A Ghent University team composed of Wout Platteau, Mariam Vandenberghe, Nel De Backer and Iris Vanheule, under the supervision of Prof Yves Haeck and coaches Hanne Ollevier, Aurélie Van Baelen and Martijn Vermeersch, has participated for the eleventh year in the prestigious Inter-American Human Rights Moot Court Competition against teams representing universities worldwide. After the competition took place virtually for the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the first year the students and their coaches were able to travel to Washington D.C. to address the highly topical issue of ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: Impacts, Responsibilities and Opportunities’.
I. The Inter-American Human Rights Moot Court Competition
The Inter-American Moot Court Competition is a unique trilingual (English, Portuguese, and Spanish) international pleading competition organised by the Washington College of Law (Washington D.C.) to train law students on how to use the Inter-American human rights legal system as a legitimate forum for redressing human rights violations. Since its inception in 1995, it has trained over 4800 students and faculty participants from over 360 universities from the Americas and beyond. Written on a cutting-edge topic currently debated within the Inter-American system, the hypothetical case operates as the basis of the competition, and students argue the admissibility and merits of the case by writing legal memoranda and preparing oral arguments for presentation in front of human rights experts acting as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
II. Competition 2022: Transboundary climate change impact in Iraca and the United States of Chaco
Dealing with Climate Change and Human Rights this year’s hypothetical case situates itself in Iraca and the United States of Chaco (USC), two fictional Republics in the Americas. Both countries have relied heavily on extractive activities since the 1970s. When scientific research demonstrated the disastrous impacts of burning oil on the climate, the states and the companies involved decided to keep this information hidden from the public.
However, from the mid-1980s onwards inhabitants around coal and oil plants (Murujuy and Colibritón) informed the authorities about a decline in the water quality in the areas, reporting that it had a metallic taste and smell. Also, they complained about an increase in physical discomforts such as headaches, fever, abdominal pain, and breathing problems due to air pollution. Furthermore, they disclosed that crop yields declined significantly. The authorities dismissed all complaints. In the following years, the situation further deteriorated. Inhabitants, mainly children, and adolescents started to experience severe health problems such as tracheal, bronchial, and lung tumors at rates not seen elsewhere. All of this was linked to the proximity of coal and oil plants. The already dire living circumstances of the inhabitants worsened when tropical storms and floods alternated with intense droughts started affecting both states on a yearly basis.
While both Iraca and the USC were well aware of the circumstances in the affected regions, their mitigation measures were meager to non-existent. In the meantime, a media oligopoly was created to control all climate-related information that was disseminated to the public. People with differing views were dismissed.
Convinced of the violation of several of the inhabitants’ fundamental rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), an individual petition is filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which following issuing its report, refers the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The team members, representing 600 inhabitants of Murujuy and Colibritón, argued the merits of the hypothetical case for a panel of five to seven international judges.
III. Washington D.C.
After a year of preparing themselves for the moot court competition, during which the students were immersed in the Inter-American Human Rights system through a master class by Prof Clara Burbano Herrera, climate change litigation by Prof Hendrik Schoukens, and the art of pleading by means of weekly mock trials, the team was ready to depart to Washington D.C. In the ambit of combining business with pleasure, the students first enjoyed a weekend in New York City, before heading towards Washington D.C. to register their team and to get started with the actual competition. To be able to get the full experience and socialize with the other teams, the students stayed at the dorms of Washington College of Law.
During the first three days of the competition, the UGhent team was scheduled to plead twice during the preliminary rounds; first against the English-speaking team from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, second against the Spanish-speaking team for the Universidad Diego Portales Facultad de Derecho, Chile. Both times, the oralists brought their arguments excellently and did not lose their cool when the judges fired question after question at them. At the end of a nerve-wracking afternoon, after their second round of pleadings, the team received the ‘liberating’ news that they were one of the ten teams that would proceed to the semi-finals. The teams were all evaluated on both their pleading style as well as the content of their arguments and their knowledge of both the Inter-American legal system and International Human Rights law as a whole, next to Public International Law.
Already, we, as coaches, could not have been more proud. Indeed, making it to the semi-finals in the Inter-American Human Rights Moot Court Competition as a European team should be regarded as a victory in itself. Especially since the students are competing against teams who plead in their native language and who are highly familiar with their own regional human rights system.
In the semi-finals, the UGhent team faced the Spanish-speaking team from Universidad Panamericana Campus Aguascalientes, Mexico, who represented the States. Again, both oralists put in a magnificent performance.
The coaches were not the only ones who deemed the students’ track record during the competition to be flawless. Not only did the team win the prize for ‘best memorial in English’, Wout and Mariam received the prize for best, respectively second-best oralist in English. On top of that, the team was continuously congratulated for their strong performance and excellent knowledge of the Inter-American Human Rights system. A system they were not familiar with prior to starting the course at the beginning of the academic year. The organizers were impressed to such an extent that promises had to be made to come back and bring other ‘equally excellent’ Belgian or European teams.
At the end of an intense week, which the students referred to as being ‘a rollercoaster’, the team, enriched by this cross-cultural experience, was ready to head back to Ghent.
"This entire year was filled with incredibly intensive coaching on the writing and speaking fronts. The individual feedback really helped all of us push through to a level we didn’t really know we could achieve! The cherry on top was being able to go to Washington D.C. after much uncertainty, and we will always remember the joy we felt when our team was the last team announced to move on to the semi-finals." (UGhent team '21-'22)
On a final note, the team, supervisor and coaches wish to thank former Inter-American Moot Court coaches Andy Van Pachtenbeke (Deputy Permanent Belgian Delegate to UNESCO, Paris) and Genaro Manrique Giacoman (Human Rights Centre, Ghent University), as well as former participants Ruth Delbaere (Avaaz) and Zuzanna Gulczyńska (Ghent European Law Institute, Ghent University), and last but not least Walter Van Steenbrugge (Human Rights Lawyer), Prof. Clara Burbano Herrera (Human Rights in Context, Ghent University), Juan Pablo Paniego (Permanent Delegation of Argentina to UNESCO, Paris) and Asoid García-Márquez (UNESCO, Paris) for their valuable feedback during the oral practice sessions and the dress rehearsal.
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