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Travelling to Minsk for MITSO 2018

Austin Young represented both LSBU and the United Kingdom

The week of 24 September I was honoured with the opportunity to represent London South Bank University, and the United Kingdom at the MITSO ‘Youth for Peace’ international law competition in Minsk Belarus along with Louise Smith. In the lead up to the competition, nothing could have prepared me for what an amazing cultural and educational experience I was in for.

Our arrival in Minsk

We arrived on Sunday 23 of September and were met at the Minsk National Airport by two volunteers from MITSO along with two students from Finland who were also taking part in the competition. From here we were taken to the Sanatorium ‘Krynitsa’ just outside of Minsk, which was to be home for the next six days. Though the buildings were dated, one couldn’t ask for more beautiful scenery. It was in the woods and right on a lake that our hosts jokingly called the Belarusian Sea.

We immediately began building diplomatic relations by inviting the Finnish delegation to have a drink with us in the bar at the sanatorium. This was easier said than done, as all signs that could direct us to the bar were in Russian, in which the only word I knew was nas drovia, and that wouldn’t serve any purpose until we found the bar. After this, we ate dinner and had a relatively early night, as the following day would be packed with lectures from eminent professors and experts in the field.

Our first lecture was by Michael Strauss PhD from Paris Descartes University. He spoke on the theoretical, but frighteningly relevant, concept of a hostile occupation of sovereign territory by means of privatisation of national industry. After hearing this lecture, I knew I was in for a fantastic day if the others were going to be as interesting as the first.

During the day we also heard from Lionel Blackman from London South Bank University on freedom of expression and surveillance, and from Professor David Turns on chemical weapons and the legality of use of force in various circumstances with examples such as the recent air strikes in Syria. By the end of these lectures, I was absolutely exhausted, but can honestly say that I have rarely had a more interesting day!

Meeting our competition

Once the lectures were done and we were all buzzing about the concepts that we had been exposed to, we returned to the Sanatorium for dinner and an ice breaker party. This was where we were introduced to all the teams participating in the competition. Represented, were 16 teams from 11 countries, from Turkey to Poland and Kazakhstan, to Finland, China and beyond.

At this party, all the participants gave a short presentation introducing their teams, their university, and their country. We were introduced to so many cultures in the couple of hours that the party lasted. Most of the teams brought food or drink from their countries to share. The bit that has stuck with me the most was one of the delegates from China who sang for us the most beautiful song that is supposed to bring good fortune and peace.

The competition material

After the party, we were assigned our opponents for the first round the following day and given the papers for the simulation. The entire competition centred around two countries that didn’t get on very well. The Federal Republic of Wundergrounds and the Kingdom of Carrollland. (The theme was based on Alice in Wonderland.) Back in the 1980’s, Carrollland had committed a massacre against the ethnic minority group known as the Gryphonians. As a result of this massacre, the United Nations Security Council had imposed a no fly zone within 100km from the border on the Carrolllandian side.

With the death of King Pat II, and the ascension of Queen Alice to the throne, the attitude toward the Gryphonian people had improved, but was still strained. In 2014, a private corporation based in Wondergrounds, planned to launch hundreds of small communications satellites into geostationary orbit and this sparked something of a space race between the two countries. The no fly zone was violated and several air strikes had occurred.

Our task was to act as ambassadors to the countries at regional multinational organisation meetings and at UN Security Council meetings, both to defend the actions of our country and to try to find diplomatic and non-violent ways to settle the disputes.

We stayed up late that night, going over the papers, researching all the relevant treaties and statutes and in general preparing for the following day. This was made particularly difficult by the fact that we didn’t know which side we were on yet or what the specific topic of debate would be. We needed to be prepared for anything.

Time to compete

An hour and a half before the round we were informed what the task would be, but not which side we were on. This was to be announced 30 minutes before the round. The benefit of not knowing which side we were on, was that it required us to think about the problem from both perspectives and we were better prepared to anticipate the arguments of our opposition. In this round, we were at a meeting of the regional Organization MADTEA regarding the no fly zone and an incursion into this area by the Kingdom of Carrollland. Wondergrounds was requesting sanctions for the breach of the no fly zone, and Carrollland was requesting that the no fly zone should be lifted due to the change in attitude toward the Gryphonian People.

Half an hour before the round, we were assigned to be on the side of the Kingdom of Carrollland. We were then able to fine tune our submissions and start to combat the pre-moot nerves. Overall, I was very happy with our performance. We clearly got our point across and were able to effectively use international law such as the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Charter to underlines and support our arguments.

The global horror of war

After the round, we were taken by bus to the Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Though I have been to museums about the Second World War before, this was completely different. In the West, we have a tendency to only look at the war from the perspective of the Americans, or British, or French, or German. We tend to forget that the USSR participated and we never look at the war from their perspective. We don’t think about the Soviet soldier she and civilian students who were killed. This museum reinforced in my mind, the global nature and global horror of the war. Seeing the exhibitions also reinforced the need for International Humanitarian Law, so as to avoid such widespread and wanton suffering ever again.

We were also treated to a bus tour of Minsk, seeing sights such as the KGB headquarters in Minsk, the Island of Tears among other notable scenes.

Round two

The second round was based on the same scenario, but we were provided with additional papers detailing developments in the relationship between the two countries. The new information informed us that the Federal Republic of Wondergrounds had conducted an air strike on a research centre in Carrollland within the area of the no fly zone claiming that it was a legitimate act of self-defence following the Carrolllandian incursion into the no fly zone. Following the strike on the facility, a satellite belonging to Carrollland change said course and hit one belongings to Wondergrounds. Wondergrounds was claiming that this was a deliberate act of aggression while Carrollland maintained that it was an accident caused by loss of operations control infrastructure due to the strike on the research centre.

Again, we were to represent one side or the other at a meeting of the UN Security Council. We were provided our side half an hour before and finished preparing. This meeting was different. Not only did we defend the position of the country, but we were also require do to conduct diplomatically negotiations to try to avoid armed conflict or the Security Council finding a threat to peace and security in the region. I found this round particularly interesting as it required me to research a treaty that I hadn’t even heard of before. The Convention on Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.

After dinner, we were gathered together to hear the semi-finalists announced. Unfortunately, at this stage we were knocked out of the competition. Later, we were told by several of the judges that it was by the thinnest of margins that we didn’t make it through. Though it was a disappointment that we were unsuccessful, I truly couldn’t be happier with our performance. We were against students from some of the best law schools in their respective countries and many of them had already studied International Law in their courses. Considering this, to have missed the semis on ‘the thinnest of margins’ is not too disappointing.

The semi-finals

Next was the semi-finals. I observed the team from Istanbul, Turkey against the team from Ural State University in Russia. Though both showed a valiant effort, there was a clear winner and Ural State progressed to the finals. Louise observed the matchup of MGIMO University from Russia against MITSO from Belarus. Again, though both were excellent, the clear winner was MGIMO.

Finally we got to the day of the final round, which was held in the event hall where the opening ceremony was. It was a hard fought battle between the two Russian teams with both sides giving a fantastic performance. Following the round there was a break before the winners were announced and the closing ceremony. The winners of the whole thing were MGIMO University, and I was honoured to have been named the ‘Best Speaker’ of the week.

Finally, we were taken to the Belarusian Trade Unions Museum and the Minsk Museum of Miniatures and capped the week off with a BBQ where we were able to eat, drink, and socialise with the other teams. This was one of the greatest experiences and I made some friends that I’m sure will be friends for life.