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How The Hague is transforming from a City of Justice to a City of Security

Europol’s headquarters stand on a desolate boulevard in The Hague, next to the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Outside, as the tribunal winds down business in the hope of closing next year, flags blow in the wind for no one in particular.

This is what has been traditionally referred to as the city’s international zone, a leafy region stretching north of the centre and housing the majority of the city’s legal institutions. But its flame has long since faded. The World Forum, a large nearby convention-centre next to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is seemingly deserted, gathering leaves and litter in a foyer that overlooks abandoned office buildings advertising for guardian protection scheme tenants.

With news that a tribunal for Kosovo will soon be created in The Hague in the former headquarters of Europol, a stones throw from the ICTY, the old International Zone might once more serve as a focal point for a city whose identity has always been imposed from outside. For now though, it feels a long way from the glass-fronted splendour of the government district.

The towering Castle Gormenghast in the centre, housing an increasingly fertile security industry, whose wide-eyed disciples – literate in the R programming language and big on Big Data – are steadily outnumbering the city’s population of lawyers and civil servants.

“A smart city has to also be a secure city,” says Joris den Bruinen. He should know: a security advisor, Bruinen is currently deputy director of the Hague Security Delta, a cluster of over 200 partner organisations working at the front line of national, cyber and urban security, critical infrastructure and forensics.

Together with the municipality of The Hague, den Bruinen and the Delta are transforming the seat of the Dutch government into what they term “the International City of Peace, Justice and Security”. This name makes a small but crucial alteration to the city’s traditional slogan (“International City of Peace and Justice”) – a motto it has held since the international peace conferences of 1899 and 1907, and the subsequent instalment of the International Court of Justice.

The International Court of Justice. Image: Getty.

Secured with the help of an EU grant in 2012, the Hague Security Delta’s own campus is situated firmly within the city’s government district. Half a mile away, the central station glitters under a new glass roof, following a large extension and renovation last June by Benthem Crouwel Architekten, the Dutch firm responsible for renovating Schipol airport and the Anne Frank Museum.

The increase in the airport’s capacity was dictated by the same expansion of tech, telecommunication and security firms that led to the Hague Security Delta. The industries described by Den Bruinen as the third pillar in what the Delta refers to as the triple helix approach – a collaborative discussion about emerging security threats between local government, private firms and the nearby universities of Delft, Utrecht and Applied Sciences.

Den Bruinen goes so far to compare The Hague with Northern Virginia. Yet while proximity to central government and the ministries of defence and justice drive the city’s growing security industry, so too does a careful marketing and investment campaign on the part of the municipality.


 “The City of The Hague suggested we provide our city as a living lab,” den Bruinen explains: the process involves real-time, embedded testing that harnesses data obtained from citizen participation.

This is nothing new – hundreds of projects now form part of a European Network of Living Labs – but rarely has a whole city been dedicated to its purposes. The nearest example is Eindhoven, whose reputation for tech innovation led to the formation of a Living Lab connected to the Internet of Things.

It’s telling, too, that The Hague’s aim in engaging with the Living Lab model relates specifically to security. The first project under its auspices will be Connected Scheveningen, an initiative that forms part of an on-going restoration of the city’s main beach resort. It aims to test how far newly installed, open-access Wifi can be harnessed for security and surveillance purposes. “We can access a lot of data this way,” den Bruinen explains, “which our partners are considering how they can enrich.”

Private firms attached to the scheme include a number of big-name telecommunication firms. Each will have access to the data supplied by the project, for the purposes of product development and as part of an on-going knowledge-sharing exercise with the municipality.

Users are required to sign the Wifi’s terms and conditions before logging in. But the scheme raises important questions about transparency, and the precedent being set for future urban security measurements. While legal restrictions currently prevent the use of such technology for tracking individuals, it remains unclear whether the system’s users are aware of their participation in the project: we are all prone to logging in to WiFi without thinking. Another idea in the Delta’s pipeline involves the installation of sound sensors and discrete surveillance equipment in the promenade’s newly installed streetlamps.

Jozias van Aarsten, mayor of The Hague since 2008 and a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, is a major force behind the city’s transformation into a security hub and a fierce proponent of its status on the world stage. Wielding an influential network including close friend Madeleine Albright, van Aarsten has overseen a succession of international events in the city, including the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and the 2015 Global Conference on Cyberspace. These provided ample opportunity for the Hague Security Delta to showcase its expertise and attract further, international investment.

Van Aarsten’s predecessor, Wim Deetman, presided over a city at the front line of discussions about the legal cost of heightened international security measures following the 9/11 attacks. Europol had installed its headquarters in the city only two years before, compounding the link between justice and security, and spawning a new focus on the latter among satellite organisations based nearby. Their initial knowledge-sharing attempts served as a prototype for what Van Aarsten would later help to support in the shape of The Hague Security Delta.

This summer, more young professionals will pile on to the beach in Scheveningen to drink cocktails on the same stretch of sand that houses Balkan war criminals in a high security prison. It’s a heady mix that seems the perfect emblem of our growing preoccupation with security above pretty much all else.
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