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Turning Disadvantage Into Strength: Insights Into the Jean-Pictet Competition

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Two students from the University of Tokyo describe their journey in becoming semifinalists at the 34th Jean-Pictet Competition.

by Mizuki Takahashi

The UTokyo team plays the role of local NGO representatives at a military checkpoint.

(Jean-Pictet Organizing Committee)

In March 2020, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Japan invited and funded a team from the University of Tokyo to compete in the 34th edition of the Jean-Pictet Competition at Bali. Distinguished law students from around the world, often with a specific background in International Humanitarian Law (IHL), gather under the same roof through this exclusive annual tournament. 

Here’s the catch: the two students from PEAK who participated in the competition are neither law students nor have studied IHL before. Amishi Agrawal and Paul Namkoong, both liberal arts majors studying at the University of Tokyo, arguably do not have the same foundational background that law students have. What, then, led to the ICRC in Japan to invite and fund them for a competition that is usually seen as one only for law students? 

In the following interview, Amishi and Paul reflect on the competition, discuss the arduous preparation and training they undertook, and offer some final thoughts and valuable advice for other students who are interested in the Jean-Pictet Competition. [2]

The National University of Singapore (NUS) with the UTokyo team. (Christine Danielle Saw)

Could you introduce a bit about yourselves to the readers?

Amishi Agrawal (A): I’m a second-year undergraduate student in the Japan in East Asia (JEA) Program at the University of Tokyo. I’m currently interested both in environmental humanities and international law. Both Paul and I work as editors for the UTokyo International Law Research and Training Hub, which specializes in circulating legal opinions by legal scholars and students at the university. 

Paul Namkoong (P): I’m also a second-year JEA student in the PEAK program, and my main interests would be international law, political science, film, and publications. I’m also an editor-in-chief for the Komaba Times, an English-language magazine written by and for UTokyo students. 

I heard you both took part in the Jean-Pictet Competition. Could you explain more about this?

A: The competition was founded in 1989 and is organized by the ICRC. It is a week-long intensive training and competitive event for IHL in which nearly 50 teams from around the world compete. The first step to participate is to make an application for your team, and if your team is selected for the competition, then you are given remote training in the weeks leading up to Jean-Pictet. Unlike traditional moot court competitions, this one is based on role-playing. So, while in moot courts you basically play fake court and are given the case to be argued some weeks before the competition, in a role-play the biggest element is that of surprise. There is no briefing beforehand, and you are put in simulations resembling real-life applications of law outside the courtroom and you have to then play different roles. 

P: To give an example of some of the simulations—we played the military advisors to a country’s government, were asked to negotiate with an armed group, and were sent on a field mission to do a needs-assessment for displaced people. The main goal of Jean-Pictet, I would say, is to “disseminate” IHL. Since IHL is so extensive, there is always something new happening; if there was a phrase to sum everything up, it would be to “expect the unexpected”.

Just to clarify, what is international humanitarian law (IHL)?

A: IHL is a branch of public international law, which applies during international and non-international armed conflicts. This makes it one of the most realistic and widely-applicable branches of law. If you want to understand the legal background of situations in Syria and Afghanistan for example, you will be in the domain of IHL mostly.  

P: The main goal of IHL is to reduce unnecessary suffering and establish fair rules for combat. The tenets of IHL are the four Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. IHL plays a crucial role in humanitarian crises such as the treatment of those in detention centres and, more broadly, the ongoing refugee crisis. 

Why did you choose to join this competition?

A: Actually, we had no intention of joining or even knowledge about Jean-Pictet in the beginning. It all started in the autumn semester of my first year, when I simply wanted to try out English courses offered to the April-entry students at the University of Tokyo. I went for a class called “Introduction to IHL”, taught by Professor Ai Kihara-Hunt. At the end of the class, she introduced us to some competitions, which then led up to Jean-Pictet. 

P: For me, I was interested also in taking more classes for law at the university, but I didn’t know anything about this one until Amishi told me. Once I started taking the class, I realized just how interesting the course content was–not to mention how great the professor was. Like Amishi, I was then introduced to various events, which both of us eagerly joined.

So, there were other competitions along with Jean-Pictet? What was the exact process? 

A: First, we participated in the national competition for IHL Role Play. This was held in Tokyo in September 2019. After winning this competition, we were sponsored and funded by Japan’s ICRC branch to participate in the Asia-Pacific round, which was held in Malaysia. After winning there, we were then invited and sponsored to participate in Jean-Pictet, sort of like a world final. 

P: Yes, and in addition to role-play competitions, there’s also the national moot court competition for IHL. I participated in that, and our team secured first place there. The regional round for moot-court is scheduled to happen in August, which we will start researching and preparing for.

Could you elaborate a bit on the preparation and study you undertook for the various levels of these competitions?

A: For the role-play competition, we had a three-member team. We had to study not just extensive treaties, commentaries on those treaties, and landmark case law for IHL, but also other fields of law, such as International Human Rights Law (IHRL), Refugee Law, Cyber Law and International Criminal Law. There were 3 key stages of preparation for this: first, we divided different documents and treaties between ourselves. Second, we studied these individually and cloud-shared our summary notes. Finally, we explained our topic of study to the other members of the team. Of course, we also had some immensely helpful practice simulations with Professor Kihara-Hunt. 

P: Moving onto the preparation for the moot court: if role play is strategic, moot courts are aggressive. With moot courts, there is a face-off between the prosecutor and defendant, and unlike the role play, we are given three specific crimes to prove or defend beforehand. The challenging part was that the judges stopped you to ask questions all the time, alongside the fact that we also had to submit a 4000-word memorial statement–your argument written up in a legal form–prior to the actual event. For preparation, we looked through the case to find relevant laws and other case laws and analyzed the opponent’s memorial statement, which we received beforehand. 

Seems like it was an arduous process! I’m curious as to what the results for Jean-Pictet were.

P: Our team qualified for the semi-finals and Amishi was nominated for the best speaker award. All in all, I think Jean-Pictet was the perfect culmination for all the time and effort we had been putting in since our summer break last year when we had our first competition: the nationals for role-play. 

A simulation from the Asia-Pacific round where participants were sent on a UN fact-finding mission about the use of child-soldiers. (ICRC Malaysia)

What would be the most important lessons and memorable parts of the whole Jean-Pictet experience for you?

A: It is probably safe to say that I significantly improved my team management skills from being–albeit unexpectedly–the team leader. Since Jean-Pictet is such a self-guided process, I think both of us learned how to actually approach, understand, and study law. On a different note, I really enjoyed the way the competition was structured, which made different teams feel more like friends than competitors. If there was one phrase to sum up my experience, it would probably–and quite amusingly at that–be “law can be fun”. And of course, the opportunity to explore Kuala Lumpur in the Asia-Pacific round, and Bali—where Jean-Pictet was hosted this year—is something I think both Paul and I enjoyed. 

P: Exploring Southeast Asia was a unique hidden opportunity within the realm of the many opportunities Jean-Pictet opened for us. For example, we were able to interact very closely with the Red Cross, discover many other academic opportunities, and I am pursuing an internship opportunity with ICRC Japan. In short, the Jean-Pictet experience is socially, professionally, and academically fulfilling! 

What were some challenges that you faced in the process and in the competition itself?

A: In going from the national to the global rounds, we faced a slight struggle because of member changes. The most significant challenge of all, however, was the fact that we aren’t law students, which the competition almost has an implicit assumption that every person would be, thus expecting participants to have sound legal knowledge in many fields, not just IHL. 

P: For me, a challenging aspect was time management and working under pressure. Maintaining your composure during the simulations was a big hurdle to overcome, not least because judges always try to switch sides and pick out on minor mistakes. Like Amishi, however, the most challenging facet was the fact that we were “underprepared”. Nevertheless, we concentrated on working as a team and focused and thereby successfully made this supposed disadvantage into our strength.

Another simulation from the Asia-Pacific round where the teams played the role of ICRC Field Officers and were sent to inspect a site with possible use of land-mines. (ICRC Malaysia)

Looking at the results and accomplishments, the next question may be hard. But If you could go back in time, what are some things you would change about what you did?

A: I would tell myself and the team to be more regular in the preparation step beforehand. Should we have done that, we could have perhaps enjoyed the competition more instead of also having to learn on-the-go at the very event. This, I think, particularly applies to non-law students like us. 

P: I would probably advise myself not to be so selective in what I want to study. The judges looked for fields that were presumed by students to be “unimportant”, such as sea warfare. Just as how the students made a hierarchy of the potential likelihood of cases that were bound to come up, it was quite likely that the judges made a similar hierarchy to select cases that catch you off guard. 

On a final note, do you have any advice for students interested in the Jean-Pictet Competition?

A: It is not enough if one person in the team knows something specific and the others don’t: the key is to share your knowledge base. I would also recommend that after every simulation, the team should have a short-reflection session within itself and identify their own best strategies. I also strongly suggest non-law students, including humanities and science students, to participate in Jean-Pictet. It is an experience unlike most others, where you learn important life skills, grow as a team and an individual, and simultaneously find yourself having so much more fun than what anyone could expect! 

P: As I said earlier, I highly recommend building a strong foundational knowledge of law from the start, even with topics you think will not come up. Just as with Amishi, I also recommend this competition for anyone interested in broadening their horizons. Studying IHL transcends any humanities and sciences, and really, is applicable to any field. It’s essentially all about arguing on a certain set of evidence and testing your reasoning skills on a macro scale. Jean-Pictet is a fun experience, not least because of the travel benefits and having the opportunity to get exposed to new cultures! To sum it up, this is what I would say to anybody who is interested: go after it.


Mizuki Takahashi is a first year student studying in the PEAK Japan in East Asia program at the University of Tokyo. Her interests primarily lie in the fields of political science and international relations, and she has recently developed an interest in environmental and corporate (M&A) law. With an interest in the social sciences, she has previously interned at various firms such as The Economist and the law firm, Hogan Lovells.

[2] For students of the University of Tokyo who might be interested in participating in the Jean-Pictet Competition, please contact Professor Ai Kihara-Hunt for more details. 

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