How does a city come to be recognized as the “International City of Peace and Justice”? What does that city which carries such a title, and thus the responsibility to act as the international hub for fostering peace, security, and justice, look like? Most importantly, does it live up to its name?
The Hague is a city with two faces – it is advertised by its municipality as the city which safeguards peace for humankind and enforces international law through the courts and tribunals which are at home in the city.
Yet at the same time, The Hague bears the status of the most segregated city in the Netherlands. After living in The Hague for three years, the striking incongruity of its international institutions and the wealth these have brought to parts of the city, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged areas which are often only a street-crossing away – and particularly the rare intermingling between these co-existing worlds – have led me to ponder on the notion and embodiment of “justice” itself.
What does justice entail? And how is it achieved – or not? Is the opposite of justice, injustice? Ignorance? Invisibility?
Answers to the question, What does justice mean to you? from residents of the city show, first and foremost, that justice has many shapes and sizes. It takes the form of a concept, a tool, an ideal, a practice, an emotion. It is an infrastructure of ecosystems, institutions, buildings, streets, people, more-than-humans. In some cases, justice manifests itself in monuments. And where justice is lacking, people take to the streets.
It Starts in the Soil
“Justice is an unspoken agreement that you have respect for every person – what they look like, how they live, how they act – and should treat them equally, until the law proves otherwise. So, justice is also to enforce the law.” (Els)
The ICC is the most prominent court of international criminal law. Established in 2002 with the ratification of 60 states to the Rome Statute, this building – which houses the first permanent court of its kind – was formally opened in 2015. Inside its glass walls, individuals who are accused of having committed crimes against the international community or humanity at large are put on trial. Such crimes include crimes of genocide, torture, war crimes, sexual slavery, and enforced prostitution.
The scales of justice flutter on the blue flag in the salty wind which blows from the North Sea nearby. Its white flagpole is dug into the ground that is composed of sand dunes, and is located in the city’s “International Zone,” which, according to the municipality, is the “heart of The Hague.”
This area runs from the Statenkwartier to the Archipelbuurt, where one can find embassies from all over the world, historic stately architecture, and an impressive assembly of international organizations.
But moving through the city and encountering its locals which live their day-to-day in close proximity to the ICC, it becomes clear that the sands in which the scales of international law are planted are not only part of an international, but also of a local history – one which ties this infrastructure of glass, walls, laws, surveillance, and procedures, to the soil on which it stands.
“If justice is the outcome of a relation, two things come to mind. One is a more institutional approach: the courts and a number of international organizations that fight for social justice. A city with certain assumptions that, as a cosmopolitan society, we ought to improve the conditions of life of those who are more vulnerable. But if you look at The Hague, then that definition is totally at odds with the structuring of the city. There is an invisible The Hague for that international city that is clearly segregated and has quite a lot of contradictions in itself. And you can see it very clearly through the axes that divide the city into the expat city and the immigrant city.”
The urban infrastructure of The Hague is separated by a geological border which cuts across the city: a border between sandy dunes, and low-lying peatland. In the 18th century, the dry sand areas close to the seaside were claimed by elite groups, while the working class were left to build on the marshes.
It Lives on in Language
The socio-spatial distinction has filtered into The Hagueian slang: the ‘Hagenaar’ characterizes the rich on the dunes, and the ‘Hagenees’ identifies the poor living on peatland. Over time, this duality has expanded from a purely socio-economic to include an ethnic delineation: a ‘Hagenaar’ is born and raised in The Hague, and a ‘Hagenees’ is an immigrant into the city. But who classifies as an immigrant of the city?
“There is a lot of segregation here – mainly, palpably racial, but also class-based. And both at the same time, of course. That’s unfair, that’s not justice to me, because you have radically different ways of experiencing the place you live in. Maybe that’s not inherently bad, but when invisible lines are drawn between different kinds of people, then some are bound to have a harder time with things than others, through no individual fault. But because it’s (I’m guessing long ago) become normalized, and I guess people have gotten used to their comfort zones, despite how they were built, it’s not really a conversation the Hague is having as a city to its people […] Past the courts and into the city, it’s hard to be just if you don’t acknowledge there’s a problem to begin with.” (Selma)
There is a stigmatized duality of (mostly white, western) so-called “expats” who come to the city to work for one of The Hague’s numerous international organizations, and those (mostly non-western migrants of colour) whose families came to the city as refugees, with socio-economic disadvantages, or from former Dutch colonies. In conformity with the city’s historical soil-division, the “expats” typically live in on the sands, and the “immigrants” live in areas where the peat used to be.
What the “International Zone” in which the ICC is located conceals, then, is the complex nature of The Hague’s “internationals” and diversity. By officially branding the city as the “International City of Peace and Justice” in 2006, much emphasis of The Hague’s image is placed on the cultural diversity that is brought by people working for international organizations. As an in-depth study by Vlada Kuznetsova (2016) into the city’s branding strategies shows,
“courts and tribuals, they defined the role of The Hague as a “City of Peace and Justice,” including the Peace Palace and the International Court of Justice inside the Palace. If they are not here, the city would never be the “City of Peace and Justice”… about more than 150 NGOs are here not because they like the city but because they’re linked to the bigger courts and tribunals or the other organizations…” (p.32)
The diversity which is brooding in poorer districts that are widely associated with lower socio-economic groups – for instance the Schilderswijk and other areas around the Hollands Spoor train station – and which equally define the social dynamics of the city, play no part in the proud image which the City of The Hague has constructed to attract tourists and organizations.
Even though “here people are working every day to make the world just, a bit more peaceful than it was yesterday” (Kuznetsova 2016, p.32), the institutions and “internationals” which this face of The Hague attracts, re-traces the infrastructural lines on which the city is built. If the sands are where the “heart” of The Hague is located, then the peatlands are its lungs; hidden away between the infrastructural ribs and city branding, providing the city with the breath to sustain it.
“The Hague has always been segregated because it has always had this dual character of being a very wealthy city. But wealthy citizens need servants. If there is a break in the dunes, the city that sinks first is the peat city.” (Daniela)
It Moves In-Between Walls
“The situation where all parties feel like they have been treated fairly.” (Sibel)
The ICC has faced grave criticism since its establishment. It has been accused of having an “exclusive focus on Africa,” (Eseed 2013, p.590) although the curious notion is perhaps not that individuals from the African continent have been convicted, but rather that individuals from elsewhere have not. The permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) have the right to veto resolutions, and to defer investigations.
As Ovo Imoedemhe (2015, p.78) explains, the consequence of this is an “unspoken truth about international criminal law […] It is that certain individuals, from certain countries of origin will never find themselves indicted before an international criminal tribunal.” If justice is the outcome of a legal procedure, a rectification of sorts, then such critiques from member states beg the question: justice, yes, but justice for whom?
It Flutters On
The scales fluttering in the wind are recognizable, but why? They originate from the Greek goddess Themis, the goddess of justice and order. A scale in balance connotates a state of equality before the law, a meticulous weighing of right against wrong.
But the scales also denote a sense of utmost fragility; the lightest weight may tip the scales in favour of one or the other. Can such a fragile state of justice be achieved when a handful of states weighs down on the scales with an unconditional veto power?
The wreath around the scales – also of Greek origin – is an ancient symbol for victory. But can a court be victorious, achieving a state of equality for all, when its physical infrastructure is planted into the soil of a subtle yet systematic story of segregation, which is re-told today through the municipality’s own branding as the “International City of Peace and Justice”?
“I link the concept of justice to an unbiased determination of right or wrong. I think that The Hague strives to embody this through the various institutions it houses, but it cannot always live up the ideal of an unbiased truth. Realistically, it will always be prone to be local biases and imperfections and will thus inevitably fall short of the ideal it aims to house.” (Justus)
“Wings of Mexico” sculpture at the ICC
Eline is an undergraduate student at Leiden University College, following the Liberal Arts and Sciences: Global Challenges program in The Hague.Although Eline has chosen a major in Culture, History and Society, she also has an interest in environmental sciences and sustainability, as well as gender studies, human rights, and philosophy. Her interdisciplinary bachelor’s program has sparked a particular interest in the nexus between art and science, and she is currently writing her bachelor’s thesis on art-science collaborations in sustainability research. Through her passion for writing (academically and creatively), she hopes to communicate about her topics of interest through critical and context-specific lens.