Henri Dunant prize awarded to competition taking humanitarian law students ‘out of their books’

Christophe Lanord accepting the Henri Dunant prize from one of the Swiss humanitarian’s descendants at the IFRC headquarters, Geneva, 16 December. Co-founder and co-winner Michel Deyra stands to the far right. (Credit: Cherif Hamideche)

The founders of the Jean Pictet Competition, a week-long challenge for international humanitarian law students, were selected as the winners this year’s Henri Dunant Prize. At a ceremony held in Geneva last week, its alumni gave the uninitiated a preview of what it’s like to take part.

It’s 1859. Henri Dunant, the soon-to-be founding father of the Red Cross, has just arrived at a village near Solferino, in Italy, in the aftermath of a bloody battle between Austria and the French-backed Piedmont Sardinian army.

He is there by chance to appeal to Napoleon III on a business matter. But on seeing the thousands of wounded soldiers, Dunant puts his affairs aside and is inspired instead to find ways of helping the injured – eventually starting the world’s largest humanitarian movement.

Dunant and two associates go to meet the French chief of state, Marshal MacMahon and his two aides, to try and persuade him to take necessary measures.

Except – the location is not Italy but closer to home at the IFRC’s headquarters in Geneva on 16 December, where six international humanitarian law experts and students are reenacting this semi-fictitious encounter.

The aim of the theatrical role-playing exercise? To provide a glimpse into the workings of the Jean-Pictet Competition – a prestigious and long-running contest for IHL students – after its co-founders were selected as the winners of this year’s Henri Dunant field prize.

Awarded by the Henri Dunant Foundation, the prize recognises individuals or organisations who have made “significant contributions to the study, spread, and renewal of the ideas” of the Swiss humanitarian.

For this year’s ceremony, the foundation hands over the floor to previous participants to recreate a typical “Jean-Pictet experience”.

The event is moderated by Catarina de Albuquerque, the Portuguese lawyer, human rights activist and former UN special rapporteur to the right to water, who is also part of the tight-knit alumni club after competing 26 years ago.

“It’s Pictet-time!,” she shouts. For the uninitiated – there are a few in the room – this marks the start of a Jean-Pictet challenge.

In keeping with the rules of the competition, each side is given just a few hours to prepare.  Dunant’s team must use all their diplomatic and legal skills to convince the jury led by MacMahon to grant concessions to the wounded.

After a 15-minute debate, Dunant and MacMahon’s teams debrief on how they fared applying humanitarian law in this fictional conflict setting. A tutor and IHL expert takes notes in the wings and assesses their performance. The audience attending the unusual prize-giving ceremony watches on.

‘Taking the law out of the books’. Founded by lawyers Christophe Lanord and Michel Deyra in 1989, the Jean Pictet Competition is a week-long challenge for international humanitarian law students that puts their knowledge to the test by replicating real-life situations in armed conflict.

Held in a different country each year, the contest prepares students for careers in the field through simulations and role-playing. Teams must pit their legal knowledge against one another's and find solutions to problems.

During this year’s edition held in Albania, for example, teams played the role of human rights organisations sent on missions to meet government ministers, military or victims or military, who are played by IHL experts and tutors.

At the end of the week, one of the 47 teams takes home the prize, which this year was awarded to National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Over 4,000 students have taken part since it was first held 33 years ago, including many, like de Albuquerque, that have gone on to hold high-ranking roles in the field of humanitarian law.

Dress rehearsal for real-life careers. “Twenty-four years ago, someone said to me ‘the Pictet competition is theatre’”, said Deyra, accepting his award at the ceremony last Thursday.

“This person was part of those who think that knowledge of the law should be delivered in a magistrate court in front of students watching passively and silently.”

Luckily, his own experience at university showed him the importance of good communication in disseminating knowledge and capturing students’ imagination.

One of his lecturers was Jean Pictet, former secretary jurist at the ICRC who played an important role in the adoption of the four Geneva Conventions in 1949, and who lent his name to the competition.

“So yes, perhaps the Pictet prize is theatre but it is a theatre that is hugely efficient”.

The competition, he added, “takes the law out of the books”, and above all, shows students how Geneva Conventions and the additional protocols are applied in the real-life contexts.

The alumni club. Graduates of the Jean Pictet Competition shared their personal experiences of participating in the competition, paying tribute to the life-long friendships formed during those weeks and the careers it helped to pave the way for.

“It was an unforgettable experience that shaped the rest of my career, ” said Bruno DeMeyer, editor-in-chief of the ICRC International Review, who took part in 2002 as part of a team from KU Leuven university in Belgium.

“I would not be standing here tonight with the professional role that I have without having participated in the Jean Pictet competition.”