With thundering applause and chants of "Kofi, Kofi," you'd think the 3,000 high-schoolers from 96 countries who gathered in The Hague last month were greeting a rock star.
Instead, the man of fame was Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Mr. Annan delivered the closing speech at an annual UN simulation for 15- to 18-year-olds called The Hague International Model UN (THIMUN).
"It's wonderful to experience young people idolizing a man of such character and goodness," says David Williams, board chairman of the THIMUN Foundation, a nongovernmental organization (NGO).
THIMUN, now in its 34th year, aims to give students an understanding of the innerworkings of the UN and the pressing diplomacy issues it takes on.
During the week-long conference, for instance, students from some 200 schools around the world played the roles of UN diplomats, NGO members, and the press, in mock negotiations of real-life dilemmas.
Assuming the role of secretary-general was Duveken Fontein, a 17-year-old student at the American School of The Hague. What she valued most about the conference, she says, was the chance to represent ideas other than her own and to gain new perspectives.
Jan Cannizzo, a junior from Baumholder American High School in Germany who was attending his second THIMUN conference, agrees.
"You stop thinking about your own sphere of life, and realize concerns of all nations," he says.
Preparation for the conference began last fall when each school team was assigned a country to represent. Students then decided which committee they would work on and began research so they could formulate resolutions and be prepared to present the viewpoints of their countries.
Throughout the week, students attended committee meetings and lobbied for support of resolutions. Among the weighty issues addressed during the conference were disarmament, human rights, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Jan, who considers himself a "math and science guy," chose to work on the Environmental Commission so he could combine his interest in science with politics and social issues. His subcommittee tackled problems plaguing the ratification and implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, a topic the real UN has grappled with.
As secretary-general of THIMUN, Duveken started her planning last May. She was responsible for setting the agendas for the special forums, coordinating 65 student officers, and ensuring delegates had an enjoyable experience that included serious debates and cultural interaction.
She says this year's conference was especially spectacular because of the opening and closing ceremonies. In the opening, 77 real ambassadors from the diplomatic community in The Hague each handed over the flag of his or her nation to the young THIMUN ambassador representing that nation.
Duveken also shared the stage with Annan when he spoke to the general assembly and accepted on behalf of the UN several action papers representing the viewpoints of young people. She says meeting him "was truly an inspiring experience. He is very natural, open, and friendly."
THIMUN participants had the opportunity to make friends and future contacts.
In addition, the debating and lobbying requirements enhanced their speaking abilities. Standing up in front of strangers and maintaining an audience's attention while getting a point across is a skill that goes beyond the one-week conference, Duveken says. The conference was conducted in English, so it was especially useful for students who are mastering it as a second language. About a quarter of the participants are Americans, many of them living outside the United States.
In his closing remarks to the students, Annan agreed with THIMUN staff in saying the conference helps to prepare today's younger generation for their future role in the world.
"By coming together and assuming the positions of different member-states," he said, "by walking in their shoes, so to speak, you will have gained new insights and come to understand a diversity of points of view."