How Jessup taught me a new language to tackle today’s biggest issues

By Navin Raj '21

Preparing for the Jessup International Law Moot Court competition was like learning a new instrument to perform before a live audience in just six months. The competition required an enormous amount of time, patience, organization, teamwork, writing, reading, and on-the-spot thinking, but the moment the oral argument at the 2020 competition ended, I found myself desperate to stand up and perform five — no, ten, more times. Advocating for a country before an international tribunal requires the same critical thinking and reasoning as other areas of the law, but with the added challenge of fashioning an argument inside the unique language of international law, where nothing is set-in-stone and practice differs from paper.

Navin Raj ’21

Instead of answering judges with the holdings of Supreme Court and Circuit Court decisions, as I have been taught throughout most of my legal education, I found myself digging through the historical debates of international legal scholars, and citing long-forgotten treaties between distant-empires. The 2020 competition lasted just a few hours, but was the culmination of a year of international law training and study under the guidance of Rutgers Law School’s many human rights and international law experts. 

The beauty of international law at Rutgers, as well as the challenge, is its connection to current events. No set of classes that I have taken, nor competition, in law school has grappled with contemporary issues the way the international law courses have. Where other competitions deal with trials for assault and other criminal acts, the 2020 Jessup competition asked competitors to consider how the law deals with national borders and autonomous weapons. Where other courses require the memorization and application of decades-old precedent, international law courses grapple with bleeding-edge issues like State responsibility for climate change and the legality of killing generals of foreign nations. Especially in this era where international law and human rights find themselves challenged, every class period has brought about rich discussions, which, as a student, makes me feel that I am in a position to shape the future of the law itself. Furthermore, I have had few experiences as thrilling as standing up before a panel of strangers with the knowledge that you shoulder the hopes and future of an entire country (even a fictional one). The Jessup competition draws from real events going on in the world, and the issues take on a new light when you consider that actual countries are grappling with the issues you are arguing. At the start of the competition, the “State of Adawa” (one of the fictional countries in the 2020 competition problem) was merely a name; however, the more time I spent reviewing the history of the country, and reading about the lives of real people who face these border and trade disputes every day, I became a passionate advocate for my “country” and its people. It is no overstatement to say that the competition dealt with matters of life and death.

As a person who grew up between two cultures, one Western and one Eastern, international law has offered a path to look beyond just the American approach to the law, and consider the perspective of the world. I have been able to learn more about international law at Rutgers thanks to the diverse array of students and teachers attracted to the study, each of whom brings a new perspective to the classroom discussion. The founding leadership of the Rutgers International Law and Human Rights Journal was comprised of students with cultural backgrounds from almost every continent. My human rights seminar brought the perspective of students who were activists for women’s issues, immigrant rights, and Palestinian independence. The Jessup team is comprised of active-duty and retired U.S. military members, as well as students who speak multiple different languages. Rutgers’ international law faculty has brought cases before regional human rights courts, represented victims of torture against their powerful State abusers, and advocated for greater corporate responsibility for the human rights of its workers. I have heard presentations from United Nations human rights officials and prominent African judges. At the Jessup competition, I was able to receive critique from judges who serve as legal advisors to the governments of Israel and the U.A.E., as well as judges who served as clerks to the International Court of Justice. If you truly want to understand how global and far-reaching the study of the law can be, exposing oneself to international law is the key. 

The challenge, then, with international law being so contemporary and far-reaching is in finding ways to advocate for a particular perspective when interpretations are not set-in-stone. And this is why the Jessup competition pushed my advocacy skills to the edge. Early on in my international law education, I learned that there are no international legislatures that pass binding international laws. There are no international Supreme Courts that set legal precedent that all States must follow in all circumstances. As a layman, I knew what treaties were; however, the concepts of ratifications and reservations to treaties were new. A skill I developed during the competition was how to find the sources of law that exist elsewhere, and utilize the common “language” of international law to make it apply in the unique competition circumstances. This called upon extensive research skills, the ability to understand the types of international law, as well as persuasive advocacy abilities that could make the Court understand foreign concepts. 

When I first came to Rutgers Law, I was interested in international affairs from the perspective of environmental activism. However, I did not fully understand how to go from identifying the problem to implementing solutions. It is thanks to my experience in international law courses and the Jessup team that I can now speak about the ways States can approach the issues of water rights, climate change, energy, and conservation as a matter of law. Because of how rapidly international law changes, especially in an era of pandemics and racial tensions, I look forward to continuing my studies of international law to better understand its sources, and to sharpen my advocacy skills for the issues that matter most to me.