The morning I left Amsterdam, it was absolutely perfect warm sunny weather which was extremely frustrating to me. Of course it’s gorgeous the day that I’m leaving. I crossed my fingers for good weather in The Hague as I took the tram to the central station and boarded my intercity train. The ride wasn’t too long and I enjoyed the views of the Dutch countryside as we made our way to Den Haag. It was grey and cool outside when I arrived, with a slight breeze and no sign of blue skies or sunshine. “Beautiful weather we’re having today!” chimed my taxi driver as we drove to the hotel. He was completely serious.
For those of you who don’t know, I studied International Peace and Conflict Resolution at university and seeing as The Hague is the global center of international justice and peace, I was pretty much in nerd heaven in this city. Literally the first thing I did after checking into my hotel was walk over to the peace palace, a mere 5 minutes walk away (yes, I planned that).
The building is beautiful and I felt overwhelmed standing in front of it, considering everything this building stands for, and all of the important work the people inside of it are doing every day.
To the right of the palace is the World Peace Flame, a symbol of international peace and freedom.
Unfortunately, tours of the palace are only offered every once in a while. It is a functioning court after all, home to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Although they didn’t have any tours while I was in town, they do have a visitor’s center with an audio tour that tells you about the creation of the PCA and ICJ and the history of the peace palace. It was actually quite informative and interesting. Hopefully I’ll make it back for a full walking tour someday!
As I was lamenting the fact that I couldn’t do a real tour, one of the women at the visitor’s center recommended that I visit the International Criminal Court (ICC) where they had public trials. I hadn’t thought of that.
Now, I know the title of this post says The Hague “in a day” but it was more like two halves of a day put together to create one full day of sight-seeing. Just go with me on this.
I went online to research the ICC and options for visiting. Turns out my friend at the Peace Palace was right and the trials were public. I decided it made the most sense to go first thing in the morning so I could at least attempt to follow what was going on. I planned out my bus route and got in bed early, irrationally excited, as only a student of international politics can be, for my ICC visit the next day.
The building itself is gorgeous (pictured above). Once you pass through security, there is an actual moat around the campus which you walk across to get to the main building. Inside, there was an exhibit called Justice Matters, highlighting the importance of justice for the victims of the crimes the ICC handles, namely crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes.
You are only allowed a notebook and pen inside the public galleries, nothing else. I left my purse, phone, and jacket in the locker room downstairs and took the elevator up to the courtroom. There, I met a friendly security guard who explained how the courts were set up. I sat in the public gallery, a glassed-in balcony looking over the courtroom. Directly across from me (below in the courtroom) sat the three judges, each from a different country. To my left, the prosecution. To my right, the defense. Below me, out of view, the witness(es). At each seat in the public gallery, there was a set of headphones and a control panel to switch between languages – mostly English and French.
I sat through the opening remarks, but shortly afterwards the defense asked for a closed session, meaning I wasn’t able to hear anything but I could still see them. Soon the curtains closed and it became a completely private session so I went back downstairs to the other courtroom which was in open session.
The defendant in this trial was being charged with crimes against humanity in the context of post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire (2010/2011). He was the former president and he had supporters in the public gallery, sitting with me. I sat through several hours of this trial, giving my brain lots of exercise switching back and forth between French and English. The witness that day made things much more entertaining than I was expecting, making cheeky remarks and having a bit of fun with the defense.
Eventually, they broke for lunch and I went into town to get some food. I was exhausted after listening to most of the trial in French (the native tongue of the witness). I was also trying to process the fact that, after years of studying conflict and international politics, I had just spent hours in a courtroom looking down at a political leader charged with crimes against humanity, a man we would have discussed in my classes.
Perhaps not a very conventional day of sight-seeing, but I thought it a very fitting way to spend a day in the center of international peace and justice. Afterwards, I went for lunch at a lovely little café near the canal and wrote in my journal before going back to the hotel to pack and get ready for the next part of my trip: three days of an international parkour event! This was the main reason for my trip, of course, but I was very happy to do some exploring in Amsterdam and The Hague before the event. It was a short visit, but I managed to squeeze a lot in and I can’t wait to go back someday!