I first visited the Peace Palace in the Hague years ago – and you can read the story below. I returned this year, filming inside for Lonely Planet. You can catch that video below as well. But if you just want the nuts and bolts info for how you can visit the Peace Palace at the Hague then, guess what, that’s below as well. So, hopefully, everybody’s happy!
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. Its tourists 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.
Related: Scheveningen Beach at The Hague
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.
I felt the same sense of unease as I did in Nuremberg, Auschwitz, Nagasaki and in the dark corners of Berlin.
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.
Related: Tulips in Amsterdam
For the repetition of the kindness of strangers, when everything else is stripped away, is truly the foundation for that dream of World Peace.
We can’t all be Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela or Gandhi (and let’s face it, even they could only be one of the three.)
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.
Interestingly, on a press visit in early 2018, I crossed through those gates and toured the parts of the Peace Palace that the public are allowed to see (you can’t go everywhere as there are confidential documents on display.) You can see the interview here:
It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to be press to be allowed in – but you do need to arrange a tour in advance and present with suitable ID (typically a passport.) Because the nature of the court cases taking place inside changes from month to month, it’s difficult to plan too much but the Peace Palace Visitor Centre will help you work things out.
Find the most up to date information on arranging your trip to the Peace Palace on their website (in English) here.
Take Bus Line 24 towards Kijkduin and get off at stop Vredespaleis.
The easiest way from Amsterdam is to take the train to Den Haag and catch a bus or taxi from there. Trains are quick and easy (including from Schiphol airport) and the journey takes less than an hour.
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and author who swapped a successful career as a hospital doctor for a life on the road. With over 60 countries under her belt, she's worked for Lonely Planet, the BBC, National Geographic Traveller and more. She is passionate about sustainable tourism and was invited to speak on the subject at the EU-China High Level summit at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris.Here she writes about food, travel and history and she invites you to pull up a chair and relax. Let's travel more and think more. Welcome!
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