Peace activists representing hundreds of nongovernmental organizations are meeting this week in The Hague, 10,000 strong, to renew the search for world peace. The many formal discussions during the International Appeal for Peace commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first Conference on International Peace, also held in The Hague. That bombs are falling on Kosovo only underlines the cruel irony of timing, and the enduring quality of the long quest for peace in every age.
The modern version of that assault on humankind's warlike tendencies started with Czar Nicholas II of Russia. He convened the world powers in 1899 specifically to create world peace.
He failed. But what he began at the first peace conference led to the League of Nations, the United Nations, the creation of an International Court of Justice, a permanent arbitration forum, and a number of declarations designed to make war more humane.
The 26 nations who met in The Hague in 1899 agreed, for example, not to throw explosives out of balloons at enemy soldiers. They prohibited the lobbing of poison-gas missiles and the use of dum-dum bullets, and made combatant nations promise to treat prisoners of war well. Nicholas convened the Hague conference of 1899 because he was trying to stop that era's armaments race. It was too expensive for Russia; but not for imperial Germany, which refused to stop rearming, and thus prevented the conference from pursuing world peace more aggressively.
A second meeting in The Hague in 1907, attended by 44 nations, tried again to construct a firm foundation for world peace. It also failed, but it passed 13 resolutions about the conduct and pursuit of war and created the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
By this time an American Peace Society, involving leading Bostonians like President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard, publisher Edwin Ginn, and preacher Edward Everett Hale had begun vigorously pursuing the objective of world peace. They sought a world congress patterned after the US Congress. It would be an advisory body to help govern the world "in the name of justice and not from any weakness," to quote President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Peace Society petitioned the Massachusetts legislature. It and the governor unanimously endorsed the Peace Society's initiative for a world congress and forwarded the petition to Washington. The US government sent a powerful delegation to the 1907 Peace Conference, informed as it was by the peace activism from Massachusetts.
The outbreak of World War I interrupted preparations for a third Hague conference. This week's meetings are an attempt to reawaken the momentum for peace that was so vigorous as the century opened. One of the key items on the agenda is how to reduce the world's many intrastate wars such as Kosovo, which are now the main threats to global peace in this and the next century. In this way the Czar's efforts a century ago are being continued and modernized.
* Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., and teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.