Budget cuts and a landmark trial turn spotlight on the world’s ‘legal capital’

Kenyan president’s case crucial to The Hague’s reputation

There has to be a certain irony in the fact that work is underway on a grand new €190 million, 55,000sq m permanent headquarters for the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague – just as the most important case in its history teeters on the brink of collapse.

The ultra-secure campus, which its architects say will “convey hope, trust and faith in justice”, is due to be finished by mid-2015, by when it should be clear whether the all-important case against the president of Kenya has gone ahead or has run into the sand, taking the ICC’s reputation with it. But the irony is not confined to the 12-year-old court’s dispensing of international justice. The ICC itself has no money, literally. It is just 18 months since the Dutch government stepped in and averted a crisis by agreeing to pay the rent on its current iconic lodgings, known as The Arc, for three years.

That is because the Assembly of States Parties (ASP), the court’s umbrella body made up of 122 states, was placed in the embarrassing position of having to admit that its members were increasingly “reluctant” to pay their share because of the drain of the global financial crisis.

As concern grew, Dutch foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, pledged to subsidise the court to the tune of €3 million a year, up to a maximum of €9 million, to get it to the point where it is ready to move to its new premises at the Alexanderkazerne, a sprawling former army barracks in the suburb of Scheveningen.


Apart from having its rent paid in the interim, the other good news for the ICC is that this prime site has been provided free of charge – again by the generous Dutch taxpayer. The complex is just a stone’s throw from Scheveningen prison – popularly known as The Hague Hilton – which houses the UN Detention Unit, used not just by the ICC but also by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

It has held defendants such as the late Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor, the first former head of state to be convicted by an international court since the Nuremberg Trials. Current inmates include former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and his then military ally, Gen Ratko Mladic.

"Keeping the court and the jail close to one another has considerable security and cost advantages," one Dutch lawyer and academic told The Irish Times. "It's more efficient for everyone."

However, there is a strategy to the generosity of the Dutch. With some justification, they have been actively promoting The Hague and its “international zone” as “the legal capital of the world” – a description first used about it by former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. It is not actually the ICC but the low-key International Court of Justice (ICJ) that is the main judicial organ of the UN, and its headquarters has been located here since 1946, when it replaced the Permanent Court of International Justice in the same building, the neo-Renaissance Peace Palace. Since then, the ICJ has been joined by the ICC, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the ICTY, the Sierra Leone court, and most likely next year (as we reported recently) by a new EU-funded court to try crimes allegedly committed by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian rebels during their war with Serbia in 1998 and 1999. These courts, with their international panels of judges, their teams of lawyers, and their thousands of administrative staff, have inevitably attracted a plethora of associated UN and international organisations, NGOs, and lobbyists – many of whom are also significant employers – in additional to the usual diplomatic corps based here.

Simply having the logistics and the security to support these courts has also attracted non-legal organisations, such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Europol, and the International Centre for Counter-terrorism.

So to “justice” in The Hague’s international brand has been added “security”.

A key development was the opening in February of the Hague Security Delta, a cluster of some 400 very private companies working in cyber security, national security, forensics, and protection of critical infrastructure – between them employing 13,400 people and turning over a healthy total of €1.7 billion a year.

As a consequence, in a small city of not much more than 500,000 people, some 15 per cent of the population now comprises “internationals” of one sort or another, usually well paid expats who contribute substantially to the local economy.

In some areas of the city, special diplomatic surveillance units are more in evidence than the police.

The ultra-modern new ICC headquarters, when it opens next year, will be the crowning glory of that lucrative joint marketing strategy by the Dutch government and The Hague city authorities. Court's credibility In that context, what happens next in the case against Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta (52) – who pleads not guilty to five counts of crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding post-election violence in 2008 in which 1,200 people died – will be crucial to the court's credibility.

Mr Kenyatta was to have been the first sitting head of state to face charges in the dock of the ICC – but there’s a growing belief now that that may never happen.

At the end of last year, chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, was forced to admit that because one witness was no longer willing to testify and another had admitted being untruthful about a key event, she no longer had sufficient evidence to support the charges.

The case has been adjourned until October, with a status conference scheduled for July to see if the Kenyan government will produce evidence – including financial and telephone records – which a frustrated Ms Bensouda claims has been deliberately withheld. That claim is vigorously denied by Kenya’s attorney general.

Regardless of who is right, if the case does collapse and the evidence against Mr Kenyatta is never tested in court, one thing is certain: the halls of the luxurious new ICC headquarters will echo forever to the derision of Kenya’s victims.

And the word “justice” in The Hague brand may be irreparably tarnished.