Travellers to the Netherlands have long flocked to The Hague.
The city is home to the Dutch government, the cosy Mauritshuis museum
(with its impressive collection of Dutch masters) and perhaps most popular
among visitors, 11km of coastline along the North Sea.
But The Hague is also famous as the International City of Peace and Justice, a
designation that has been built over centuries. It was the last home of
17th-century freedom-loving Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. It was the site
of the world’s First Peace Conference in 1899 (and the second in 1907), out of
which came The Hague Conventions, some of the earliest written declarations of
the laws and customs of war. The Hague is currently home to 131 international
courts, tribunals and organizations dedicated to world peace.
For the history buff or news junkie, The Hague offers a
front-row seat to history in the making, an experience that will stay with you
longer than the tan you would have gotten in the city’s seaside resorts of
Scheveningen and Kijkduin.
International Court of Justice (ICJ)
Also known as the Peace Palace,
the ICJ is Andrew Carnegie’s architectural contribution to world peace,
complete with gold pheasants on the palace’s lawns and a bell tower that has
been known to chime out Elvis and Beatles tunes. Built between 1907 and 1913 by
French architect Louis Cordonnier and funded by the Scottish-born, American
steel baron, the court’s grand neo-Renaissance style features stained-glass
windows, tapestries, gilded chandeliers, a marble staircase and a gorgeous mosaic
Since 1948, the Peace Palace has been the seat of the United Nations’ highest
legal authority, the place where nations sue nations. Although the hearings are
few and far between (and conducted in high legalese), they are open to the
public. Visitors are also welcome to stroll through the well-manicured,
English-style seven hectares of parkland, and into the Peace Palace Library,
one of the world’s most extensive in international law. Guided tours of both
the Peace Palace and its museum -- where
you will find more information about the Peace Palace’s other inhabitant, the
Permanent Court of Arbitration -- are available.
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)
From the Peace Palace, head up the wooded avenue known as the
Scheveningseweg (it is a lovely bike ride) until it intersects with
Churchillplein. On the left you will see the curved taupe contours of the ICTY, and if it is a busy news day, you will
also find satellite vans parked outside.
Formerly housing an insurance company, the building now contains three
courtrooms where those believed to be most responsible for the 1990s’ wars in
the Balkans are currently being held to account. The hearings are open to the
public. While the trial of the former military leader of the Bosnian Serbs and
tribunal star suspect Ratko Mladic has not started yet, his political boss,
Radovan Karadzic, is currently on trial in courtroom one. Check the Tribunal’s website for weekly court
ICTY paraphernalia for sale (including
ICTY-emblazoned teddy bears, mugs, rompers and a Swiss army knife) is
on display in the lobby’s gift case. There are also free postcards for the taking.
After one afternoon in court, you will have something to write home about.
ICTY Detention Unit
Find your way to the Pompstationsweg road in nearby Scheveningen and ride
by the fort-like detention unit that houses not only Mladic, Karadzic and other
suspects of Balkan war crimes but also high-profile defendants from other
Hague-based courts, including Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, former rebel leader from
the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and former Liberian President Charles
Taylor (tried in an outpost of Freetown’s Special Court for Sierra Leone, based
in The Hague to prevent unrest at home).
In the 1940s, the prison was used by the occupying Nazis to
hold members of the Dutch Resistance. It is off limits to tourists, but as you
are cycling by, marvel at the multi-ethnic success story that the prison
embodies: one war crimes suspect told me that with Serbs, Croats and Bosnians
celebrating holidays together, playing football and cooking communal meals
inside, it is the only place where the Dayton Peace Accords (signed in 1995 to
end the war in Bosnia) actually work.
Dunes of Scheveningen
If you continue on bike down the Pompstationweg, past the
prison, it is a short and straight shot into the scenic dunes
of Scheveningen, home to 250 different species of birds and other wildlife.
These rolling, beachy hills are also some of the only knolls in the country and
best explored by bike. Follow the Noordzee Route, past the Pompstation (pump station), and if you
eventually veer left you will climb a hill with a breathtaking view of the
North Sea. The vista is dotted with German bunkers from World War II. Head down
the steps and stop at the café at the bottom, or take a well-deserved dive into
For those whose desire to be an eyewitness to history is
still unsated, you can hop a local train to Voorburg to visit the International Criminal Court, the
world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal where several cases are currently
being heard. Or in Leidschendam, the Special
Tribunal for Lebanon has been established to try those allegedly
responsible for the 2005 Beirut attack that killed former Lebanese Prime
Minister Rafiq Hariri and 21 others. This court is open to the public, but
there are no trials as of yet.
Save the dates
If you are travelling to The Hague in September, mark your calendar for the
Hague International Day, and the 21st, the United Nations’ International Day
Most of the courts listed above (and groups such as the
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the EU’s criminal
intelligence agency Europol and even some embassies) will open their usually
closed doors to the public on The Hague International Day, with prosecutors,
judges and court officials available for questions. There will also be a an
international fair at the World Forum across from the ICTY that same day, with
representatives of the various courts and peace organizations on site and ready
to explain what they do and why.
For the more globally focused Day of Peace on 21 September,
some 1,500 young students will stage the fourth annual Peace Walk through the
City of Peace and Justice. While you may not qualify for that event, the
concert by Moroccan-Dutch rapper Ali B later in the morning in The Hague’s
largest square is open to the public.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the ICTY paraphernalia was not available for purchase. The story has been corrected.