2008 Bonn Seminar - Presentatoin on UN Simulations

UN Simulations

...as tools for UN Teaching

Presentation by John Mathiason

John Mathiason

The United Nations System and the international public sector generally is one of the most complex public institutional settings ever devised and understanding how it works is a major teaching challenge. Among the key issues that have to be conveyed are:

    1. Decision-making takes place in a non-sovereign environment, meaning that no one is really in charge;
    2. Individual nation-states cannot pursue their interest in an unchecked manor because of the linkages among issues, made more important because of globalization;
    3. The main form of decision-making is by consensus, which is difficult to describe (and which has never been defined in international law);
    4. There are more stakeholders with more influence than at the national level.

    One method of showing these aspects, when applied to negotiation and decision-making is through the use of simulations. To an extent this has been done for some time using Model United Nations. However, while these approximate some of the procedural lessons, they are much too free-form to ensure appropriate learning. At the Maxwell School, we have used simulations for the Capstone of our International Relations masters program. In May 2008, for example, we simulated the negotiations to take place at the 14th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2008.


    Properly designed, a simulation can convey the complexity of United Nations intergovernmental decision-making. However, if simulations are to be effective, they need careful preparation, including:

    1. Narrowing the scope of the simulated negotiation to an issue that can reasonably lead to a decision. In the case of the Maxwell simulation this meant concentrating on one of the issues, shared vision, and narrowing the focus in this to two specific questions (what emissions reduction target by when, and how is burden sharing to be arranged).
    2. Specifying instructions for each participant (representing a State) based on real positions, but with options open for agreement.
    3. Having adequate background documents. In the case of the Maxwell simulation this included an "Executive Director's Report" that set and constrained the context. The evidence from the Capstone is that the exercise was successful in conveying the sense of how international negotiations take place and the context.