A Cambodian team has found a place in the history books after being the first to take part in the Jessup International Moot Court Competition
Cambodia’s Jessup team in Washington, DC, with the judges (seated) and the winning Russian team. The Cambodian contingent
(at right, rear) are Sonita Khun, Nearirath Sreng, Thirith Vireak, Piseth Panha and Soy Kimsang (from left to right).
Cambodia's first Jessup team returned last week from the prestigious Jessup International Moot Court Competition in Washington, DC, where it was forced to confront a topic very close to home.
The competition is a mock UN International Court of Justice trial where participants argue a fictional case between two countries. This year, the debate concerned an alleged invasion followed by a genocide.
"What the judges required were the legal arguments against ethnic cleansing; and, while we had those, the main thrust of our argument was moral," said Soy Kimsan, a member of the Royal University of Law and Economics team that represented Cambodia at the event.
"It's hard because genocide happened in our own country, so we think how can you only have legal reasons without moral reasons? That is why genocide happened for nearly three years without intervention."
Competition was stiff in Washington with more than 100 teams from some of the best law schools in the world attending. While the Cambodian team did not get past the first heat, the five team members said they were pleased to attend and had gone to make history, not to win.
The team was only able to participate after a last-minute donation by Prime Minister Hun Sen and an American law firm of US$12,000. Soy Kimsan said before the donation was received the team had spent a lot of their time fundraising instead of on study and preparation.
"I think it is unfair that third world countries have to go up against first world ones," he said. "We are at such a disadvantage - first world countries have full-time paid coaches guiding them. In third world countries we don't have access to all the legal resources and big libraries - even our access to the internet is slow, and sometimes it doesn't work. I think for the first round it should be divided into Third World and First World."
Coming onto that world stage was a wake-up call. We realised how far we have to go.
The team said speaking English as a second language also affected their confidence and fluency, and it was a flaw the judges frequently commented on. "I would say that was our single biggest challenge," said team member Piseth Panha. "And there is no easy way to overcome it."
The team were welcomed warmly by the Cambodian community in Washington, many of whom came to watch them compete. The team said Cambodians they didn't even know turned up to show support and brought home-cooked Khmer food as not all of the team took well to American cuisine.
Some other competitors in the tournament were slow to welcome the Cambodians, and everyone was very surprised to see them there, Soy Kimsan said.
"A lot of people thought Cambodia was essentially still in a war-like state," he said. "They only knew bad things about our country; the alleged corruption at the ECCC [Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia], Vietnam's invasion in 1979 and the Preah Vihear dispute, which people thought was still active. We tried to tell them that Cambodia is in peace now and there's progress - small progress - but still progress. But coming onto that world stage was a wake-up call. We realised how far we have to go."
After the tournament the team travelled around for 10 days and although they greatly enjoyed the experience, none of the team was sufficiently moved to want to live permanently to the US. They were all dedicated to improving the judicial system in Cambodia in their future careers.
"I want to intern in the ECCC and expand my knowledge of international law," Piseth Phana said. "The legal system in Cambodia is not transparent and we need a lot of change."