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History of the City of Peace and Justice

Published: 29 August 2013 Modified: 21 February 2014

The Hague's current role as host to international organisations and the international community is part of a tradition dating back more than 750 years.

‘Legal capital of the world.’ It was no one other than the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who uttered these words to describe the unique position of The Hague. These are weighty words, but not at all unjustified. The Hague has had an international character for a long time.

Hugo Grotius and Spinoza

The Hague has been an international city and a centre of legal knowledge for several centuries. Since the late 16th century, when the government of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was founded in The Hague, the city has been a home to foreign diplomats.

It was in The Hague that the famous jurist Hugo Grotius wrote his book Mare Liberum (The Freedom of the Sea). Published in 1609, this work forms the basis for modern international law. The 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, known on account of his fundamental ideas on peace and freedom, spent the final years of his life living and working in The Hague. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands, the highest court of the country, has also been based in The Hague since 1838.

Baruch Spinoza

Peace Conferences in The Hague

A new chapter opened at the end of the 19th century when Tobias Asser, who would later go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, founded the Hague Conference on Private International Law in 1893. This makes it the oldest international organisation in The Hague still in existence today.

The First Peace Conference took place six years later, leading to the creation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the body that mediates disputes between countries. A remarkable building - the Peace Palace - was designed specially for this court. Construction of the Peace Palace began during the Second Peace Conference in 1907, and it was completed in 1913. The First World War broke out the following year. The Peace Palace Library was also housed here from the very beginning.

Between the First and the Second World War, the Permanent Court of International Justice was based in the Peace Palace. This was the legal branch of the League of Nations (the forerunner to the United Nations).

Here you can read more about the First and Second Peace Conferences.

Peace Palace

Second United Nations city

The International Court of Justice was founded in 1946 right after the Second World War. It, too, was housed in the Peace Palace. This highest legal body of the United Nations is the only main branch of the organisation not based in New York. The Hague is therefore quite justified in describing itself as the second U.N. city. In 1981 the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal was established, further consolidating the role of The Hague as the centre of international legal arbitration.

160 international organisations

At the start of the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, international cooperation in the field of security and international criminal law enjoyed something of a renaissance. In less than ten years, various new – and in some cases groundbreaking – organisations were set up. The largest are the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (1993), Europol (1994), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) (1997) and the International Criminal Court (2002), all of which are based in The Hague.

The city and its surrounding area are now home to 160 international organisations.

International knowledge centre

It is thanks in part to the presence of so many international organisations that The Hague has become an international knowledge centre in the field of peace and justice. A solid basis for this has been laid by organisations like the T.M.C Asser Institute, Netherlands Institute of International Relations 'Clingendael', The Hague Academy of International Law and the International Institute of Social Studies.

More recent additions include The Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law and Campus The Hague, the second home of Leiden University, which expanded with the opening of a University College in The Hague in 2010.

PDF fileThe Hague, International City of Peace and Justice  (PDF, 1310 kB)

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