Sara Burhan Abdullah, Pitt Law LLM '08 and JD '11, was a judge at the Iraqi National Rounds for the Jessup International Moot Court Competition. She shares her impressions of Iraqi students and judges' performance...
I was invited to judge the Iraqi National Rounds for the Jessup International Moot Court Competition, held in December of 2010. Though Iraq has participated in the competition before, this was its first true national round, and about fifteen law schools participated. The experience was a remarkable one. The well-run competition was an example of how quickly transnational legal skills can be transplanted across different legal systems and cultures.
The Jessup Competition is an International Moot Court competition designed to improve both law students' skills in making arguments before courts and their ability to understand the different concepts of public international law. The Jessup Moot takes the form of a mock proceeding before the International Court of Justice between two fictional countries, with each country being represented by a single law school in each round. The international competition is held in the spring of each year in Washington, DC, and many nations, including the United States, hold preliminary national rounds to determine which of their many teams will qualify for international participation. For security and other reasons, Iraq had not been able to hold a national round until this year. However, through the private efforts of University of Pittsburgh law professor Haider Ala Hamoudi and the funding support of the United States Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq had sent a team from either Suleymania's law school or Basra's law school to previous international competitions.
The dream of providing other Iraqi law schools with the opportunity to participate in the Jessup competition finally came true through the support of the International Human Rights Law Institute and US government funding. Everyone involved in the Jessup Competition, but especially the director of the national round, Kari Kammel, was concerned about the competition's success. The reason for the concern was that Iraq had been culturally and legally isolated for decades, and only two schools had the slightest familiarity with the Jessup competition. Nevertheless, due to the excellent efforts of Executive Director Kammel and others, the competition was an astonishing success.
Having helped Dr. Hamoudi supervise and prepare the Iraqi teams at the international rounds in Washington, DC, over the past five years, I have some sense of what the competition looks like in the US and how students prepare for their rounds. I noticed a number of striking similarities between the international and Iraqi national rounds. For example, I witnessed the same combination of eagerness and nervousness among the students in Iraq as I did in Washington, DC. The students in Iraq were exchanging ideas, making arguments, and brainstorming with their coaches as to how to approach an argument. These preparations and discussions were very similar to those that take place at the international rounds in DC, and they were taking place among students who had never stepped foot out of Iraq.
In addition, I was impressed at how quickly the students were able to grasp and apply the styles and methods of legal argumentation despite limited access to necessary resources in public international law. The Iraqi students had been trained in rote memorization of limited sources and lacked any training in making arguments or developing analytical skills, so I had assumed they would memorize a brief and then be entirely unable to move beyond it if interrupted with a question. For the most part, the reverse was true--the students were most comfortable when asked questions and given the opportunity to respond. They showed considerable ability to make strong arguments despite the limitations described above. The eagerness of the Iraqi students, combined with their surprisingly strong abilities, gave me hope that the competition, and indeed public international law more broadly, has a bright future in Iraq.
Iraqi judges, by comparison, had a harder time adapting to the newer methods of argumentation that were presented in the Jessup competition. This was obvious by the different manner in which Iraqi judges asked questions relative to the participating foreign judges. The foreign judges were mostly former Jessup participants, international law practitioners or law professors and so had more exposure to the competition than the Iraqi judges, who were primarily composed of law professors, in addition to some actual judges. The most prominent Iraqi judge was Judge Rizgar Mohammad Amin, the first judge assigned to adjudicate the former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Because the judges were law professors in Iraq used to dealing with Iraqi law students, they properly understood the Jessup Competition to be a learning experience, and they thought it fit to question students and teach them in the manner to which the professors were accustomed. Thus, the questions directed at competitors by Iraqi judges were more formalistic inquiries into international law rather than inquiries focused on the actual argument being presented by the team. One oft-repeated question was whether it is necessary for a representative of a country before the ICJ to be a lawyer or if other individuals can appear before the international court as representatives of countries. Another frequently asked question concerned the difference in definition between treaty and convention. Although these questions can be important under different factual scenarios, I could not see the relevance of these questions to the facts and legal issues presented in the case. The questions did not so much test the ability of the student to present the best argument, but rather how much ancillary knowledge, irrelevant to the actual case, they happened to possess.
After a week of competing against each other, the two finalists were announced as winners and invited to participate in the international rounds. The two teams, from Baghdad and Nasiriya's law schools, are now in the process of getting ready for visa applications and interviews, which are time consuming and have threatened the viability of Iraqi participation in the past. All of us involved in the competition hope for the best this year.
In short, the Iraqi national rounds were a successful experience despite all the obstacles faced by the administrators and organizers of the competition. The Jessup Moot broadens the horizon of Iraqi law students by introducing them to new developments in international law around the world. It also better trains them in the arena of international law in a manner that is sure to prove beneficial to the country in the future. These consequences are fairly obvious. What was surprising was how firmly interest and desire for skills in international law took hold among these talented Iraqi law students, despite their isolation, lack of resources and absence of sufficient training.