A Brief History of The Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands

The hundred-year-old building turned blue one night but it was not for the lack of oxygen or a flashing light of emergency. It was to celebrate its 70th year in existence and the United Nations and the Peace Palace façade in the city of “peace and justice” were bathed in blue hues for the occasion. A few years earlier in 2013, white balloons had been released by schoolchildren on the lawn of the Peace Palace to celebrate its first century.


The Beginning

It was no secret that the war was expensive and in an attempt to prevent a bankrupting arms race, Tsar Nicolas II of Russia proposed at the Hague Peace Conference in 1899 an institution “with the object of seeking the most objective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace, and above all, of limiting the progressive development of existing armaments.”

American diplomat Andrew Dickson White who had negotiated with the Russians picked up on the idea and brought it to his friend and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.  The idea called for an “outward and visible sign” and “a temple of peace where the doors are open”. Carnegie initially just wanted to donate the million-and-a-half USD needed to the Dutch Queen but legalities prevented such arrangement. Instead the Carnegie foundation was set up to administer and maintain the Peace Palace building.

At the follow up conference in 1907 the first stone was symbolically laid to the Neo-Renaissance style palace designed by French architect Louis M. Cordonnier.  Originally the design called for four towers but two were scrapped and one scaled back by cost concerns leaving only one to stand out on The Hague skyline.

As the ribbon was cut on the 28th August 1913 marking the new home for The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) set up to peacefully resolve conflicts, the world was only a year away from the beginning of the “Great War” and “the war to end all wars” but who knew?

After 1914 the very weapons Tsar Nicolas II had sought to prevent development, were deployed in large amounts across Europe and particularly in Northern France where the “diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases” took front stage.

In Public View

The Peace Palace (International Court of Justice) on UN day 23 October 2015, The Hague, Netherlands
The Peace Palace (International Court of Justice) on UN day 23 October 2015, The Hague, Netherlands

In his pitch to Carnegie, White had said “men would make pilgrimages from all parts of the civilized world to see it.” He got that right as today busloads of tourists from all over the world stop by to get a glimpse of the symbolical landmark. However they get no further than to the new visitors centre where the history of the court and building is shared in a multilingual video program. Occasional garden tours are also available in Dutch only. The Peace Palace itself remains inaccessible behind an ornate tall black steel and brick fence.


The building of The Peace Palace houses two institutions, namely:

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) – The UN’s highest judicial body and the better known of the two mandated with settling of disputes between member nations. Fifteen judges make up the full bench and they are elected similarly to the UN Security Council.  The court’s rulings are final, binding and without appeal to all members of the UN but lacks enforce mechanism.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) – The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) is the original occupant of the Peace Palace. Tasked with “settling disputes which diplomacy has failed to settle” in the “most effective, and at the same time the most equitable” way. However, barely two-thirds of the world nations have acceded to the 1899 and/or 1907 treaties and the majority of those who have not are in Africa, Central Asia (former Soviet Republics), SE Asia and Syria. As the court’s arbitration is getting a higher degree of recognition worldwide today the case load has increased.

Have you been to the Peace Palace in The Hague before? Leave your comments below. We’d love to hear from you. 


Henry Arvidsson

Henry Arvidsson runs WonderingViking - a new, fresh, opinionated, personal online journal. He has worked as a professional photographer and videographer since the 1990s. Henry's work has been seen in the New York Times, TIME, Newsweek, CNN, BBC, Stern, Vi, Volkskrant and more. Check out more of his work at www.wonderingviking.com and http://www.henryarvidsson.com/.

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