THE HAGUE, Feb 14 (Reuters) - In a tiny office on Zeestraat 100, Alice Helbing puts the final touches to a script for an imaginary counter-terrorism exercise in the Netherlands. A few doors down the corridor, staff from a legal aid group are digging into real war crimes in Ivory Coast.
Nearby at Humanity House, a small museum devoted to raising awareness about aid for the victims of disaster, visitors can find out what it’s like to be a refugee - to have to flee your home, leaving dinner on the table, with no money, no mobile phone, no passport, just the clothes you are wearing.
Behind its staid Dutch exterior, The Hague has become a hothouse for human rights ventures and international legal services, invigorating the local economy with new jobs and an influx of mainly foreign professionals.
But it has also become so much of an international hub that sometimes locals feel like strangers in their own town.
“The Hague has become an incubator, a sort of legal Silicon Valley,” said one diplomat who follows the courts.
Many of the rights and legal groups are housed in two utilitarian office buildings near the city centre: At Zeestraat 100, staff from non-government organisation Africa Legal Aid rub shoulders with game designer Alice Helbing and her fellow conflict resolution trainers from the Pax Ludens foundation. Around the corner, Laan van Meerdervoort 70 provides space for groups like the United Network of Young Peacebuilders.
The policy-makers, foreign or defence ministry officials, and students who attend Pax Ludens’s training sessions on negotiating tactics can role play to get a taste of what it is like to be U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, or to head the Israeli and Saudi Arabian delegations and hold secret talks over the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“We have to be here,” said Diederik Stolk, a project officer who develops training programmes for Pax Ludens. “We get access to policymakers, ministers, diplomats.”
Down the corridor, Africa Legal Aid tracks the work of the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, whose cases have so far all involved Africa, including investigations in Ivory Coast and Kenya that have had huge political significance at home.
ALA’s director Evelyn Ankumah says the ICC’s work in the Netherlands is essential to address crimes that otherwise might go unpunished in the places they are committed and, if anything, its remit should be expanded to take on economic and environmental crimes, piracy and human trafficking.
“In Africa, our heads of state, our leaders are committing these crimes against their people, who have no recourse,” she said.
“The Hague is a provincial town that has acquired an international reputation, and there are wide-ranging economic benefits,” said Menno Kamminga, professor of international law at Maastricht University.
“Certainly what The Hague and the Dutch government want to have is lots of people with high salaries. It’s good for the economy: lots of courts, lots of lawyers, lots of conferences.”
What originally put The Hague on the peace-and-justice map was the first international peace conference in 1899 - an initiative by Russian Czar Nicholas II to bring together states in Europe and Asia, as well as Mexico, to discuss peace and disarmament.
The conference led to the construction of the Peace Palace that now houses the International Court of Justice, the United Nations’ judicial arm set up to settle legal disputes between states such as the long-simmering dispute between Greece and Macedonia over the latter’s name.
In 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was set up in The Hague to deal with war crimes during the Balkans conflict. It served as a model for the ICC and cemented the city’s role.
“It could be Paris, it could be Rome, it could be Brussels. But the Dutch policy is to make The Hague the capital for international justice,” ICTY prosecutor Serge Brammertz said.
As the courts and multinational organisations moved into town, they have changed its skyline, its social fabric and even its tastes in food.
Currently housed in temporary quarters on the outskirts of town, the war crimes court will eventually move into a stunning glass space overlooking the dunes, designed by Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen and due to be completed by 2015.
Construction projects such as the ICC’s new premises and the new headquarters for Europol, completed last year, provide a welcome injection for the local economy, but the financial benefits go deeper.
International agencies and courts, from Europol to the ICTY, spent about 2.7 billion euros in The Hague and its surroundings in 2010, and accounted for roughly 11 percent of the local economy, according to a report by consultancy Decisio.
They created more than 18,000 jobs directly, while a further 17,500 jobs were created indirectly as staff spend the bulk of their salaries in the Netherlands.
“One job in the international cluster means two jobs in our economy,” Decisio said.
Hotels, shops and restaurants get a lift when celebrities come to town, whether it is supermodel Naomi Campbell testifying at Charles Taylor’s trial or actress Angelina Jolie attending Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga’s hearings. High-profile suspects who appear before the courts voluntarily are likely to be accompanied by large entourages.
International staff often enjoy higher salaries and tax benefits, giving them greater purchasing power. Decisio said the average income of such international employees is 79,500 euros a year: Dutch staff earn 54,000 euros on average.
That has created a certain feeling of “them and us”, even within the legal community, also in part because there is very little intermingling between the Dutch and foreign lawyers, and very few Dutch judges or lawyers at the courts.
Where many see the benefits for the local economy, some bemoan the changes.
“You see it in the kind of things they sell in the shops - the Americans want their M&Ms, the English want their PG Tips (tea),” said an assistant at an art gallery in the centre of town, and added that property prices in areas such as the fashionable Statenkwartier district are now beyond the budgets of most local people.
“I grew up there, and moved away, but now I couldn’t afford to buy a place in Statenkwartier,” she said.