The issue was the arms race and its relationship to world hunger. To 10-year-old Seon Weems, looking every bit the diplomat in his navy blue three-piece suit as the argued the topic at the D.C. schools' Mini United Nations General Assembly last week, the debate boiled down to one fundamental question.
"If there's not food to feed anybody, who's going to fire all those guns away." asked Seon, a fifth grader at St. Anthony's Elementary School in Northeast Washington.
No one had an easy answer to Seon's query or to other provocative questions that popped up Friday as almost 100 pupils from 19 public and parochial schools in Washington gathered for a mock United Nations meeting at the Marie Reed Learning Center, 2200 Champlain St. NW.
The fourth through seventh grade students came to the U.N. session as representatives of 22 countries they had studied in the past two months. Following procedures used by the General Assembly in New York, the junior ambassadors and delegates deliberated for four hours and, not unlike their adult role models, failed to agree on a single resolution introduced at the session.
"We learned how hard it is for the United Nations to negotiate world problems," said Mike Tropea, 12, a seventh grader at Blessed Sacrament Elementary School in Northwest Washington, as one proposal after another was defeated by the opinionated, articulate and well-informed youngsters.
The mini United Nations was sponsored by the D.C. public schools under the federal Emergency School Aid Act and was designed to promote multiculturalism in the city's schools, said Joe Harris, an ESAA coordinator.
"We have children who go to Europe every year and children who have never been downtown to a museum. They need to share common experiences like this to bridge the cultural gap between them," Harris said.
The mini United Nations sessions started four years ago as a spinoff from the embassy adoption program sponsored by ESAA and the Women's Committee of the Washington Performing Arts Society.Under the adoption program, individual classes are paired with a foreign country, which invites the class to visit its embassy and supplies films, booklets and speakers about the country. Forty-one different embassies have participated since the program began in 1974.
As the culmination of the embassy adopted program, four students from each class are chosen to attend the General Assembly, where they debate a topic from the perspective of the country they studied.
At last week's session, most children abandoned their normal school attire and donned coats and ties or dresses for the occasion. A few wore foreign costumes, including three girls representing India who wore saris.
The delegates heard a speech by James L. Roush, a director of the Capital Area United Nations Association. Describing scenes of starvation he has witnessed around the world, Roush told the children, "It is not possible to solve the problem of world hunger unless we devote some of the resources now being spent on arms.
The students then broke into four committees to examine the economic and social consequences of the arms race and world hunger and to draft resoltuions to solve the problems. After Assembly reconvened to vote on resolutions calling for arms limitation and increased spending on food and education for poor countries, but none won the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
Individually, students said they would like to do away with all weapons and devote the world's resources to battling hunger and malnutrition. But once they assumed their roles as delegates from another country, they argued according to that country's philosophy rather than their own outlook.
Perhaps the loneliest role was for the fifth and six graders from Shepherd Elementary School who represented the Soviet Union.
"You get people who give you dirty stares and say you're insane," sighed Sara Cormery, 11, a sixth grader at Shephard.
"It's extremely difficult when you want to say yes and you have to say no," explained her classmate, Narya Howell, who functioned as the Soviet ambassador."It's like being a character in a play."
Sara's and Narya's ability to speak as representatives of the Soviet Union Friday is just what the ESAA coordinators wanted to accompolish at the mini United Nations.
"By arguing the views of another country, we hope the children get more of a global perspective," Harris said. "We think the understanding of one country should lead to a greater appreciation of different cultures."