Brilliant Trade Law Initiative By Students For Students

It’s a brilliant, annual initiative by law students for law students, and it is incredibly tough and challenging.

ELSA, headquartered in Belgium, is the world’s largest independent law students’ association, with 50 000 members in 43 European countries. The ELSA Board, which comprises 8 members, are all students who suspend their studies for a year, to dedicate themselves full-time to meet their ELSA responsibilities.

Three of the African teams going to Geneva are from Kenya (the Kenyan School of Law, Strathmore University and Kabarak University) and one of the teams is from Wits University, South Africa. They rank amongst the top 20 teams from all over the world who competed in the regional rounds to make it to the finals.

Their entire trip to Geneva is paid for out of sponsorships raised locally and internationally.

The aim of this high-level competition is to simulate World Trade Organisation (WTO) panel proceedings, in order to develop the students’ technical capacity in trade negotiations, knowledge of international trade law and WTO dispute settlement procedures. The long-term aim is to enhance the future capacity for meaningful global engagement in multilateral trade.

“Africa has been notably under-represented from dispute settlement at the WTO and that’s largely because we don’t have the capacity. So what this competition does is it builds an awareness of the importance of this area of law,” says Vicky Heideman who lectures in international trade and commercial law at Rhodes University, and is the African regional round organiser for 2016 and 2017.

Serving as a judging panelist alongside WTO professionals and trade law experts in the final regional round for Africa, which took place at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, from the 10th -12th April this year was a wonderful experience for me as it confirmed the calibre of students from Africa and their ability to shine and hold their own.

Globally, six regional rounds were held in Europe, the East and South Asia-Pacific, Colombia and Africa.

Two of the ELSA Board members were in Grahamstown, their President, Robert Vierling, and Vice-President for Moot Court Competitions, Christine Beck, who ran the event. Chatting to these two young people, I was struck by their clear sense of justice and human rights commitment to making the world a better place. The enthusiasm and passion for what ELSA does is palpable.

The way the moot competition works, is one team is the complainant and the other the respondent. Each team has 45 minutes to argue their case, followed by a 5-minute rebuttal from the complainant) and a 5-minute surrebuttal from the respondent.

This year’s panel proceedings focused on a dispute between two countries that are part of a Free Trade Agreement, and it concerned the rights and obligation of WTO members when part of a Regional Trade Agreement.

The panel peppers them with questions to test the depth of their knowledge of trade law, relevant cases, procedures, rapid-fire thinking ability, presentation skills and confidence. The development and learning in all the students when confronted with a simulation that is very close to the real thing, was incredible.

This is the fourth year that Africa has competed in the ELSA-organised competition, and the growth in the number and ability of the African teams has been incredible. In 2015, eight teams from Africa competed, in 2016, ten teams and this year a record number of 15 teams from universities in Ethiopia (1), Kenya (7), Lesotho (1), Liberia (1), South Africa (2), Tanzania (2), and Uganda (1).

Heideman and Advocate Shuaib Rahim, a senior law lecturer at Rhodes, are amongst the driving forces in Africa’s participation, notably including their Wits and Kenyan university colleagues. As they explain, the results pay off hugely, both in terms of the students’ skills and academic development and the postgraduate studies- and career opportunities the competition offers, at international law schools, the WTO and the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) in Geneva.

In 2016, Nkosazana Dweba from Rhodes was the winner of the 2016 Best Orator Prize in both the preliminary and final rounds of the African regional rounds. She was awarded a full bursary to pursue her LLM in international economic law at the University of Barcelona, Spain in 2017. As is characteristic of this competition, she believes in giving back and she coached the 2017 Rhodes University team.

Also in 2016 the team from the Kenyan School of Law won an international prize for the best respondents’ submission at the final oral round of the competition. Two of these students are currently pursuing an LLM in International Economic Law and Policy at the University of Barcelona, Spain, for which they received scholarships.

More than ten of the participants in the African regional rounds have pursued, or are pursuing further studies in the field of international economic law at the University of Barcelona or the World Trade Institute in Bern, Switzerland.

What totally impressed me is the dedication and commitment of the competing students. They all came incredibly well prepared and wanting to do their best. One hopes that these kinds of initiative can grow, and that we can create an ELSA model in Africa to transform how we transfer knowledge and how we can work together to improve trade and trade negotiations in Africa, which is inestimably important.

This article appeared in Leadership Edition 381, May 2017. It is reproduced with their permission.

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