Human Rights

The Hague Centenary: towards a culture of peace

Convened in 1899 by Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, the First International Peace Conference at the Hague was an historic event in more ways than one.

From it emerged the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which was the first international intergovernmental organization devoted to the peaceful settlement of disputes and, as such, an all-important precursor the United Nations. The Conference also resulted in important (albeit limited) prohibitions on several terrible new weapons, specifically asphyxiating gases, expanding bullets and the discharge of projectiles or explosives from balloons.

Looking back, it can also be said that this initial modern effort at open-ended, multilateral diplomacy also stands as perhaps the first tangible political evidence of humanity's collective consciousness of its own oneness. Together, the First and the Second Hague Conferences (the Second was held in 1907) established the principle of universality in international relations, inasmuch as states from outside Europe participated in both conferences. The two conferences also established the diplomatic equality of small states with large ones, in that each state had one vote. The Hague Conferences also called attention to the emerging reality of a global state system and the need to regulate it within a framework of international law.

The upcoming centennial celebration of the First Hague Peace Conference, scheduled for May 1999, promises to be a significant milestone in the further development of humanity's collective identity. The commemorations will begin with an event organized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), The Hague Appeal for Peace, followed by an intergovernmental gathering that will serve as the official observance of the centenary of the first Conference.

The two events have identified important themes for discussion and reflection. At the intergovernmental event, the agenda will feature the same discussion points as the First Conference: 1) the question of armaments; 2) humanitarian law and the laws and customs of war; and 3) the peaceful settlement of international disputes.

The NGO-sponsored event will focus on four themes that, in many respects, are simply somewhat more passionate elaborations of the points identified by governments. These topics, which comprise the planks of an international campaign or "appeal" for peace, include: 1) strengthening international humanitarian and human rights laws and institutions; 2) advancing the prevention, peaceful resolution, and transformation of violent conflict; 3) developing and linking disarmament efforts, including nuclear abolition; and 4) identifying the root causes of war and developing a culture of peace.

The focus on such themes is timely. The 20th century has been among the bloodiest in history. At the same time, steady progress towards the eradication of war has been made.

With each successive step, from the First Hague Conference to the League of Nations to the United Nations, the means for the peaceful settlement of international disputes have been more firmly established. And the succession of other conferences, conventions and agreements aimed at promoting human rights, sustainable development and disarmament, in addition to strides in public education and the increasing reach of a globalized media, has made war increasingly unacceptable _ both morally and politically _ as a means for resolving conflict.

Yet much remains to be done. Regional and civil wars still rage, and the threat of wider conflict remains. Terrible weapons remain at the ready. In many places international covenants to respect and promote human rights continue to go unheeded.

It is significant that both upcoming Hague events recognize civil society as a key actor in international affairs today. The NGO-sponsored "Appeal" makes this point manifestly clear: not only is it organized by civil society itself, but it relies on global civil society as the main engine for its campaign. Moreover, the Program of Action for the intergovernmental conference also explicitly takes note of the importance of civil society in furthering the processes of peace, stating "the work of NGOs to mobilize public opinion will be invaluable during the regional sessions and seminars in preparation for the 1999 conferences, as will be their expert knowledge on the subject matter."

Indeed, one of the goals of the NGO-sponsored "Appeal" is to create "new partnerships between citizens, governments, and international organizations" in the hope of establishing a "new diplomacy that will "delegitimize armed conflict."

In this respect, the NGO event may well eclipse the intergovernmental one, inasmuch as the agenda of the governments at the Hague is largely commemorative while the NGO event aims at further mobilizing civil society and effecting a general change in public consciousness.

This is important because the key questions facing humanity today surround not so much the founding of entirely new institutions but rather the creation of public support that will promote the effective functioning of existing ones. And this includes not only the United Nations but also the various action plans and conventions on human rights, sustainable development and other global issues.

What is needed at this moment in history, as the Hague Appeal indicates, is the creation of a "culture of peace" — something that can probably be accomplished only if civil society takes a leading role.

In 1919, just after World War I, `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, addressed an extended letter to the Central Organization for a Durable Peace at The Hague, a non-governmental organization founded in the wake of the first two Hague Peace Conferences. The letter remains noteworthy for its vision of peace _ and its advice about the prerequisites for the establishment of peace.

"This recent war has proved to the world and the people that war is destruction while universal peace is construction; war is death while peace is life; war is rapacity and bloodthirstiness while peace is beneficence and humaneness," wrote `Abdu'l-Bahá. "There is not one soul whose conscience does not testify that in this day there is no more important matter in the world than that of universal peace."

He stated that the key to establishing peace is "unity of conscience." He wrote, "until the minds of men become united, no important matter can be accomplished. At present universal peace is a matter of great importance, but unity of conscience is essential, so that the foundation of this matter may become secure, its establishment firm and its edifice strong."

According to `Abdu'l-Bahá, such unity of conscience must be based on a number of progressive principles and actions. These include the equality of women and men, the provision of education for all, and a ceaseless search for truth and justice.

Further, `Abdu'l-Bahá indicated that the root causes of wars are the various forms of prejudice and intolerance that stem from disagreements or differences over religion, race, political or economic ideology, or simple nationalistic patriotism. The key to ending war lies in overcoming and abandoning these prejudices, which can be done only by understanding humanity's innate oneness.

"The surface of the earth is one native land," He wrote. "Every one can live in any spot on the terrestrial globe. Therefore all the world is man's birthplace."

He also called for the establishment of a universally representative "supreme tribunal" to which international disputes could be referred for definitive settlement, something that might well be built on the foundations of today's United Nations system (including the International Court of Justice, the direct antecedent to the Permanent Court of Arbitration).

In many respects, the world has begun to act on this vision. The Centenary of the First Hague Peace Conference and the associated Hague Appeal for Peace offer an important and timely occasion for collective reflection on how far we have come _ and how much farther we have to go _ in creating the "unity of conscience" that underlies the creation of a culture of peace.