The Netherlands city known for tribunals on international war crimes, lets visitors eyewitness history

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 tiled bathroom.
 
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 schedules.

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 the sea.

And beyond
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 18th, The Hague International Day, and the 21st, the United Nations’ International Day of Peace.

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.