Peace Palace – The Hague

The clock tower of the Peace Palace is an integral part of The Hague skyline and almost impossible to miss.

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Yet it lies behind an ornate tall black steel and brick fence, inaccessible to the world it is mandated to serve. Outside and across the street protests occasionally gather to voice opinions on worldly injustices perpetrated across the globe. But far away across the lush fairway green grass and manicured bushes the voices of protest are not likely to be heard as the proceedings are by the book (of international law) and not public opinion.

The law of the land
It all began in 1899 when Tsar Nicolas II of Russia initiated The Hague Peace conference “with the object of seeking the most objective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace, and above all, of limiting the progressive development of existing armaments.” However as noble as these lofty goals were it is said that the ulterior motive was to save Russia from financial ruin in an arms race with the West. The outcome of the conference and it’s follow up in 1907 became the foundation for the two world serving judiciary bodies occupying the Peace Palace for the last century.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ)
This is the better known of the two courts and is as the highest judicial body of the UN tasked with settling legal disputes between its member states. The court’s full bench consists of 15 judges elected based on proposed candidates in a scheme similar to the UN Security Council. Therefore it might also be inherently inhibited to hear cases against any of the veto wielding P5 members (USA, Russia, UK, France and China.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA)
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) is an intragovernmental organisation set up as it was recognized that arbitration is the “most effective, and at the same time the most equitable, means of settling disputes which diplomacy has failed to settle”. Of the UN’s 193 member nations 121 has acceded to the 1899 and/or 1907 treaties. The majority of those who have not are in Africa, Central Asia (former Soviet Republics), SE Asia and Syria.

It is expected that the member nations recognize and accept the courts arbitration and as a sign thereof their workload have increased in later years. Ironically as the initiative was Russian it appears at a quick glance of the courts current case load that Russia often “does not recognize the jurisdiction of an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in settlement of the abovementioned claims.”

The Palace
The American diplomat Andrew Dickson White who had negotiated the treaty with the Russians in 1899 felt the need for an “outward and visible sign” of the Court and hence pitched it to his friend steel magnate Andrew Carnegie on 5 August 1902 as “a temple of peace where the doors are open (….) for the peaceful settlement of differences between peoples”.

The pitch convinced Carnegie to put up the 1.5 million USD (in today’s value over 40 million USD) to finance the building. Initially Carnegie wanted to donate the money to the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina to build the palace but legalities prevented the arrangement and the Carnegie Foundation was formed to administer the building which they still do.

Brick by brick
French architect Louis M. Cordonnier won the design competition with his Neo-Renaissance style palace and the first stone was laid at the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907. The somewhat lopsided monument to big dreams and aspirations of world peace was inaugurated on 28 August 1913 after two of the original four towers had been scrapped by cost restraints. Sadly the utopia of world peace did not materialize in the short term. Within a year World War I broke out and the weapons specifically prohibited in the 1899 convention including projectiles or explosives launched from balloons, “or by other new methods of a similar nature” and projectiles with “the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases” were deployed on the battlefields of Europe.

In public view
White had said to Carnegie in his pitch “Were such a fabric to be created, men would make pilgrimages from all parts of the civilized world to see it.”
This he got right as today busloads of tourists from all over the world stop by to get a glimpse of the landmark which is the best known symbol of The Hague the “city of peace and justice”. Contradictorily the “temple of peace where the doors are open” is not easy to see from the inside as access it is limited to employees or invited guests. Therefore the grand halls and the court rooms often stand empty and unseen as do some of the lavish and large decorations gifted by nations at the Second Hague Peace Conference.

Casual visitors will have to make do with the new visitor center where the history of the court and building is shared in a multilingual video program. For those with green fingers garden tours are offered (in Dutch only) whilst the actual Peace Palace remain open only for a selected few perhaps a sign that mankind still have ways to go to an open society.


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