorned with the Norwegian mural gifted to the United Nations in 1952. I briefed them on the significance and meaning of the mural which had a phoenix in the middle and joyful scenes of humanity on top and some scenes of misery and poverty at the bottom. I recalled the diverse opinions on the mural. While many felt that the mural was a faithful reflection of the realities of the world that UN was dealing with, while others felt it was mind boggling. The young delegates were proud to get themselves photographed in front of it with pride. The illusion of the General Assembly and the Security Council were created by our art director and technologist, Sajeev Nair of 'Padtashaala' with his fingers on the keyboard.
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I invented the UN Replica with the support of Labour India's Rajesh Kulangara as an education tool. I felt that, unlike some other models of the UN, which distort the organisation and its mandate to make it appear interesting, UN Replica should give the youngsters a real feel of the UN. The UN is a virtual university where even adults learn debating skills, consensus making and striking of deals. The UN Replica seeks to initiate this process of learning early in life. The participants will have a sense of deja vu if they eventually visit the UN in New York.
Fleeting encounter, but worth emulating
The UN Replica was staged many times in Kerala and outside, by creating sets to resemble the UN halls. In the virtual mode for the first time, the setting was even more convincing. The keen interest and seriousness they brought into the event was truly inspiring. Dale View Educational Institution, which hosts the Kalam Smriti International and its leaders, Shaji David Alfi and Deena Das and their staff worked tirelessly to create UN Replica in all its splendour. The participants will long remember their fleeting encounter with the United Nations in the virtual world. I hope more and more educational institutions will hold UN Replica sessions to give an authentic picture of the UN rather than its distorted models.
(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora)