UVA Law Students Make First Showing in Renowned Pictet International Humanitarian Law Conference
During the Pictet competition, (from left) Melissa Reilly-Diakun, Catherine Moore and Brian Kennedy role-played as representatives of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and discussed potential military targets and methods of attack with other students playing government officials.
Three students recently fielded the University of Virginia School of Law's first team in the prestigious Jean Pictet International Competition on International Humanitarian Law, which was held in Thailand earlier this month.
LL.M. student Catherine Moore and second-year law students Brian Kennedy and Melissa Reilly-Diakun were among 48 English- and French-speaking teams that were accepted to compete following a rigorous application process. At the conclusion of the weeklong event, Kennedy was one of three students nominated for best oralist.
A team from New South Wales won the event and captured the best oralist prize, said Moore, who led the effort to join the competition.
"I decided to organize an entry to the Pictet competition after witnessing friends in both the U.K. and France prepare for it," said Moore, who holds a joint degree in English and French law. "I saw that they enjoyed the process and was intrigued by the competition's goal of 'taking the law out of the books.'"
The competition involves simulating various roles throughout the week — legal advisers in government ministries and in the armed forces, military commanders, diplomats and delegates from the International Committee for the Red Cross — in the context of a fictitious conflict that continued to evolve during the week.
"We were challenged to apply our knowledge of the law in the context of realistic and fast-moving scenarios covering emerging issues in warfare, including the treatment of transnational armed groups under international law, and the use of new weapons such as drones," Kennedy said. "The scenarios forced us to think on our feet, argue from several different perspectives, and focus on crafting compelling but concise oral arguments at short notice."
A map of the Zorba Islands (the
fictional area of
the conflict) was created for the simulations.
Moore said the team was up against schools that are entirely devoted to international humanitarian law, such as the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, and those that have LL.M.s that solely focus in that field, such as the University of Essex. Many schools also had coaches who were former Pictet participants and had been preparing since late December or early January. Because they were initially on a waiting list to join the competition, the UVA team did not know until February that they would be competing.
"We sprang into action to make the trip happen and be as competitive as possible," Moore said. "Our team performed quite well. We received daily positive feedback from the tutor who was assigned to us at the competition, as well as the judges and other teams."
Throughout, the simulation touched on issues relating to international humanitarian law, including conduct of hostilities, refugee law, human rights and the law of the sea.
"The types of simulations we were acting out are exactly the types of situations that workers in this field encounter every day," Reilly-Diakun said. "The International Committee for the Red Cross is on the ground trying to negotiate protections for civilians in conflict zones and government ministers are arguing policy considerations that tie into the law that binds their governments. It was a great opportunity to preview the career that I hope to go into."
Kennedy, who together with Reilly-Diakun plans to field a team next year, said the most gratifying aspect of the competition was the opportunity to learn from talented competitors from around the globe.
"Connecting with other young people from different cultures with whom I shared many interests was a special experience," he said. "Our evenings were spent tearing apart the mutual misconceptions we held about each other’s societies, while discovering more common ground than we had imagined."
The team said they were thankful for the coaching they received from UVA law professors Ashley Deeks, Deena Hurwitz and David Martin and Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School instructors Brian Bill and Maj. Andrew Gillman.
Moore said the setting for the competition, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, felt particularly appropriate for weighing humanitarian issues. The town was made famous in 1942 when, while under Japanese control, local forced laborers and Allied POWs built the infamous Death Railway and constructed the bridge later recounted in the film "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
Moore said she herself learned the challenges of weighing competing interests when making decisions during a conflict, for example when the ICRC has to balance protecting civilians while maintaining neutrality.
"As a human rights advocate, it was somewhat difficult to put on the law of war 'hat' and let go of those principles when debating military choices," she said. "I found the two areas of law to be quite similar in application, though, as each required decision-makers to take into account the civilian population."
Moore said the competition cemented her interest in the field.
"I would definitely enjoy working in this area of law in the future — whether for the ICRC, an NGO or the U.S government. I hope to pursue such a career after completing my LL.M here at Virginia."