GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Month: July 2016 (Page 3 of 5)

Peace Prevails

Today was our second day in The Hague, Netherlands. Our site visits were meant to focus more on international law rather than human rights, like yesterday’s visits covered. Our first stop was the Peace Palace Visitor’s Center, where we were able to take a self-guided tour of the history of the palace and its courts. The Peace Palace houses the Court of Arbitration and the International Court of Justice, among other bodies. The Court of Arbitration was the first established in the Palace in 1899, supported in large part by the United States. I thought this fact was interesting because the U.S. is not a member of most international criminal courts. Another interesting fact about this court is that it is not a court by traditional means. It can only organize tribunals to help resolve conflicts between countries. The International Court of Justice, however, can indict countries. In the history presentation I learned that Andrew Carnegie, the steel entrepreneur from the States, gave 1.5 million dollars for the Peace Palace to be built, with the one condition that it house a library. Today, only international law students needing research and justices from the courts are typically allowed entry. As we were about to leave the palace, Dr. Fabry surprised us all by saying his book is in the library (but he’s never been allowed to go in).


After an amazing sandwich lunch at the Blossom Café, where we had warm apple pie, we headed to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or ICTY. We first watched a short documentary on the Prijedor war crimes resulting from the ethnic cleansing in the region in the early 1990s. The documentary was hard-hitting and laid out facts of the tribunal. Of the 161 persons accused of crimes, there have been 80 convictions thus far. The tribunal has been working for 20 years and is being shut down in 2017. Listening to recordings of witness and accused testimony was chilling but also incredibly important because it showed just how much a court was needed to deal with the aftermath of the crisis in the area and how the tribunal is working so that this never happens again in the region. Our speaker was the head of the outreach program at the ICTY and originally from Serbia. Her talk about the trials and what her office is doing with school kids around the world was fascinating to me. She told stories of going to schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina and being met with resistance because so many people there still deny the atrocities ever occurred. Another fact she mentioned was that this tribunal was the first to make sexual violence as a war crime punishable in the court. She followed this up by stating that 40% of the accused had this charge levied against them.


After the briefing we had the chance to visit the courtroom where many of these trials have taken place. While we were there no hearings were happening so we could sit and talk normally about the room. One thing our guide mentioned was that witness protection was of utmost importance to the court and pointed out measures to keep their identities if they wished, private. The glass was specially made to not allow visitors to see the face of the witness while testifying. There is also a 30 minute lag between what is said in the courtroom and what is aired online. This gives the cameramen time to cut any sensitive information that could lead to the identity of the witness. Finally, on the viewing screens, if a witness is remaining anonymous, their face and voice will be distorted. This site visit was probably the most interesting one we’ve had since arriving in The Hague and I know we all came out knowing exactly why the ICTY and similar tribunals matter and why we must be vigilant to deter this type of violence from happening again.

Next Stop: The Hague!

Our day began very early with our final departure from our host families. The night before I had packed all my things, had my last meal with the family, and said my goodbyes. In the morning I had breakfast with my host dad and Pedro before we were driven to Brussels Central Station. From this point we all boarded the train towards The Hague, Netherlands. I had previously been to the Netherlands, but I had never been able to travel to The Hague prior to this trip. Immediately upon our arrival we hit the ground running as we barely caught the tram to take us to our first sight visit, the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC is a permanent court that is focused on taking individuals to court who have committed serious crimes against to humanity such as genocide, war crimes and persecution. We were given an overview of the organization’s history as well as information on cases currently underway at the court. There are 23 cases presently in front of the court with 14 arrests and 13 suspects still at large. There are currently 6 persons being detained at the detention facility for court proceedings, two of whom we were able to see at a public session of their trial. Laurent Gbagbo was the former President of the Ivory Coast who abused his power and incited violence in the country after he lost the 2010 presidential election. He and his Minister of Defense, Charles Blé Goudé, were eventually captured and are now facing trial. Even though we only were able to be present for a few short moments of the trial, it was crazy to see a former head of state being tried for terrible crimes. It was a pleasant reminder that in the end, no person is above the law and cannot avoid justice forever. At one point I caught the glare of Mr. Blé Goudé and I had this pang of fear in my heart. Even though there was absolutely nothing he could to nor would he have any reason to do so, looking into the eyes of a man responsible for such terrible things really chills your soul. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look in his anger filled eyes reminiscent of a caged animal biding its time until it could break out and take revenge on its captors. I wish this were my attempt at simple literary enhancement, but at this moment I truly felt my stomach drop and felt a genuine sense of fear.

To the drastic contrast of the previous segment, after our visit to the ICC we went by tram to the coast in order to have a meal of traditional Dutch pancakes! A savory pancake topped with meats, vegetables, and spices was followed by a sweet pancake topped with warm cherries, whipped cream, and ice cream. What better way to recover from an early morning start and a staring contest with a war criminal than delicious comfort food? I even had time to pull off my dress shoes and socks, roll up my pant legs, and go for a quick stroll down the beach to the water! After dusting myself off, we left to tour the Hall of Knights and have a quick stop in the Dutch parliament. Our tour guide gave us a brief overview of the area and the history of the Hall of Knights. This hall is famously known for the yearly address given by the Dutch King and the royal procession beforehand. Despite being renovated and restored numerous times, it still held that appearance of being old and worn in the best possible way.

This blog post is my final post for the semester! Up to this point, I’ve experienced so much and made so many connections both professional and private that I simply would not have without this program. Even though at this point there are only about two weeks left in the program, there is still so much left to see in Berlin and Krakow. I can truly say that doing this program was one of the best choices I’ve made for not only my personal enjoyment, but also my future professional career as well. Despite being an engineering major, this program has given me both the experience and the desire to broaden my horizons and to pursue other ventures in my future. Until next time Europe!

Au Revoir, Brussels!

Today was our last day in Brussels! It’s incredible how so much time can pass without realizing it. We’ve spent roughly six weeks here, learning the ins and outs of this incredible city. It’s been a pleasure to learn so much about Belgian life through our host families and our many interactions with citizens. It’s bittersweet to think of all the hours spent in our favorite restaurants and bars and the countless trips to Maison Antoine that will end today. There are many lasting memories that we made and lots of times we’ll wish we could go back to. With one day left, there remained one final site visit in Brussels.

Late afternoon, we arrived at the Council of Europe where we were greeted by Ivan Volodin who holds the title of political advisor. Before we got to it, he presented us with a short video that outlined what the Council of Europe is exactly.
Often confused with the Council of the European Union, the Council of Europe is not an EU institution at all. It is composed of 47 member states that total about 820 million citizens. Each country in Europe is a part of the Council with the exception of Belarus. Established in 1949 after World War II, the focus of the Council was to create a safe place for countries to share and exchange opinions and values.
A human rights driven institution, the Council has 118 conventions to this day covering everything from torture to sports. The most notable being the European Convention on Human Rights (4 November 1950). The Convention abolished the use of the death penalty. The only European country that hasn’t signed is Russia, which hasn’t used the death penalty in over 20 years. Conventions aren’t limited to European countries though. Not all European countries must sign conventions and some are open to non-European countries.
There are several working parts that keep the Council functioning making it a complex body: the European Court of Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Secretary General, and monitoring bodies. The European Court of Human Rights is composed of 47 judges (one from each member country) and hears cases regarding human rights from individuals, groups, or even governments. The Commissioner for Human Rights, not having much power, promotes awareness and protection of human rights and can provide criticisms of countries taking part in human rights violations. The Committee of Ministers is the primary decision-making body of the Council of Europe. Again, there are 47 foreign affairs ministers (one from each member country) that decide on policies and plans of action. The Parliamentary Assembly is the deliberative body made up of 318 members. The Assembly meets four times a year to make recommendations. The Secretary General co-ordinates activities and focuses on strategic planning and the administration of the Council’s operational program. Finally, the monitoring bodies are responsible for checking up on countries that have had to make reforms due to human rights violations. There are both independent experts and governmental evaluations. Definitely a complex institution, it was great to follow up Dr. Fabry’s earlier lecture on the Council of Europe with an informative visit to back it all up.
Last week in Paris, Dr. Birchfield asked us to consider how somewhere so foreign can feel like home so quickly. As I’ve reflected on it since, I begin to think about my first day in Brussels versus my final days. I was extremely overwhelmed on my first day. My host mom had me download the app that told what times the buses came at our stop and I recall scrolling through what seemed to be a never ending list thinking, “How will I remember this?” Not surprisingly, the first day that the program met up, I walked the 27 minutes. Upon realizing that I desperately needed to pull it together, I learned the metro, which happens not to be like Marta in the slightest, and the bus lines. It wasn’t that difficult and I’m glad that I did it early on.
As each of us on the program met every day and got closer, it made it easier to be away from home. We began realizing that a lot of us were in the same boat: new city, new friends, new experience. We figured it out together and got to know each other in the process. Each day was a new challenge until it wasn’t a challenge anymore; it was just normal. Every day it felt more and more like home. While it’s easy to sit back and think, “Yeah, it feels like home because I know what to do here”, that isn’t the entirety of it. It feels like home because of the people I’m surrounded with.
I think that if I were here on my own after this program, it wouldn’t quite feel the same. I would discover Brussels as my home in a new way, but it wouldn’t be the same as this summer. There’s something beautiful about being able to readjust your life in such a way that calling somewhere new “home” in a few short weeks feels okay.
Looking back, I realize that I’ve relied heavily on a lot of people during this trip to make Brussels “home” and they’ve become some of my best friends. Without those friends, I don’t know if I could call my parents from Stockholm and say “On my way home!” (meaning Brussels, but confusing them). Having people to lean on is what makes somewhere a home to me and it was easy to find that home in Brussels once I looked for it.
This is an incredible program that allows you to do unfathomable things, creating lasting relationships along the way and truly being an extraordinary experience.

Look Up

Today was one of our last days in Brussels before we head out to The Hague on Thursday, and it certainly was an interesting one. We started off the day with a couple hours of lecture from Dr. Fabry, and today we discussed the International Criminal Court, which we’ll visit on Thursday upon arriving in the Hague. We held a class wide discussion about our opinions regarding the effectiveness of the ICC, and it was interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts on the subject.

After lecture, we all had a quick lunch break, then headed over to the Horta Museum in Saint-Gilles. The Horta House was built in the late 1890s / early 1900s and was designed by the architect Victor Horta, and he lived there as well. The house is a prime example of the concept of “art nouveau,” which was developed in Brussels around that time period. Our guide told us about not only art nouveau in general, but also about Horta himself and about what inspired his architectural decisions.

The Horta Museum from the outside - we were not allowed to take photos inside.

The Horta Museum from the outside – we were not allowed to take photos inside.

Some interesting facts our guide told us about architecture during this period included using paint and mirrors to create depth, using a sloping method at the bottom of each house’s structure to have an organic effect, and using windows and natural light to instigate an open and airy feeling throughout the house.

An example of the curved structure at the bottom of an art nouveau house. Its purpose is to create an organic and seamless effect.

An example of the curved structure at the bottom of an art nouveau house. Its purpose is to create an organic and seamless effect.

Learning about the art and architecture in Brussels was extremely interesting, and it was strange to think that we only have a few days left in this amazing city, and I am just now getting to know the buildings here on a personal level.

After we explored the Horta museum, our guide took us on a short walk around the area and pointed out several architectural phenomena in our surroundings. He also drew our attention to the change from art nouveau to art deco architecture, which came about after WWI. Something interesting we saw was the transition from openness in art nouveau to a more closed and protectiveness in art deco, which our guide said most likely came from people being more afraid and reserved after the negative effects of the war.

The transition from art nouveau to art deco - a more closed and protected structure

The transition from art nouveau to art deco – a more closed and protected structure

It’s interesting to see how politics can affect every aspect of our lives, even art and architecture. The effect that politics and international relations can have is wide and the scope is large; I think this shows the gravity of the subject that we’re studying and how important it is to keep this all in mind holistically even when not implicitly studying the subject.

Something else our guide said really stuck with me – he said, “If you can, everyday, you should take a different route to your destination, and look at the buildings and architecture around you, because Brussels has so much to see.”

Hearing that made me think about how often I am on my phone while I am walking around the city, trying to navigate my way around town on Google Maps instead of just looking up and around me at the fascinating architecture and history that surrounds me. It makes me wonder how many times I’ve missed something interesting or beautiful because I’ve been preoccupied with not getting lost, or with a text someone sent me, or a Facebook notification.

Although staying plugged in is important in a sense, I think this visit to the Horta museum really reinforced in me the idea that it’s not at all the most important thing – in fact, it’s far from it. Especially in terms of studying abroad and experiencing new surroundings and cultures, I think it’s a lot more effective and important to simply soak in what’s around us and let it have an effect on us, whether positive or negative.

Tonight was also the last night that my host family and I will all be together, so we had a final goodbye dinner. We reflected on the past two months, and talked about how far we’ve come from when I first arrived to their house in May.

Although I’m beyond excited to take on the last leg of our trip in The Hague, Berlin, and Krakow, I’m struck with the feeling that I’ll miss Brussels the most, as it’s truly begun to feel like home to me. My time in Brussels is something that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, and I’m immensely grateful for the experiences I’ve had whilst living here.

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