Teachable Moments, Grotian Moment: May 18 and The Peace Palace Centenary

  international_court_of_justice600Within the field of psychology, a revolutionary paradigm shift known as ‘positive psychology’ is redirecting the attention of researchers to the positive.  Shifting away from the lugubrious ‘DSM IV mindset’ which focuses on disease and illness, the new paradigm turns instead towards inspiring stories of human flourishing.  In the new paradigm, focus on e.g., the connection between addiction and poverty is replaced by a focus on character traits – such as resilience and optimism – that have enabled some to transcend their inauspicious conditions.  The time is ripe for discourse on International Justice (IJ) to experience a similar paradigm shift.

Naturally, discourse on IJ tends to be dominated by stories of atrocity.  IJ is concerned with the development and implementation of mechanisms (criminal prosecutions, truth commissions) aimed at redressing state sponsored horrors.  The hope is that these mechanisms can help to heal the wounds inflicted by such outrageous harms and, ultimately, construct a substantive notion of human dignity that is realized both in state practice and in  ‘the small places close to home’.  It is in this domain that we encounter the meme of ‘Truth and Memory’ (T/M).   In its present mode, IJ tends to interpret T/M through a narrow lens, focusing on the abuses, violations and the public’s understanding of these harms.  T/M initiatives are concerned with deepening the public’s understanding (Memory) by preserving and communicating (Truth) about human rights violations, usually via state-sponsored truth commissions.

As important as it is to note, name and record such violations, it is imperative for IJ to link its concern with Truth and Memory to positive stories of accomplishment and hope.  A rich source of inspiration for IJ is the 19th century peace movement which led to the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907.  Why?  These conferences marked the first time that the international community and an organized, mobilized public worked together to build an international institution aimed at ending war: The Permanent Court of Arbitration.  This achievement was so extraordinary that Andrew Carnegie, a private U.S. citizen, donated 1.5 million dollars to give, in his words, this ‘High Court of Humanity’ a proper, symbolic home.  Known today as ‘The Peace Palace’, this poignant symbol of optimism and faith in humanity is located at 2 Carnegieplein (Carnegie Place) in The Hague, Netherlands.  Unfortunately, few people know this story.  Consequently, few understand this story about how the U.S. government worked with the private sector and with educators to realize –for a moment- the pacifist vision behind the 1899 Hague Peace Conference.  Nor is it widely known that the 1899 Hague Peace Conference was so momentous to the U.S. that it inspired a state-sponsored program of peace education.  Inspiring stories such as these should be part of our ‘collective memory’ for they, too, have a role to play in fostering true healing and, possibly, the construction of a substantive notion of human dignity that is realized in both state practice and in the small places close to home.

Let us begin remembImageering this ‘positive history’ today on May 18, a day full of significance for the history of International Justice.  Just prior to the second Hague Peace Conference (1907), the U.S. Commissioner of Education, Dr. Elmer Ellsworth Brown, recommended in 1906 that the 18th day of May should be observed as Peace Day in the public schools.  The celebration of this day, the anniversary of the assembling of the first Peace Conference at The Hague, was embraced by public schools across the United States. Essays were written for prize contests in which students were invited to write about ‘The Significance of the two Hague Peace Conferences’ and ‘The opportunity and duty of the schools in the international peace movement’.  Anti-war plays such as Beulah Marie Dix’s ‘The Enemy’ (which, if written today, might very well be titled ‘The Other’) and Katrina Trask’s ‘In the Vanguard’ were performed by children throughout the country.   Poems like Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’ (which notes the coming of a ‘Parliament of Man, Federation of the World’) were recited. Students memorized long bits of prose – e.g., about the United States’ July 4, 1899 celebration at Grotius’ tomb in Delft, the Netherlands, which occurred during the 1899 Hague Peace Conference.

This history is both inspiring and instructive for a number of reasons.

First, it reveals that at the outset, IJ acknowledged the importance of public education in realizing the vision that began with the 1899 Hague Peace Conference.  Philander P. Claxton, the Secretary of the Interior of the U.S. described public school classrooms as ‘workshops of humanity’ which cultivated the ‘citizens of the future’.   Nor were these ‘workshops of humanity’ to be found only in spaces inhabited by students.  In 1907, then Secretary of State Elihu Root, wrote the very first article in the inaugural issue of the journal of the American Society of International Law, entitled ‘The Need of Popular Understanding of International Law.’  There he wrote ‘[t]he more clearly and universally the people of a country realize the international obligations and duties of their country, the less likely they will be to resent the just demands of other countries that those obligations and duties be observed.’  Root’s words underscore the importance of public ‘informal’ education to the project of IJ.  meronMore recently, Judge Theodor Meron has warned us that unless the ‘public conscience’ is educated so that it is infused with ‘moderating and humanitarian views’, the ‘triumph of humanization’ will continue to have but a mere rhetorical existence thus perpetuating the contrast between the enlightened normative framework of international humanitarian law and the ‘harsh, often barbaric reality of the battlefield.’  The pioneers of peace education remind us of the centrality of this educational task and that it cannot, in Judge Meron’s words, ‘be left to the Law alone.’

Second, in recognizing the importance of education of all individuals, these early ‘friends of humanity’ recognized that public school teachers and children had just as much – if not more – of an important role to play in the project than do international lawyers.  This importance was noted by Andrew Dickson White, head of the U.S. delegation to the 1899 Hague Peace Conference, in a 1909 address entitled ‘The Colleges and International Arbitration’.  ADW_DelftAfter discussing the failure of Emperor Joseph II of Germany who yearned for the betterment of his people, but ‘failed utterly’ because ‘[e]verybody resisted him’,  Ambassador White noted that ‘one of the most important means, if not the most important, of advancing this great cause [replacing war with arbitration]….is  steady work in our universities, colleges and schools’. Thus, Ambassador White appreciated that in order to prevent the peace movement from suffering the same fate as Joseph II,  all students – and not just law students – must be reached. Incidentally, the report notes ‘Applause’ at the end of Ambassador White’s remark.   At the outset, IJ – motivated by the goal of peace and universal brotherhood – eschewed both legalism and professionalism and recognized the importance of widespread and systematic education on the advantages of peace over war.

Third, the Peace Palace – which celebrates its centenary this August 28 – was a foundation stone that was not the outcome of any specific conflict.  Rather, the Peace Palace was built with funds provided by a private U.S. citizen in an effort to prevent widespread ignorance about the 1899 Hague Peace Conference and to provide an ‘outward and visible sign’ of the Permanent Court of Arbitration  – the chief accomplishment of this conference.  ThImagee very fact that the individuals who began building the temple of IJ over 100 years ago thought of us and future generations, inspires, at least for this individual, feelings of gratitude and noble obligation.  Bertha von Suttner’s motto, ‘Hail to the Future!’, induces a motivational power that may very well outstrip ‘righteous indignation’ in infusing international law with a substantive notion of human dignity.   Righteous indignation has been the chief affective architect that has been busy at work constructing that most recent portion of IJ’s edifice known as International Criminal Law .  Still, the optimism unleashed by ‘Hail to the Future’ is more resistant to the obstacles – doubters, skeptics, inevitable negativity —  that can derail righteous indignation.  Hecklers were present at the opening of the Peace Palace, and noting them, von Suttner wisely remarked that ‘nothing new and great has ever come into the world without the sneering of fools.’ Doubtless her optimism and faith in the future enabled her to continue her march forward.Let’s seize this day, May 18, as a defining moment – a Grotian Moment – in which we begin to restore the memories of this ‘positive history’ connected with IJ .

This process of positive reconstruction can begin with a simple reading of the 1912 New York Times article on Peace Day, which you can read here.

You may also want to take a look at one of the U.S. government’s May 18 curricular guides published in 1912 here.

And there’s even a 1915 pamphlet about the history of May 18 which you can read here.

In the near future, August 28, 2013 presents us with another great moment to recover the past and hail the future.  Not only does this day mark the centenary of the Peace Palace, but it is also the 50 year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech – a true battle hymn Imagefor optimists which exhorts us to use our faith ‘to hew, out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.’ The centenary of the Peace Palace affords us not only with a teachable moment to ‘connect the dots’ between both international and domestic non-violent movements, but also with a Grotian Moment which marks a potential transition from one type of outlook to another – an outlook that is broader, infused with an understanding of Truth and Memory that includes the positive and which offers a picture of what is possible when the tent of IJ, eschewing legalism and professionalism, is truly widened.


Carnegie, Andrew, A League of Peace: A Rectorial Address to the Students in the University of Saint Andrews, 17th October 1905.

Lysen, Arnoldus, History of The Carnegie Foundation and the Peace Palace at The Hague, Brill (1934)

Meron, Theodor, The Martens Clause, Principles of Humanity, and Dictates of Public Conscience, The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 94, No. 1 (Jan. 2000), pp. 78-79.    http://www.jstor.org/stable/2555232

Meron, Theodor, The Humanization of Humanitarian Law, The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 94, No. 2 (Apr. 2000), pp. 239-278.    http://www.jstor.org/stable/2555292
White, Andrew D. The Colleges and International Arbitration. In The Report of the Annual Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration, 1909. pp. 129-137.

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