A city where peace comes dropping slow – Frank McNally on a visit to The Hague

Its role as a headquarters of the world’s conscience has seen the city gradually elevated to the status of metonym

Your Diarist appearing before the International Court of Justice in The Hague

Contrary to what you may have thought, or perhaps even been awarded points for in pub quizzes past, The Hague is not the capital city of the Netherlands.

It’s home to the Dutch royal family, the government, and most foreign embassies, including Ireland’s. But its capital status extends only to the province of South Holland. Amsterdam holds the title for the country at large.

The Hague may in any case have higher aspirations. When I visited this week with a group of invited journalists, it was celebrating 125 years as the “International City of Peace and Justice”, a reputation first earned when Tsar Nicholas II of Russia chose it as the venue of a peace conference in 1899.

Since then, its role as a headquarters of the world’s conscience has seen the city gradually elevated to the status of metonym.


Rather than refer to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (founded in 1899), the International Court of Justice (1945), or the International Criminal Court (2002), reporters and lawyers often find it more convenient just to say “The Hague”.

Among the many artworks in the city’s Peace Palace (built 1907-1913), where the PCA and ICJ sit, the keynote is a portrait of a serenely seated Goddess of Peace, using the body of the dead God of War as a footrest.

Alas, the goddess’s work is usually more stressful than portrayed. As if to predict the burden he conferred in 1899, the grateful Tsar gifted The Hague a giant imperial vase made of jasper, marble, and bronze and weighing 3.2 tonnes.

That too is part of the palace’s art collection, although the floor of its permanent location had to be specially reinforced lest the vase crash through and destroy everything underneath.

Another of the presents conferred by participating countries – in this case Denmark – seems even more symbolic. A porcelain fountain depicting polar bears and sea lions, it’s a spectacular addition to the palace grounds.

But porcelain is almost as fragile as peace. During the second World War, one of the sea lions suffered collateral damage from an Allied attack nearby.

And even when the guns are silent, the Dutch climate is a deadly threat. The fountain has to be covered up during cold weather, which in practice means, as a palace guide joked to visiting journalists this week, “about 10 months of the year.”

Given actual events in Ukraine and Gaza, however, symbols of peace’s fragility are currently superfluous.

At a 125th anniversary in the palace on Thursday, the mood was sober (notwithstanding the selection of wines and champagne representing 10 countries). One speaker said they were “marking” the milestone, not “celebrating” it, because the state of the world did not allow for exuberance.

Over at the International Criminal Court, meanwhile, it was business as usual. Our group briefly sat in on the trial of Mahamat Said Abdel Kani, who gave himself up to the ICC three years to face charges of war crimes in the Central African Republic dating from 2013.

Having surrendered our phones beforehand at the airport-style security check, we were allowed watch proceedings through bullet-proof glass. But we couldn’t hear anything because this part of the case was in-camera and our earphones had been muted.

Security is tight at the ICC, although never tight enough. The Guardian newspaper recently reported evidence of a “nine-year ‘war’” by Israel against the court, for example, involving “spying, hacking, and intimidation”. There was no wifi during our visit: the legacy of a sophisticated cyberattack last year by persons officially unknown.

And there remains the traumatising tale of Slobodan Pralijak, a Bosnian Croat general convicted at the specially constituted International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 2017. He smuggled potassium cyanide into the courtroom and drank it in response to the verdicts, dying soon afterwards.

To the more than 200 NGOs and intergovernmental organisations in the Hague, an International Anti-Corruption Court may soon he added. But the hegemony of this low-lying city extends even to the heavens. Space law is among the potential responsibilities of both the ICJ and PCA.

Meanwhile, back at ground level, The Hague was also dealing this week with the belated formation of a new Dutch government, in which the radical-right Geert Wilders will be the dominant figure.

Until recently, the stereotypical Dutch politician was outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte, a native of The Hague well known for cycling everywhere and reaching technocratic compromises on all matters of controversy.

Opinion is still divided as to what the new, tougher-talking regime will mean. One city guide was nonchalant: “We’re a democracy – we’ll probably change our minds again in two years.” But a returning Dutch journalist who had grown up locally before moving abroad saw it in starker terms. “This is a hard-right country now,” he told me.

Rewilding is a well-advanced process in the Hague, one of the greenest cities in Europe, where meadows proliferate alongside roads and tram tracks. The Geert Wildering project, whatever it means for the city, has only begun.