Judging the Jessup in Afghanistan

Stories about Afghanistan are often told in large set pieces about war, violence and regional history. And, in fact, those stories are critical to understanding the region, the country and the life that people live. But I am attracted to the small stories, the details that can easily be missed.

One such story was my recent experience as a judge in Afghanistan's Jessup Moot Court competition, which was held over several days in January. By way of background, the Jessup is the world's largest moot court competition, with participants from over 500 law schools in 80 countries. In this competition, teams of up to five participants argue fictional cases before the International Court of Justice. The questions of law this year -- existence of states without defined territory, treatment and proposed transfer of refugees and seizure of state funds -- were complex and nuanced. Teams from eight Afghan universities (not necessarily law schools) participated in the competition held in Kabul, and the winning team advanced to the international rounds which will be held in Washington, D.C. later this spring.

I will admit that I love the courtroom, and that first as a law student and then as a lawyer, I watch litigants like many people watch sports teams. And so, I was happy to spend my day off for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as presiding judge for one of the qualifying rounds. All of the participants before my court argued these complex matters, both in writing and orally, in English, a language that is not their native one. Some were better than others (obviously) but they all did something I am not sure I could ever do: used very complex facts and legal theories and made a case in a language that is not the one I grew up speaking. My two fellow judges (one American, one Afghan) and I asked hard questions, kept strict timing and pushed them when we didn't think they had responded to us. As a lawyer, I was more than impressed. Neither of the teams I judged advanced to the Afghan final round, which was held at the Afghan Supreme Court. The two final teams were very closely matched, and I would have had a hard time picking a winner. But the judges did, and the team from Herat University will represent Afghanistan in the next round of international competition.

The commitment of all of the participants was tremendous, and reminded me that the law can bridge many worlds and many places and, in its own way, bring people together across the globe. The participants also provided a sharp contrast to the stories of using violence to resolve conflict, instead using words and the rule of law.

Stephenie Foster is the Women and Civil Society Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.