THE HAGUE, Netherlands – It started 107 years ago with a somewhat cynical call by the czar of Russia for a disarmament conference that, for reasons of diplomatic niceties and international rivalries, ended up in the small capital of a neutral country, The Hague.
Since that first conference in 1899, the Dutch city near the North Sea coast has become host to a confusing array of international courts, law enforcement agencies and weapons watchdogs. One of them marked its 60th anniversary last week, while another may soon be added to try Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, who is accused of directing rebels in Sierra Leone in rape, murder, child recruitment and trafficking in guns and diamonds during a decade-long civil war.
Taylor's judges deemed it too risky to hold his trial in Sierra Leone, and asked that it take place far from his supporters who could cause trouble.
The choice of The Hague was natural. Dutch police have a settled routine for guarding the world's most infamous war crimes suspects and shuttling them between jail and courthouse. The government has "host country" agreements with the courts for providing visas and facilities for jurists, witnesses and journalists.
That 1899 conference was convened at the suggestion of Czar Nicholas who wanted a 10-year freeze on Europe's madcap arms race — mainly because Russia was way behind. Though doomed from the start, it began a tradition of bringing world leaders together to discuss peace.
It also put The Hague on the map.
"The Hague proved an inspired choice," wrote U.S. historian Barbara W. Tuchman. With its smiling citizens, flowering summer countryside, windmills and canals, "the once quiet town, a 'gracious anachronism' of brick houses and cobblestone streets, bustled with welcome."
Parts of the city of 700,000 retain a 19th century veneer, despite its sprawling glass City Hall in the town center and tall, imaginative office blocks on the outskirts.
Still small and manageable, it is nonetheless home to some 150 international organizations and 12,000 expatriates, many of them with healthy U.N. salaries and expense accounts, who contribute 5 percent of the city's economy.
Jurists from the various courts mingle often for drinks and gossip. "Judges do all talk together. It's a small community here," said Rosalyn Higgins, the British president of the World Court.
The British, French, American, German and International school systems all have branches in The Hague. Poland, Indonesia and others run supplemental classes once or twice a week.
The proliferation of courts can be bewildering.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, housed in the former headquarters of an insurance company, was created in 1993 to prosecute Balkan war suspects. It has indicted 161 people and convicted 44 of them.
Last month, former President Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack in his prison cell just months before his four-year-long trial before the tribunal was due to end.
The International Criminal Court set up shop in 2002 in a former telecommunications tower, overcoming a vigorous U.S. campaign to block its creation. The world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, it received its first and so far only suspect last month — former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga. It also is investigating war crimes suspects in Uganda, the Central African Republic and the Sudanese district of Darfur.
The International Court of Justice, often called the World Court, occupies the neo-Baroque Peace Palace in the city center, an elegant counterpoint to the bland office blocks of its sister courts. A Hague landmark since 1913, it was built by the Scottish-American steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who along with Swedish dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel, was among philanthropists who financed the early days of the peace movement.
Unlike the other courts which judge individual war crimes suspects, the World Court — which just turned 60 — adjudicates disputes among U.N. member states and delivers nonbinding legal opinions sought by other U.N. bodies.
Among its landmark opinions were a finding that the use of nuclear weapons is legal in some circumstances and that Israel's security barrier in the West Bank violates international law.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration, for which Carnegie built the Peace Palace where it still sits, is rarely heard from since its deliberations are published only by agreement of the parties. In its most recent case, it arbitrated the maritime boundary between Trinidad and Barbados which are arguing over fishing rights.
The Hague also is home to the Europol police agency; Eurojust, a parallel umbrella group for European prosecutors; and the U.N chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.