Seven on a Thursday night, a crowd lines up in front of the Peace Palace. Not to attend a hearing or to visit the palace gardens, but for a special edition of Hague Talks (a discussion platform initiated by the foundation Hague Project Peace and Justice) that kicks-off the Just Peace festival. The event is English spoken, the audience is an international one. It is completely sold out, a live-stream is provided on Facebook. International justice is hot. The ambience is glamorous; there is wine at the entrance, the room is dynamically set-up around an oval stage, speakers wear headsets and make no use of paper but perform their speech freely walking around, surrounded by multiple photographers and film crews. Not only words but also dance, cartoons, images, artworks, documentary film and music are doing the talking. Even the talks are visual. Most of them start with a personal anecdote, inviting us to visualize different times and different spaces, to empathize with the story. Artist Daan Wubben explicitly mentioned his desire to provide us with a new visual vocabulary, to make us see stories of peace and justice. It is a multisensory event.
Some critical side-notes, while the dance performance ‘court dance’ aims to break stereotypes, the dancer who performs ‘the victim’ is (stereotypically?) dressed in white and looks scared, while ‘justice’ in blue aims to separate her from ‘the accused’, who constantly keeps an eye on the victim and is dressed in black. Of course the interpretation of the dance is personal and depends on preconceptions. International defence lawyer Francois Roux is asked to give his view and notes that it strikes him that all dancers, regardless of their roles, are human. He uses the dance as an opportunity to bring across a point he has been making for several years: that we should never forget the humanity of the accused. While empathy seemed to be a shared message between the speakers, a little disagreement occurs on whether this empathy should be exclusively reserved for victims, or also for the perpetrator. Not a minor detail, but tonight it seems only a small dissonant in an otherwise perfectly orchestrated event.
Was it thought provoking? Encouraging? Setting peace and justice in motion? Or was a preaching to the choir? Repeating oft-heard arguments to an already activated group of people? The majority of the audience consists of students in for example international relations, international law and development studies. From questions to the presenters, it appears that they are eager to find out how to get a job that gives them a chance to contribute to a more peaceful society. On the other hand, the call for civil disobedience and ‘screams’ to stop mass violence elicited a critical response from the audience. Peace and justice were celebrated as the ideal, but some cynicism about the potential for action also entered the room. Even if in the end, optimism prevailed. The Hague Orchestra for Peace is playing, we can donate money to a crowdfunding campaign for developing Tinder for orangutans, drinks are served. It is a festival, after all.