A Brief History of the Peace Palace

Tsar Nicholas II
  Tsar Nicholas II

On May 18, 1899 some one-hundred diplomats, military men, jurists and politicians from all over the world gathered in The Hague for the official opening of an international peace conference, the first of the so-called 'Hague Conventions', to be staged in the royal palace of Huis ten Bosch. The initiative for the conference had been taken a year earlier by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who had sent out a rescript in which he put down his concerns about the international arms race (in which Russia itself was one of the greatest perpetrators), which would almost certainly lead to a large scale armed conflict. Apart from the one-hundred 'chosen ones', as they were called, a large contingent of writers, scientists and activists came to The Hague and staged their own pacifist meetings in the perifery of the official conference. Among them were the Austrian countess Bertha von Suttner, author of Die Waffen nieder! and other pacifist publications, the British journalist William Stead and the originally Polish scientist Jean de Bloch, author of the six-volume The Future of War in Its Technical, Economic and Political Relations, in which the horrific consequences of the war to come were graphically illustrated.

Bertha von Suttner
John Stead
Jean de Bloch
From left to right: Bertha von Suttner, William Stead and Jean de Bloch.

The official conference was divided over two committees, who debated about questions such as the arms race, the human aspects of war (arguments in favour and against the use of the dum-dum bullet and asphyxiating gases were defended) and international humanitarian law (what are the rights of prisoners of war, how to protect medical staff on the battle field). The not very realistic goal of the conference was to come to a general stop to the arms race.

The goals that were achieved, however, have had for over a century an enormous impact on international legal relations in times of armed conflict. A recapitulation of the rules and instructions concerning battle resulted in a rephrasing of the Geneva Convention of 1864 (which addressed the principle of fair and humane treatment to wounded and sick military personnel in land war as first proposed by Henry Dunant, founding father of the International Red Cross). Most importantly a decision was made to come to a formalization of the International Arbitration League of 1870. In order to be able to prevent armed conflict, international arbitration was institutionalized. Thus, in the summer of 1899, when the conference ended, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was established. It was intended to administer arbitration, conciliation and fact finding in disputes involving various combinations of states, private parties and intergovernmental organizations. It first set up office in the city of The Hague, but it needed a more convenient home.

Mesdag's room with a view
The painter Hendrik Willem Mesdag's room with a view after the Peace Palace was built.

The PCA and the Peace Palace The wealthiest man on earth at the time was Andrew Carnegie. The Scottish-American industrialist had lately begun to donate his capital to good causes and was also being slowly involved in the world peace movement. He was asked in 1902 to consider sponsoring offices and a library for the PCA. Fedor Martens, a Russian lawyer and diplomat was one of the many persons who managed to gently push Carnegie into agreeing to do so. In 1904 the Carnegie Foundation was established, its name-giver donating a sum of $ 1.5 million (now at least c. $ 30 million).

As for the construction of the building itself, Carnegie expressed his wish for an open and international competition resulting in a building that was to stand alone, preferably in a park. The building should contain spacious rooms, large enough to have meetings in and be provided with a great library equipped with all the modern technical devices.

After much debate the Zorgvliet area, a green suburb at the west of The Hague, was chosen as the site to build the Peace Palace. In the summer of 1905 an international competion for the design was organized, which was eventually won by Louis M. Cordonnier (1854-1938) of Lille, France.

Cordonnier's rather baroque design was sobered down, both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of finance, by the Dutch architect J.A.G. van der Steur. On July 30, 1907, coinciding with the Second Hague Peace Conference, the stone-laying ceremony took place. Six years later the Peace Palace and grounds (designed by the famous English landscape architect T.H. Mawson) were officially opened. In the presence of four-hundred guests, among whom the Dutch Royal Family, Andrew Carnegie and an international group of legal experts, politicians and pacifists, Carnegie Foundation President Jonkheer A.C.P. van Karnebeek symbolically handed over the ornate key of the entrance gate to the Peace Palace to the Administrative Council of the PCA.

peace palace design
peace palace design
peace palace gardens design
From left to right: Louis Cordonnier's and Otto Wagner's designs for the Peace Palace, and Mawson's design for the grounds. In May 2003 the Carnegie Foundation presented a series of drawings of the Peace Palace on long-term loan to the Netherlands Architecture Institute.


Other institutions Originally intended to be just the home of the PCA, in 1922 the Peace Palace became home for the Permanent Court of International Justice. This Court was reinstituted after the Second World War as the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. The Court has a dual role: to settle in accordance with international law the legal disputes submitted to it by States, and to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by duly authorized international organs and agencies.

During the Second Hague Peace Conference of 1907 it was already suggested that an international legal academy should be founded as a research and educational institute next to the PCA. However, it was only in 1923 the Hague Academy of International Law was established. Since then it has become a centre for high-level education in public and private international law. Its goal is to facilitate the in-depth, impartial examination of international legal issues.

Polar bears The Peace Palace received many gifts, from nations all over the world. Brought together in the Peace Palace these gifts would symbolize the unity of mankind and the cooperation with which the institutes gathered in the Palace would strive for peace. The fountain in the Palace court, embellished with (not so peaceful) images of polar bears and their preys, was a gift from Denmark, or, more precisely, Greenland.

polar bear fountain
polar bear fountain
polar bear fountain
Photographs: Onno Kosters

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