As someone with an interest in international law it was exciting for me to undertake a tour of the Peace Palace (Vredespaleis) in The Hague last weekend. The Peace Palace is known as the seat of international law as it houses the International Court of Justice (the UN’s primary judicial body), the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Peace Palace Library and the Hague Academy of International Law.
The Palace was opened in 1913 and was financed largely by a gift of $1.5 million from self made steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (who also built Carnegie Hall in New York City). Carnegie donated the funds on the condition that the Palace would house the Permanent Court of Arbitration and also a high quality legal library. During his childhood, Carnegie (who received little formal schooling) had taken advantage of the generosity of a person in his Scottish village who opened his library to local working boys. Carnegie believed that books were the key to knowledge and an open mind and wanted others to have the same opportunity to read that he had been given.
At the instigation of Russian Tsar Nicholas II, the first Hague Peace Conference was held in 1899 (against the backdrop of an escalating arms race in Europe). This Conference resulted in a convention with 61 articles for curbing the arms race and the foundation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (a court designed to prevent conflict by providing an alternative avenue for States to resolve disputes). The idea of building the Peace Palace as a home for the Court was also born.
It is said that the Peace Palace was designed not just to house a judicial institution but also to embody the idea of peace. As our guide pointed out the many features of the Palace that reflect the idea of peace, it became clear to me that this goal has been realised. For example, each nation represented at the Hague Peace Conferences (of 1899 and 1907) donated an ornament or feature to the Peace Palace. In my opinion, the most impressive of these were the four stained glass windows in the Great Hall of Justice (which now houses the International Court of Justice). These windows were donated by Great Britain and represent “The Development of the Peace Ideal”.
Although the Permanent Court of Arbitration was not successful in preventing the outbreak of World War I soon after the opening of the Peace Palace, in addition to the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration is still used to resolve disputes between States today. In modern times, as well as housing two working courts, the Palace also hosts conferences on law, the environment, diplomatic relations, public/private international partnerships, human rights and migration as well as other initiatives that are aimed at fostering the idea of peace. Reflecting the wishes of its founder, the Peace Palace Library is accessible to the general public and today its collection includes over one million volumes.