Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hague visit

Photo: Wikimedia

It would be challenging to design a less-peaceful-looking building than the Vredespalais (Peace Palace) in the Hague. Spiky crosses jut out of the severely-angled roof like the barbs on the back of a horse-shoe crab, and a single tower on the left-hand side dominates the rest of the building (the architect had envisioned two towers, but but the project ran out of money, despite Andrew Carnegie's founding gift of what would in today's currency equal 200 million Euros). It was completed in 1913, just in time to stand sentinel beside the carnage of WWI. Tragi-irony.

The Peace Palace was intended as a solution to the problem that loomed large for the first half of the 20th century: wars between nation-states. It was to provide a neutral, posh meeting ground on which world leaders could unite to work out their disagreements civilly. As such, its failures dwarf its successes. But the threat of nation-state war has faded nevertheless.

Today, the Palace's main occupants are the International Court of Justice and the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Most of the cases are secret, but the tour guide gave as an example a recent non-secret hearing between the Khartoum government and the government of South Sudan over a site of potential oil exploration.

Overall, the Peace Palace stands as an aesthetic monument to a bygone, short-lived era of nation-state grandeur and jostling. The tour guide's narrative directed my gaze from the mosaic floor (a gift constructed with the labor of "15 French girls") to a giant cross-carrying statue of Christ ("It stands only for peace, not religion -- it was a gift from Argentina and Chile commemorating the end of their border dispute") to a set of stained glass windows (thanks, England). Then we arrived at the "Japanese room," which houses silk tapestries made, our tour guide said, by 48,000 artisans (which seems ridiculously high, but they were definitely ornate), as well as a giant kilim from Turkey and Ming dynasty vases, each the size of an obese ten-year-old, from China. This chamber provided the tour's most intriguing mystery: each chair was donated by a particular country and bore an embroidered back with a flag or a crest, most of them immediately recognizable. But one contained a diamond shape half-filled in turquoise and half in white, with a pole with a red ski cap perched on top bisecting it. Any ideas who this might be? Argentina, perhaps?

On my way from the Peace Palace to Malakkastraat, in search of the home of a long-lost friend, I passed the embassy of Chechnya. From the staid, frozen-in-time pompousness of the Peace Palace, which struck me as an anachronistic artifact in an era marked by non-state enemies and the blurring of public/private distinctions, the Chechens' outpost reminded me of the intensity and ardor behind struggles for statehood, which are ongoing and play out far from the Hague's plush halls.

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