Europe 06.07.16

Wednesday the 6th

I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to visit The Hague in the Netherlands today. Its is a city with a reputation for producing progressive thinkers in the area of international relations, and these academics have made renowned contributions to the discourse of diplomacy and shaped the global arena of the 21st century. This is evident in the in various institutions it hosts, namely the International Criminal Court and the Peace Palace. The latter was the first point of interest on our agenda. The Peace Palace is an awe-inspiring attraction standing singularly on a gated grass oval like an image out of a fairy tale. It resembles a castle or cathedral but operates as a judiciary venue and the largest law library in the world. The belief that war stood in the way of progress was a concept preached by ancient philosophers Erasmus and Kant. From modern films to presidential addresses about patriotism, there is no denying that violence is romanticised in order to distract from the devastating reality it creates. The preference for peaceful conflict resolution was first suggested by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia due to the economic strain war preparations placed on his reich. His cousin Wilhelmina of the Netherlands hosted the first International Peace Conference in 1899 which was attended by representatives from all over the world who concluded to establish a permanent International Court of Justice. This was to be located in the Peace Palace, the construction of which began in 1907 with its first stone laid during the congress of the second convention in The Hague. The construction was complete within six years with the funding of millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie whose only condition was that a public library would be featured within the building. Although the prospective of peace was popular in the early 20th century, its execution was not very successful considering the onset of the two most destructive world wars. A century later, the terroristic movements that have threatened the security of Europe has proven this idea of peaceful resolution is still far from actualisation. Only yesterday, there was another alert in the Binnenhof of The Hague. Not even this icon of ‘Peace through Law’ is safe from adversaries who choose the more violent route to individual gain and radical change. The International Court of Justice is the principle judicial organ of the United Nations. In conjunction with the Permanent Court of Arbitration, responsible for mediation and arbitration, this court has been involved involved in 101 pending cases at the start of 2016 alone. Evidently, the Peace Palace is more than just a symbol but also a working institution – and a personal career aspiration of mine.

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Another day. Another church. We were in the Great Church of Den Hague, a reference point in the centre of the city that rose above the modest but elegant buildings in its shadow. The origins of the church dated back to the 13th century but its construction was not concluded until 1492. Although completed, this structure was not that of its current form as the building fell victim to the great fire of 1539 and therefore required further restoration. The steeple was adorned with a renaissance superstructure. With the interior empty of furniture, the hall appeared as though it had been designed in different eras by different architects. Within the central section, sandstone pillars formed into arches to encompass a centrepiece monument of Admiral Jacob van Wassenaar Obdam within a chancel made of white marble. The second section was divided by a step and extension in both the length and breadth of the building and had a simplistic design in comparison to its conjoined space. It was much more open and the cognac planked ceiling featured detail in strips of red, green and gold. The tower contained three large bells and a carillon consisting of 51 bells which we heard ring in a musical chorus as the clock struck 12:00.

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The Binnenhof of The Hague was our next destination where both chambers of government engage in daily operation, comparable to a Dutch version of the Australian Parliament House. Whilst my local equivalent only opened in 1988, the Binnenhof dates back to the 13th century! Meetings of the State General of the Netherlands and the Ministry of General Affairs are held within its walls, and it also houses the office of the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. It’s function as the national political centre has been tradition for a half-millennium since the existence of the Dutch Republic. Within the outskirts of the Binnenhof is the Ridderzaal, in English, the Hall of Knights. A small flight of stairs below ground leads to an exhibition about the responsibilities of knights throughout history and the royal condition. We viewed a particularly interesting artwork which delineates the kinship connections of the royal family and the roots of the nation as it exists today. The Netherlands once belonged to the Zeventien Nederlanden (Seventeen Netherlands). A netherland is a low-lying country belonging to the Bourgondische Rijkskriets in the mid 1500s. Overtime, Belgium and Luxembourg sought their independence from the conglomerate for reasons of a political nature. A gothic architectural influence has been maintained in all the renovations and restorations of the government house and its surrounding offices which collectively border the edge of the Hofvijver lake. It is a sight of medieval times entirely awe-striking due to its stark contrast to the surrounding structures and the public that inhabit the square.

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We returned to Carnegie Street, the namesake of the steel mogul and philanthropist with whom the construction of the Peace Palace became a conceptual reality. My parents and I were pinned with a badge reading TOURS and ushered through a metal detector before we were allowed into the gated perimeter of this icon of diplomatic cooperation. The grass is greener on the other side. Everything concerning this romanticised representation of peace appeared idyllic and pristine. The red rose bushes, the primp kept lawn and gardens, the terracotta brick castle and even the blue sky within these gates could not have been more vivid were I looking at a painting. We entered the castle through the granite gates of Belgian origin and through an equally heavy door topped with a soft round archway. Our group of twenty entered into an echoing hallway crafted of marble tiles from floor to ceiling, our mouths open and eyes filled with wonder. The extravagant design was made possible due to the donation of materials from all over the world which is another symbol that peace and prosperity is not possible without multilateral cooperation. The Peace Palace is a truly international feat. The first gift given to the Peace Palace was from its commissioner Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: an emerald vase so heavy the tiles underneath it required reenforcement to support its sheer weight. This extravagant token set the standard for gift-giving. The courtyard is home to a fountain of porcelain polar bears from Denmark that must be bedecked during winter to protect the sensitive material from the cold. The gift from the British Commonwealth was a four-piece depiction of the Evolution of the Peace Ideal in stained glass located in the chamber windows of the International Court of Justice. This same chamber contains a wall-sized painting of the Maiden of Peace holding her son, Wealth, to represent that economic prosperity is fostered though cooperation and her salience in the oil artwork is to show that peace is inevitable and forthcoming. It is graspable and will be realised through means of law. Law and peace are prominent themes in this space, accentuated in the creeds built onto the wall that read LEX and PAX. The neighbouring chamber is entitled the Japanese Room due to the silken tapestries woven in imitation of the larger than life oil paintings produced in Western Europe. This room hosts the annual meetings of the member parties and each seat is represented by a stool embroidered with the national creed of that country. I spotted Australia with ease on the far side of the room.

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I was reluctant to have to leave the castle and all it represents at the end of the end of the tour. The accessibility of this ideal gives hope to my perception of the human condition and motivates my reinvigorated aspiration to work in an institution that purports the same vision. Before my parents and I departed we took a moment to pace around the World Peace Flame. An eternal flame in the centre of a portable monument made to represent the highest intensions for ensuring peace through cooperation and solidarity between the 197 agreed countries. In 2004, seven such icons were placed on five continents and each nation contributed a stone to the World Peace Pathway. It was only small and not very remarkable, but this World Peace Flame Pathway invited visitors to walk its circumference and make a prayer. With the experience of The Hague and our wishes for peace lingering in our thoughts, we made our way home to Antwerp.

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