The Hague Peace Palace Keeps Tsar's Vision Alive

Mark Gay

This year is the centenary of the Peace Palace in The Hague, the home of the World Court. One of the six main organs of the United Nations, it owes its origins to the initiative of the last Russian tsar.

The tsar and the jurist and diplomat Fyodor Martens were worried about the growing arms race between the colonial powers. They wanted to hold an international peace conference in a small, neutral country. The Netherlands was neutral, home to several of the Tsar's relatives, and had already hosted several international meetings.

Tsar Nicholas II convened the first international peace conference of 1899, which proposed a Permanent Court of Arbitration. It would seek "the most objective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace." The two Hague peace conferences and the Geneva Conventions were some of the earliest legalized rules of war and laws against war crimes.

Martens suggested the court should have a special building, a peace temple, as he called it, and set about trying to raise funds to build it. Eventually the U.S.-Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie agreed to finance a library of international law along with the palace, at a cost of $1.5 million. An architect from Lille, Louis Cordonnier, produced the winning design from 200 architects. Construction began in 1907 and on 28th August 1913, the Peace Palace was inaugurated. The opening coincided with the centenary of Dutch independence from French rule.

Monarchs and heads of state lavished the Peace Palace with gifts. Tsar Nicholas sent a vase of jasper, with two-headed eagles in gilded bronze. It weighs about 3,000 kilograms and required the floors to be strengthened. It stands under the palace tower. In the next room is one of the last portraits to be painted of Nicholas II.

Although the Second Hague Conference failed to stop the build up of arms and tensions that led to the First World War, it developed the idea of international arbitration to settle disputes between countries.

In 1922, the Permanent Court of International Justice was established, under the Covenant of the League of Nations, and between the two World Wars it heard 29 contentious cases between States, and delivered 27 advisory opinions. When Germany invaded The Netherlands, German troops withdrew from the Peace Palace, which was the only territory of The Netherlands that they did not occupy.

After the League of Nations failed to stop the Second World War, the United Nations was established to replace it. In turn, the UN charter created the International Court of Justice on the shoulders of the PCIJ in 1945.

One of the first tasks of the ICJ was to legitimize the UN itself. The UN sought an advisory opinion from the ICJ on whether the UN had "the capacity to bring an international claim against a government regarding injuries that the organization alleged had been caused by that state". The ICJ concluded that while the UN is not a state, it is an international person, and has the capacity to maintain its rights by bringing international claims.

Today The Hague is the home of several judicial institutions, including the International Criminal Court and the several ad hoc UN tribunals investigating war crimes. Although it is one of the six main organs of the UN, the ICJ is relatively small, with an annual budget of about $23 million and fewer than 200 staff. In comparison, the ICC has more than 800 staff.

The court hears legal disputes between states, which can only be imitated by a state. Companies or international organisations must use the PCA. Nor does the court hear political issues, which are thrashed out in the UN Security Council. The court also gives advisory opinion on legal issues to the main organs of the UN and specific UN agencies.

All 193 states can be party to a case, though they must give their consent. More than 300 conventions and treaties have a clause that refers disputes or interpretation to the ICJ, which means that states have effectively already given their consent. However, they might still object on the grounds that a case is political. Since 1946, the ICJ has heard more than 150 cases and given 113 judgments on contentious cases. Sometimes states settle cases between themselves. The president of the court, Petar Tomka of the Slovak Republic, holds a casting vote.

The court has 15 judges who, according to its charter, must represent the main forms of civilisation and the most important political systems. At the moment there are three African, two Latin American, three Asian and two eastern Europe judges, including Leonid Skotnikov from Russia. There are also five judges from western Europe and other countries (including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Oceania). Once elected, judges do not represent their countries but are independent. With the status of diplomats, they usually live in The Hague so that they are available to hear disputes at short notice.

One of the most common types of dispute before the court relate to frontiers. Borders are often the flashpoint between countries, where their interests touch, physically. Half of all cases before the ICJ concern borders: from crop spraying to mining rights. Other cases include diplomatic protection, human rights, genocide (excluding individual war crimes), the environment and the use of force.

Examples include the long-running pulp mill dispute, in which Argentina alleges that a pulp mill on the Uruguay River causes pollution and damages tourism. The ICJ called expert witnesses and has already made one ruling on the dispute.

In the case of Romania versus Ukraine, the ICJ drew the limits of the continental shelf around Serpent Island on the Black Sea in 2009, settling the areas in which the two countries could exploit natural resources.

Belgium versus Senegal led to a ruling that Senegal must begin proceedings to try Chad's former leader Hissene Habre "without delay". Guinea versus Congo involved the compensation of a Guinean citizen after the government of the Congo seized his assets.

Even where states have not followed the ICJ's rulings, the court has influenced events. When the ICJ ruled that South Africa should withdraw its forces from Namibia it paved the way for the independence in 1990 of that country. Nicaragua complained the U.S. was arming paramilitaries against the Sandinista government. The ICJ ruled against the U.S. in 1986, and although the U.S. rejected the decision, the case was finally resolved in 1991.

The ICJ broadcasts its hearings live on the Internet, except for deliberations which are conducted in private. The Peace Palace also hosts an Academy of International Law, which attracts 700 students and academics each summer.     

When when a case is settled, both states win. Simply by using the court, states show they are willing to use measures other than force to settle their disputes. And that is the strongest testament to the vision of Nicholas II.


Russia - Holland 2013
Russia - Holland 2013
The Moscow Times is releasing its new "Russia - The Netherlands 2013" supplement, dedicated to economic and cultural cooperation between the two nations. The current edition is published in partnership with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
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