Speech by Jan van Zanen at the celebration of the International Day of Non-Violence, 2 October 2023



Distinguished guests,


Mahatma Gandhi.

The champion of non-violence.

Founding father of the world’s largest democracy, India.

Today, on his birthday, the world honours him.

As do we, here in The Hague.

We reflect on his legacy.

And think about what that legacy means to us, more than 75 years since he died.


The Hague feels closely connected with Gandhi and his ideas.

Not only does a bust of Gandhi grace this building, but a well-known statue of him also stands on Hobbemaplein.

It is a monument which at the same time commemorates Hindu immigration, which began 150 years ago.

That Hindu immigration is directly linked to the abolition of slavery by the Netherlands, ten years earlier.

Events bound up with the history of The Hague, as the former centre of the Netherlands as a colonial power.


Several decades later Gandhi began his non-violent struggle for equal rights in South Africa.

In precisely the same period that the first Peace Conferences were organised here in The Hague.

And this Peace Palace was built to house the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

In the more than hundred years that have since passed, The Hague has evolved into a centre of international law and international cooperation.

Today, in 2023, numerous organisations here in our city are working to bring about a peaceful and just world.

A world in which conflicts between countries are settled not by force, but non-violently.

In the courtroom instead of on the battle field.

A world where human rights are guaranteed for all.

And where those who think they can use violence to flout human rights are called to account.

Under the motto of the keen advocate for international criminal justice, Benjamin Ferencz, who died earlier this year:

There can be no peace without justice.

In an interview Ferencz said that he had been impressed by Gandhi at an early age.


As international city of peace and justice, The Hague is actively committed to a world in which there is less violence.

To make way for dialogue and mediation.

To do that, we also – deliberately – focus on local initiatives.

Local governments worldwide are taking action to break the terrible spiral of violence.

And bring lasting peace.

The Peace Prize of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) was created especially for this.

My highly esteemed predecessor, Wim Deetman, was there at the launch of the award.

To my great delight, he still sits on the panel of judges, alongside other leading international figures.

I was there myself when the prize was awarded for the first time in 2016.

At the UCLG world conference in Bogota.

When the prize was awarded to Kauswagan in the Philippines for their ‘From Arms to Farms’ project.

This was about former rebels handing over their weapons and making a fresh start in organic farming.

Three years later I was lucky enough to be there in Durban, South Africa, when the prize was presented to the Lebanese municipality of Arsal.

Arsal was awarded the prize for its commitment to preventing and resolving conflicts between the local people and Syrian refugees.

And last year, at the UCLG world conference in Daejeon, South Korea, I was asked to be involved with the presentation of the UCLG Peace Prize 2022.

The winner this time was Palmira municipality in Colombia, which is strongly committed to preventing young people from succumbing to the temptations and dangers of youth gangs.


To return to The Hague.

Of course, the challenges we face are small in comparison with the problems of the cities I just mentioned.

But here too, we have to work for what I call ‘everyday peace’.

‘Peace and justice’ is more than the Peace Palace, the International Court of Justice and the many NGOs.

‘Peace and justice’ is something that is lived daily by countless people in our city.

Vreedzaam Den Haag (Peaceful The Hague) is an example of this.

A movement in which organisations and people work together to educate children and teach them to become the citizens that our city needs.

The Vreedzame School (Peaceful School) too, is a programme that focuses on developing social skills and democratic citizenship among primary school children.

The last example I would like to mention is the Vreedzame Wijk (Peaceful Neighbourhood), a concept I remember from my time in Utrecht and which has since arrived in The Hague, too.

This is about making simple, clear agreements on how to act at school and in the neighbourhood.

Being pleasant, helping one another, asking what someone means first and not reacting angrily right away, for example.

Being allowed to be who you are.

Taking other people into account.


Living together peacefully, without violence, is something we can all contribute to.

Every individual can make a difference.

I realised that just last week, when I spoke to a police officer who was retiring.

In recent years he was the point of contact and liaison officer during major demonstrations.

As you probably know, with 2,000 demonstrations a year The Hague is the Netherlands’ ‘demonstration capital’.

Feelings can run high during such protests and the police have to maintain order.

The use of force by the police should be delayed for as long as possible.

The police officer concerned was always there during the demonstrations.

He excelled in his communication skills and his ability to de-escalate situations.

A man who can listen well, who talked to the protestors and so was often able to moderate their anger.

With the result that escalation during demonstrations could be avoided and police intervention became unnecessary.


I don’t know if the police officer in question was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi.

But the way in which he single-mindedly contributed to the peaceful conduct of countless demonstrations clearly shows that:

He holds the key to non-violence.

It is up to us, as a society and as a global community, to ensure that many people hold that key to non-violence.

And that those who hold it have every opportunity to use it.

The Hague will always be dedicated to accomplishing this: locally, nationally and internationally.

Thank you.