That was the title of this year’s Dachau lecture given by Mayor Jan van Zanen on 23 September. This annual lecture is organised by the Netherlands Dachau Committee in memory of the victims and survivors of the Dachau concentration camp. The lecture this year was dedicated to Carel Steensma (1912-2006), pilot, resistance fighter and the first director of the Nederlands Congresgebouw, now the World Forum. He survived the horrors of Natzweiler and Dachau. This article is a shortened version of the lecture given by Mayor Jan van Zanen.
“From Nuremberg to The Hague – the quest for peace and justice”
After the Second World War it was at Nuremberg that war criminals were held accountable by the world community for the first time in history. The Hague, already the international city of peace and justice since the late 19th century, has evolved, especially since the 1990s, into a centre for international criminal law. And in many other ways too, people here have long worked to build a peaceful, just and safe world.
The organisers of the Dachau lecture therefore could not have chosen a better place than the World Forum, formerly the Nederlands Congresgebouw (Netherlands’ conference centre). Not least, of course, because the name of Carel Steensma is so closely associated with it. As the first director, Carel Steensma played an important part in the development of The Hague as an international conference city. But there is another reason, too. The area where the World Forum now stands provides a good illustration of how The Hague has developed since 1945. During the Second World War most of the buildings in this area were demolished to make way for the Atlantic Wall defence fortifications of the German occupying forces. That after the war a building rose from the ashes in which the world could come together, holds a special symbolism. Since the 1990s this area of The Hague has become the International Zone. Where the World Forum rubs shoulders with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (that later won the Nobel Peace Prize), Europol and Eurojust, as well as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY.
I recently visited the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. This body was set up by the UN Security Council to wind up the remaining court cases of the Yugoslavia tribunal and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. During my visit I realised once again just how much these courts of law have contributed to the development of international criminal law. As well as how important these tribunals have been for the survivors and bereaved families of the victims of genocide in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. We must never forget that this is about crimes against individuals. Sometimes very large groups but victims are, and always will be, individuals. People like you and me. People like Carel Steensma and his fellow prisoners in Natzweiler and Dachau. But that is also what is remarkable about international criminal law, that it affects people individually.
The ICTY had a difficult start. The tribunal was lacking in everything, most of all funding and support from governments. What it did have, however, was former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on its side. She and others managed to persuade UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that failure of the ICTY would represent a failure of the international community. In his first report to the UN the first President of the ICTY, Antonio Cassese, formulated it thus: “If these men – he was referring to the war criminals from the former Yugoslavia – if these men be immune, then law has lost its meaning, and man – humanity – must live in fear”. Ratko Mladic, responsible for the genocide in Srebrenica, is one of the men who was called to account by the tribunal. Today he is still serving his sentence in Scheveningen prison.
In his report Cassese explicitly quoted the statement of chief prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz at the trial of the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazis’ mobile death squads, in Nuremberg, September 1947. Benjamin Ferencz, now 102 years young, has always been a tireless advocate for international criminal law. In 1998 he was closely involved in the drafting of the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court, whose work in The Hague began in 2002.
In February of this year the world was shaken by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The news had a major impact everywhere but in The Hague it was perhaps particularly felt as something bitter. All the more so when reports of war crimes such as those committed in Bucha, reached us. Is the quest for peace and justice a futile one and is war, as people used to think, something unavoidable that will trample you underfoot anyway? As important as it is to keep things in perspective, if there is one thing that we must always guard against it is cynicism. Like Andrew Carnegie, who donated the Peace Palace to The Hague, what we need to be is realistic idealists. The fact that war has broken out does not mean that we should cease our efforts to prevent it. Or that we should end our commitment to human rights. Every chemical weapon destroyed helps to make the world a safer place. Every war criminal convicted, despite the fact that so many of them are still at large, makes the world a little more just.
The Hague will continue to strive for peace and justice in whatever way it can. By continuing to invest in the academic knowledge infrastructure in this field, for example. So that students from all over the world can continue to come here to learn the principles of international law and then take that knowledge back home with them. As a Shelter City, ten years ago we were one of the first in the Netherlands to offer refuge to those fighting for the rights of minorities and a free press. To give them respite. We support active initiatives such as The Hague Humanity Hub, a community of people and organisations who – despite their diversity – have one thing in common: their drive to find innovative solutions for everything that has to do with peace, justice and humanitarian interventions, among other things.
Another example is providing a home base for international and non-governmental organisations. Like the Mukwege Foundation of Nobel Prize-winner, Dr. Denis Mukwege. The help that Dr. Mukwege provides to victims of sexual violence in war zones (violence that is often deliberately used as a weapon of terror) provides an outstanding example of the efforts made by countless doctors for the sake of humanity and for peace. How new technology is being used for humanitarian purposes was something I was able to see first hand during a recent visit to The Hague-based headquarters of the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP. This international organisation searches for missing people worldwide using pioneering DNA search methods. The ICMP has now been able to identify almost three quarters of all persons known to be missing as a result of the war in former Yugoslavia. The ICMP is currently operating in Ukraine, too.
Last, but not least, in the spirit of Carel Steensma, we remain committed to bringing international conferences to The Hague. As recently as last July, for example, when the Ukraine Accountability Conference was held here at the World Forum, organised by the Dutch government together with the European Commission and the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The ICC had already launched an investigation into war crimes committed in Ukraine. In the meantime a group of leading scholars and writers have called for a special Ukraine tribunal to be set up. For the British-French lawyer Philippe Sands there is only one city which qualifies for that role: The Hague. Although he cautions against too high expectations. He emphasises that international law is a process that demands patience. It is precisely that which keeps him engaged. The 102-year-old Benjamin Ferencz would probably agree.
I feel privileged to be the mayor of a city that not only has ‘peace and justice’ as its motto but which also actively contributes in many different ways to the spread of peace and justice in the world. Current events remind us every day of the need for this and our responsibility to do that.
In that respect it is people like Carel Steensma, who never lost hope even under the bleakest and most desperate of circumstances, who cared about other people and kept the torch of humanity burning, who remain a constant source of inspiration.