The Hague: quaint capital of international justice

THE HAGUE: The brown and blue edifice stands calmly in the cold; the rain soaking its flag of white and blue at whose center is a green cedar and scales, denoting justice that has yet to be served.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon is headquartered in Leidschendam, a verdant, quiet suburb of the political capital of the Netherlands.

Its tranquility stands as a sharp contrast to the political upheaval that always envelops Lebanon. And it was meant to be that way, so its judges could be insulated from the roiling political arena of Beirut.

The court occupies a building that used to belong to the Dutch intelligence services, offered rent-free by the government of the Netherlands, and is surrounded by a shallow moat.

Its courtroom is state of the art, and it was where Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was sentenced to 50 years in prison for grave war crimes committed in Sierra Leone.

The courtroom, named after Antonio Cassesse, the tribunal’s first president, has sound-absorbent walls, which means lawyers at each end of the courtroom can consult with each other without the opposition overhearing them.

The public gallery overlooks a hall that accommodates judges, defense counsel, prosecutors and lawyers for victims, with a partition behind which witnesses whose identities are to remain secret can testify without being revealed.

The seat of the tribunal in The Hague is one that follows a hundred years of tradition, which have crowned this city as the capital of international justice.

The imposing red and navy blue “Peace Palace” hosts the International Court of Justice, which judges disputes brought by states against each other.

The International Criminal Court, which indicted Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, is also based in The Hague. So is the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is prosecuting the worst of the war crimes committed during the Balkan wars in the 1990s and in Kosovo.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, also resides in the city.

The Hague is home to about 160 international organizations and 14,000 of their employees. Though somewhat reserved, The Hague has a lively downtown where its cosmopolitan inhabitants rub shoulders in cafes and shops. Chinatown Street pays homage to the Asian heritage of some of its residents, while one of the city’s largest mosques, once a synagogue, stands as a symbol of coexistence. Quaint trams and bike paths offer easy passage through the city.

The Hague has a storied history, with the first and second Hague Peace Conferences in 1899 and 1907 respectfully resulting in the establishment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and The Hague Conventions, a foundations of the laws of warfare in modern times.

Article 90 of the Netherlands’ constitution requires the government to promote international justice. The state provides benefits to some international organizations, such as lower rents and even detention centers for suspects awaiting trial in its international courts.

Former Yugoslav and African war criminals are held in Scheveningen Prison, a detention center in The Hague’s coastal suburb of the same name.

Thomas Lubanga, a convicted rebel leader from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is held in The Hague, as is the former ousted Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. So is Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader accused of genocide during the siege of Sarajevo and of ordering the Srebrenica massacre.

The city hosts most of the diplomatic missions to the Netherlands, and is the seat of its government. The houses of parliament rest by a picturesque lake near the city center. Trees line the opposite bank, near which is the famous Mauritshuis museum that houses paintings by Vermeer and Rembrandt, among the greatest of Dutch painters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 16, 2014, on page 2.




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