A city with the charm of Frankfurt, the friendliness of Paris and the culture of Scunthorpe – Ron Pattinson
If any two words have come to symbolize the full weight of international justice and global condemnation they are The Hague.
War crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity hang in the balance here, as the world’s brightest lawyers look evil in the eye beneath the tree blossom and tiered brick gables of canalside houses in this part of the Netherlands.
Or so I thought. But like pretty much everything else in life, it’s a little more complicated for that.
For a start, of course, for the people who live in or near The Hague, the words don’t mean force of global justice as much as they simply mean home: traffic jams, traffic lights, Chinese takeaways and rows of bicycles interlinking betwixt networks and networks of canals.
Second of all, The Hague isn’t even its name. It’s Den Haag (and, officially, it’s not even that, we should all be calling it s’Gravenhage.) Whichever version you use, you still need to throw in that extra definite article.
And thirdly, it’s far from being the global force seen in films when the good guy dismisses the bad with the line “I’ll see you in The Hague.”
The thing we’re actually talking about is the International Criminal Court (as opposed to the International Court of Justice which is also in The Hague and which deals with legal disputes between states.)
The ICC (different to the cricket council) carries the lofty aims of making the world a better place but it turns out that holding crazy despots accountable for mass murder isn’t as straightforward as it sounds like it should be. Evidence is often hard to come by, not least because to be able to orchestrate these kinds of crimes you need a lot of henchmen, a severely crippled press and scant access to outside organisations.
Moreover, after some conflicts, one nation’s menace becomes another nation’s hero, leading to legal extradition wrangles of the sort seen after the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
And last, but by no means least, is the problem that not everyone has signed up to it, meaning they can’t be bound by it. Rather poignantly, Israel, the United States and the Sudan (another “the”,) for example, have not.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. In April 2004 for the first time in history, every country in the world (197 at that point) endorsed a joint Statement for Peace and donated a stone from their country to create a World Peace Pathway that’s still visible in The Hague.
The younger me would have dismissed this as an empty, pointless gesture; the older I get, the more I see it as a sign of progress.
So against that backdrop, The Hague is a curious place to visit, particularly alone and in the midst of winter.
It’s only a short train ride away from riotous, gleaming Amsterdam, and by comparison, The Hague’s activity seems ordered, its finances restrained. And while I wouldn’t quite agree with the quote at the start of this piece, its tourists are in conspicuously short supply.
In fact, as I strolled around, the only place I found them was outside a long lawned pathway, blocked off by stark iron gates. Three or four people pressed their faces against the railings and others posed with elderly relatives in the shadows outside the bars.
The peace flame flickered in the bitter winter wind.
I shivered at the thought of us standing here in the rain, while those responsible for some of the worst crimes in living history waited on the other side, waited as lawyers sifted evidence day after day after day.
What is it that we are looking for? What is it that we have come here to find? Understanding? Respect? A sense of belonging or of seeking revenge? A tickbox event? A grisly fascination? Or simply a craving for a deeper human connection?
Do these places function as a gesture of defiance and pride? Or do they demonstrate a need for justice and a path towards forgiveness and reconciliation?
In any case, my philosophical wranglings were misplaced. Those stark black bars and that flickering, burning flame marked, on closer inspection, the entrance to the ICJ not the ICC.
An elderly gentleman, presumably there with his son, offered to take my photo and refused to take no for an answer.
I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to accept his kind gesture.
So now, whenever I see this ever so average shot of an ever so average girl, I smile at both its insignificance and its importance to the world.
For the repetition of the kindness of strangers, when everything else is stripped away, is truly the foundation for that dream of World Peace.
But we can all start somewhere.
As Roosevelt said: do whatever you can, with whatever you’ve got, from wherever you are.
The flame in the stone grew bolder as the winter sunlight slipped from the sky.
I walked away from the bars and walked on through The Hague.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com