Ahead of the ICC’s tenth anniversary, IJT looks at the Dutch historical hold-up on international justice. In the first of a 3-part series, we relate the development of the “plot” that led to the “coup” over the ICC (part-II) and will drive us to assess the country’s “reward” (part-III).
By Klaas den Tek, The Hague
The Hague presents itself as the International City of Peace and Justice. With the advent of the ICC—now ten years old—the city has captured the jewel in its crown. But it was only luck and the efforts of a handful of people that raised the small provincial town of The Hague to such international prominence.
“That swamp? Over my dead body!” Russian jurist Friedrich Martens was not impressed when he first saw the proposed site for The Hague’s iconic legal building—the Peace Palace. The Palace was to house the Permanent Court of Arbitration—one outcome of The Hague Peace Conferences at the turn of the nineteenth century, which defined the city’s destiny.
The Hague had rarely impressed foreign nations, even after the First World War as the League of Nations was being established. While The Hague was being considered as a possible location for the League, it lost the race to Paris and Geneva, says Peter van Krieken, Professor at Webster University Leiden and author of The Hague: Legal Capital of the Law. “The Netherlands tried to sell The Hague, but no one spoke French, the weather is bad and there was no decent wine,” said van Krieken.
Nevertheless, The Hague has confounded its depreciators. Currently 131 international institutions employing 14,000 staff have put down roots in the city. The city has firmly established itself in the international arena alongside Geneva and New York as the ‘legal capital of the world’.
The official promotion of the Netherlands begins with the Dutch role in the history of international law. Dutchman Hugo de Groot—known internationally as Grotius—is seen as the father of the tradition. In his classic work, ‘De Jure Belli ac Pacis’ (On the Law of War and Peace, 1625), De Groot’s argument that war and law were related, was revolutionary.“With his work, De Groot indeed made an important contribution to the development of international law,” says classicist and historian Arthur Eyffinger. But he points out that some prophets are not honoured at home: “His contribution was not appreciated in the Netherlands until recently and for centuries De Groot was treated as persona non grata.”
De Groot fell victim to an internal theological conflict among Dutch protestants which led to civil war during his lifetime. The more orthodox Calvinist side won and as a supporter of the liberal Remonstrants, De Groot was sentenced to life imprisonment. In a colourful episode remembered by generations of Dutch school children, De Groot managed to escape from his cell in Loevestein castle in a book chest in 1621 and fled to Paris. “In the Netherlands there was no place for de Groot,” said Eyffinger. His greatest works were written in exile.
Asser: the brain
At the end of the nineteenth century when Europe was suffering from bloody wars, Czar Nicholas II of Russia proposed a conference on peace and disarmament. But choosing a venue was a sticking point as the European powers were suspicious of each other. And so the smaller countries like Belgium, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands came into focus.
But King Leopold II of Belgium was at loggerheads with his Parliament. Switzerland was in chaos after Empress Sisi was assassinated by an Italian anarchist and Scandinavia showed no interest in hosting the conference. “Only the Netherlands remained a candidate. Fortunately our country had an important advocate in its hands—jurist Tobias Asser, who possessed the much-needed legal knowledge and connections,” Eyffinger explains.
Tobias Asser was the brain behind the many developments in international law at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1893 he co-founded The Hague Conference on Private International Law—the international institution with the longest pedigree in The Hague. “He was never far away whenever an international conference was held or a treaty concluded” says Eyffinger, describing Asser as “the embodiment of diplomacy. As persuasive as he was pragmatic, he was a supreme tactician, excellent negotiator and master of compromise.” He was also friends with a key adviser to the Czar, Russian jurist Friedrich (Fyodor) Martens, who proposed The Hague as the 1899 Peace Conference venue. “It is often that just a few puppets can be decisive,” said Eyffinger. Asser went on to win the Nobel peace prize in 1911. Although the Peace Conference was a failure in its efforts to support disarmament, its legacy was the creation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 1913. This “changed the destiny of the city” says Eyffinger. The Permanent Court of Arbitration is based at the Peace Palace building, financed with help from American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
Since then, The Hague has acted as a magnet to international organisations due to its cluster of legal bodies. The Permanent Court of International Justice was set up in 1922—but as an organ of the outgoing League of Nations it was dissolved in 1946 and replaced by the International Court of Justice—the fledgling UN’s highest legal body. “The Hague is a neutral place. For the UN it is important to have one of the main organs in a quiet town. That is better for legal reflection. In Berlin there were many political tensions in the past. And Paris was seen as a focal point of French political power,” says Theo van Boven, Emeritus Professor of International Law at the University of Maastricht.
Clear economic interest
International organisations have also been able to count on support from the Dutch government. Sociologist and lawyer Philip Everts, former Professor of International Relations and Foreign Policy at the University of Leiden, says small countries like the Netherlands benefit greatly: “Our country lacks military muscle. It is more vulnerable than the great powers. And especially, the Netherlands benefits as a trading nation from international peace and stability. Our support also has a clear economic interest. “
The presence of these international organisations has had its impact on Dutch politics. In 1922 an article was added to the Dutch constitution giving every government the duty to try to solve conflicts between foreign powers by means of jurisdiction or other peaceful measures. In 1953 these articles were replaced by a clearer message. In article 90 of the constituion, it is stated, ‘The Dutch government shall promote the development of the international rule of law’. Since the sixties the Netherlands has been making its mark in the field of human rights and development. Refugees—Hungarians, Chileans, Czechs and Slovaks fleeing their countries were welcomed with open arms.
The then Minister of Foreign Affairs - Max van der Stoel - gave overt support to human rights movements like Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. “Nowhere in the world were there so many peace activists as in the Netherlands,” says Philip Everts.
“The Dutch demonstrated against apartheid in South Africa, the deployment of cruise missiles in Cuba and the war in Vietnam. We all went out on the streets en masse to protest against injustice. We often see ourselves as a shining example to others. And we have opinions on everything. Environment, human rights, international law, development cooperation.“ Theo van Boven says such efforts reflect the Dutch mentality. “There is a strong missionary impulse, religiously-rooted. Salvation must be brought to others.“ That interference still sometimes irritates other countries. “The Netherlands has an opinion on everything. Now on international law”, sighed a French diplomat during the negotiations on the International Criminal Court in Rome.
When former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali defined The Hague in 1993 as the legal capital of the world, the city’s municipality couldn’t wait to claim the name. “The Hague is building up that image of the city of Peace and Justice,” says van Boven. “I regularly get those shiny brochures into my hands. Deliberate marketing. There is nothing wrong with that. They really work to give The Hague that international influence.”
But van Boven warns that the Netherlands has begun losing its reputation. “Look at the last ten years. Mark Rutte’s government introduced a strict asylum policy. Also our development aid budget is being questioned. Some parties want to make cuts or even scrap it. That used to be unthinkable.” Philip Everts believes Dutch people now have a different mentality. They are less willing to stand on the barricades. “There is criticism of European integration. Fear of globalisation. Nowadays it is more about questions like ‘How much does that cost us?’ and ‘Who will pay for it all?’ “
“This uncertainty and criticism can also affect The Hague as City of Peace and Justice. Because if the questions about money dominate the performance, organisations will no longer want to base themselves in The Hague,“ warns Everts.