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Opening Debate Procedure

How to Open Debate using Model UN Procedure

Congrats on making it to the beginning of your Model UN Procedure journey! Before we go any further, it’s probably you best you know the first thing you have to do at a Model UN Conference: how to open debate. But before we get there, let’s go over some motions that don’t exist.

motion is made by raising your placard in committee and stating your motion, generally by saying “[insert state here] makes a motion to…”or similarly, “[name of state] moves to…”

Motions that Don’t Exist to Open Debate

  • “Motion to Open Debate”
  • “Motion to Start Committee”
  • “Motion to Begin Debate”
  • “Motion to Begin Debate on Topic A”

Sorry to burst your bubble, but those motions do not exist. Model United Nations utilizes a formal debate tool called a “Speaker’s List,” which is pretty much like it sounds. The Speaker’s List is a list of states wishing to speak. However, before states can be added to the Speaker’s List, one must move to open it!

“Motion to Open the Primary Speaker’s List”

One of the easiest motions to make at a Model UN conference is the first one. There is one caveat. The Primary Spekaer’s List is used to debate agenda items and order. Therefore, if you only have one topic, or the agenda has already been set, you would make a motion to open the secondary speaker’s list.

Motion Parameters: Motion to open a speaker’s list can take on one optional parameter. A speaker may indicate a time limit for speeches in his or her motion. The motion would sound something like:

“Motion to Open the Primary Speaker’s List with a speaking time of 60 seconds.”

Primary Speaker’s List Rules of Order

There are a few rules of order that govern a primary speaker’s list:

  • There are no yields during a primary speaker’s list. All remaining speaking time is automatically absorbed by the chair.
  • There are no caucuses, moderated or unmoderated, during the primary speaker’s list.
  • All speakers must address the agenda order. Speeches may not address specific agenda items until the Secondary Speaker’s List.

A Side Note on Quorum: Before a single motion is accepted by a chairperson, a committee must have “quorum,” that is, enough members must be present to start formal proceedings. At most conferences, quorum is 1/5, or 20% of the total body being simulated. Quorum must also be established before substantive voting takes place.

Now that you’re an expert on the opening debate and the primary speaker’s list, let’s move onto how to set the agenda so that we can get to substantive debate!

Proper Procedure: Motion to Set the Agenda

“Motion to Set the Agenda to Topic A followed by Topic B.”

Again, motion to set the agenda is another easy motion to make, even for a beginner in Model UN! Using the verbiage above, any delegate in committee can propose to set the agenda. Typically chairs will want to move through this process quickly, but do not underestimate the power of setting the agenda. In many conferences, only one of two or three topics will receive time for debate. Encourage your fellow delegates to spend some time discussing which topic should get the most attention. Once you feel the committee is ready to decide, raise the motion as stated above.

Being Forced to Set the Agenda

Motion to set the agenda is a procedural vote, meaning everyone in committee must vote either for or against the motion. This is very important because when there are two topics, the agenda is set automatically after the vote.

Procedural Motion: those motions that affect the structure or rules of debate, not the substantive debate.
Substantive Motion: a term dealing with the topic, or substance, being debated. During a substantive vote, states may vote or abstain from the vote.


A delegate makes the motion to set the agenda to Topic A followed by Topic B. The motion fails. What happens next?

Think about this situation before you continue reading and look at the answer. Here’s a hint: a lot of chairs and moderators get this rule wrong.

When a motion to set the agenda is voted on AND there are two topics, the agenda will be set, regardless of the vote’s outcome. If the motion fails (A then B), the agenda is set to Topic B then Topic A.

Why does this make sense? If the committee rejects the first agenda order than they must except the only other possible order. It is important for chairs to use their discretion when accepting motions to set the agenda. Once a moderator accepts an agenda setting motion, they should be prepared to exit the Primary Speaker’s List.

Expiration of the Primary Speaker’s List

If the situation arises that the primary speaker’s list is exhausted, the committee is forced to vote. By rule, if no states wish to speak, the committee is assumed to be ready to vote. To avoid this, continue to add your name to the speaker’s list.

Onward to formal debate!

Continue to Lesson 3: The Secondary Speakers List