It’s already late when India’s UN delegation presents its draft resolution for strengthening sanctions against North Korea in an informal negotiation. China looks set to veto it in the Security Council. The British negotiator comes up with a remarkable proposal to break the deadlock. “Should we get some sandwiches from Opinio?”

Er... the United Nations in Etterbeek? Is this a play being performed at VUB? Well, yes and no. The scene above might just happen during a VUBMUN conference – the Model United Nations conference organised by VUB students several times a year. MUN is a simulation in which students act as delegates to various UN committees, playing the role of delegates of a particular country, or in some cases political figures and organisations. The purpose of these committees is to write and eventually adopt a resolution with concrete policy proposals, along the lines of UN law.

Under the skin

VUB alumna Dita Toska has taken part in several conferences. “Perhaps it looks a bit ridiculous to an outsider: students playing diplomacy in a classroom,” she says. “Of course, it’s a little artificial, but pretty soon, even during my internship, I found out that all those skills you learn at VUBMUN come in very handy in a working environment. The negotiation techniques, drafting clauses, even putting a comma in the right place: I’d experienced it all during VUBMUN.” Fellow alumnus Loyle Campbell had a spot of stage fright at his first conference. “You play a role and, for me, it was a bit difficult to get under the skin of a character,” he says. “It was a bit bizarre, especially on the first day, but once you get the hang of it, it’s fun. By the end of my studies, I’d taken part in eight conferences. All those conferences gave me structural insights into foreign policy and international relations, because some of the issues I dealt with as a delegate to VUBMUN are still relevant today.”

The preliminary process

Just like in reality, you don’t become a diplomat overnight. Every year, a team of 10 students is selected to receive training on everything related to MUN and diplomacy. They’re guided by three other students or board members, chosen from the previous year’s team, on how to negotiate, compromise and speak in public. One of those facilitators is VUB alumnus Filip Lismont. “Students receive three training sessions a week for three weeks before a conference and are also coached individually,” he explains. “I provide training on speeches and teach the students how to interact with others, because it’s partly competition, partly cooperation. Above all, I emphasise that everyone is nervous the first time. My third session is about the fact that you’re not there as a student but as a representative of a country. You often have to protect the interests of a country at the expense of your personal morality. The trick is to respect the other party as a discussion partner, as a human being, regardless of the views being put forward.” The training and the team are occasionally supported by a network of alumni and other professionals.

Shaped for life?

For Dita, VUBMUN was by far her best experience at VUB: “The framing was fantastic, my friendship group was shaped by it and so was my decision to switch my path from law to diplomacy and politics during my studies. It’s all to do with my experience at VUBMUN.” She is keen to put what she learned into practice. “After studying law at VUB, I left for England to get a degree in corporate and financial law. I then followed European studies at KU Leuven. Now I’m in China for my master in Chinese studies, where I’m following the Chinese law track. I hope to graduate in July and then want to actively engage with the European institutions on policymaking in relation to China. There is a great need for China experts within the EU, and there are almost none who were trained in this area in China.”

Loyle has also made a clear professional choice thanks to his involvement in MUN conferences. “I got my bachelor’s degree in social sciences at VUB. I chose VUB because this study programme is taught in English. And it offers a lot of opportunities for students. There are scholarships, masterclasses, I participated in Collegium Vocale in Tuscany, as well as conferences in the framework of Eutopia. In May I completed my master’s and now I’m working on international energy policy at a think tank in Berlin, where I deal with foreign policy on commodities and industry.”

Filip was immediately familiar with the international context of MUN. “I lived in different places around the world in my youth, always within an international community. Before studying social sciences and European and international governance at VUB, I’d never even lived in Belgium. From the first second, I’ve not regretted it. I learned a lot at VUB, but also from VUB. And I noticed that there are a lot of great minds here. Alexander Mattelaer and Jonathan Holslag are by far the most prominent professors in geopolitics in Belgium. And we should be proud of that.” Filip will soon, after a six-month internship, become a permanent staff member of the Africa Europe Foundation, a think tank that works on African, EU and bilateral relations.

And then the prizes

“I was there mainly with the mindset of getting stronger as a person and not to be the best” Dita Toska

VUBMUN tries to go to either Cambridge or Oxford every year. There is also a conference every year in cities like New York, Tokyo, Panama, Madrid or London. The 24th edition of the London International Model United Nations took place in February. A team of 20 VUB students from various bachelor’s and master’s programmes took part and achieved resounding success. For Dita, that’s no surprise. “My first conference was in Oxford, home to the strongest MUN teams in Europe. I was there mainly with the mindset of getting stronger as a person and not to be the best. That I still ended up going home with second prize and another VUB student was first was a boost in the sense of ‘maybe we’re not so bad at what we do after all’.”

Find out more about the activities and programme of VUBMUN.