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Tue 11 Aug 20
As news of the COVID-19 pandemic spread, Serhii, Isabela and James were in Bali, Indonesia, taking part in a prestigious law competition. How did they get on, so far from Essex and at such a challenging time?
“I think, any other year, we'd have happily stayed in Bali for a couple of months and written our dissertations.”
Shortly after arriving at Essex to study International Humanitarian Law (IHL), Serhii Ishynov, Isabela Pirlogea and James Henderson were selected to compete in the Concours Jean-Pictet, the most prestigious IHL competition in the world.
The 2020 competition, they discovered, was to be held “to our good fortune” in Bali, Indonesia.
Success at Pictet requires an in-depth understanding of IHL. An intense, three-month training period began, with the Essex team supported by academics and PhD students from across the School of Law and Human Rights Centre.
As they were preparing to leave for Bali, however, the global impact of COVID-19 was becoming clear.
James: "If the competition had started even days later, it would probably have been cancelled."
Serhii: "There were 40 teams due to compete, but not all of them arrived, so I’d say there were between 100 and 120 people taking part."
Pictet asks competitors to apply their understanding to real-life scenarios, using role play.
James: "International Humanitarian Law is a field of law dealing with huge abuses and crimes. Pictet is a serious competition, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
"The role play makes it far less serious. You could be an armed group, representatives of the United Nations, representatives of a government. There’s a whole spectrum of different roles you can play and you have to adjust your position.
"We talked a bit about the news we were hearing,” James adds, “but the organisers were keen that we had fun as well.
"I think every continent except Antarctica was represented in some way. We made friends with people from different cultures, people that we would never have met without this unique and great experience.”
The Essex team eventually made it to the final, alongside New York University, The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and the eventual winners, the National University of Singapore.
Serhii, Isabela and James are rightfully proud of their achievements: "We had an amazing time and would not have changed it for the world. The time in Bali was certainly the best week of our educational lives."
With the competition over, the team were able to briefly explore the surrounding area, but travel restrictions led them to cut short their stay in Indonesia.
James returned to his family in Essex. Serhii and Isabela had different experiences.
Serhii: "Two days after returning from Bali, I got on the last plane to Ukraine from the UK, specially organised for Ukrainian nationals by the embassy - the regular flight connection was already closed."
Isabela, however, "wanted a little bit of peace, so I chose not to go home (to Romania) and stayed on campus. I stayed on campus from March until two weeks ago."
The group say: "In terms of Pictet, we had little idea what to expect from the competition, so the support we received from the various members of department was much appreciated."
"We were also put in touch with former Essex Pictetists. As part of our preparation, we had to develop our own Pictet Binders, which contained the sum of our own knowledge and that of previous Essex Pictetists. This knowledge was developed over years of participation and in many ways is a unique source of IHL. We have used that knowledge and are proud to have added to it.
"In terms of Bali, the opportunity to talk to the organisers, and to network, was useful in a more practical sense. That opportunity gave us ideas on how to get into International Humanitarian Law."
All have been fortunate to stay healthy and are now looking ahead.
Serhii has returned to his role at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Ukraine. Isabela and James are currently seeking traineeships - Isabela in disarmament; James, possibly, with an NGO.
His experiences in Bali haven’t put him off travel: "We had an amazing time and would not have changed it for the world. It was certainly the best week of our educational lives.
"Looking ahead, I would like to see some of the world and try and do some good in it."