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May-June 2012

Vol. 37, No. 3


Sustainable peace: Costa Rican consensus

Oscar Arias On March 28, Nobel Laureate and former president of Costa Rica, Óscar Arias Sánchez (right), gave a speech that encapsulates many of the themes put forth in the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns' Sustainable Pathways to Inclusive Peace and Security program work. The speech, proposing the "Costa Rican Consensus," was given at the Affordable World Security Conference, sponsored by the W.P. Carey Foundation and East West Institute and held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. In his talk, Arias relays his experience in Costa Rica, not so that other countries repeat Costa Rica's plan of action, but because the Costa Rican experience "can provide concrete lessons for the international community as it seeks maximum impact (in human security) with minimum spending." The following article emphasizes some of the more salient points that Arias proposes.

Born in 1940, Arias was eight years old when his country suffered a violent 44-day civil war. When the war (which claimed over 2,000 lives) was ended, Costa Rica made a radical decision -- one that other countries had not been willing to try -- to "abolish its army and declare peace to the world." By doing this, Arias says, "My country promised me, and all its children, that we would never see tanks or troops in our streets … My country promised to dismantle the institutions of violence, and invest in the progress that makes violence unnecessary. Quite simply, my country invested in its people."

Arias goes on to tell the story of Costa Rica, a story that sounds like a fairy tale in this world of want. This decision made Costa Rica a "healthy, educated, and free society" and established concrete gains in national and regional security. "When conflicts and civil wars swept our region in the 1980s, Costa Rica was able to maintain its stability and freedom from violence. What's more, this enabled my little country to become the platform for the peace accords that gradually ended the unrest in our part of the world. And today, while the terrible consequences of drug trafficking in our region and consumption in the developed world are posing serious challenges to our government, Costa Rica continues to maintain its foothold in the world of peace. Here in the developed world, those achievements might seem distant, or even insignificant. But an oasis of democratic stability in a region that is among the most dangerous in the world, and whose exports of goods and people have a direct effect on its northern neighbors, is valuable indeed."

In his speech Arias elaborates three important concepts regarding human security. First, security does not lie in weapons or fences or armies, but in human development. "Investing in human development is not a competing priority to defense spending. Such investment supports security … A comprehensive approach to security cannot postpone attention to the world's neediest people. In this new century, it is not only foolish and immoral, but also impractical, to spend on the symptoms, but not on the disease – to spend on threats, but not on their cause." Arias challenges to imagine the impact on security if we would choose to reduce poverty by half; provide universal primary education; eliminate the digital divide; and drastically reduce hunger and sickness.

Secondly Arias uses the "sad story of Haiti" to elaborate the Costa Rica Consensus – a simple idea that "uses international financial resources to support developing nations that spend more on environmental protection, education, health care and housing for their people, and less on arms and soldiers. "It would end the ridiculous policies that punish countries when they make good choices, and reward corrupt or misguided governments that create conflict and deprivation. It would make a real difference in some of the most dangerous and conflict-ridden nations on earth." He tells of how he had worked with Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1995 to bring about the abolition of Haiti's armed forces. In spite of his efforts and Haiti's present state of poor ecological and economic health, the current president, Michel Martelly, is now considering the reestablishment of Haiti's army, which would cost $95 million.

The third concept that Arias discussed is much like the Costa Rica Consensus, embracing a responsible Arms Transfer Treaty has the power to improve international security "without any spending to speak of." Like the Costa Rica Consensus, this idea emerged from the painful lessons learned in the 1980s.

"For many years after arms suppliers channeled weapons to Central American armies or paramilitary forces in the 1980s, those weapons were found in the hands of the gangs that roamed the countryside of Nicaragua, or of teenage boys on the streets of San Salvador and Tegucigalpa. Other weapons were shipped to guerrilla or paramilitary groups, as well as drug cartels, in Colombia, ready to destroy yet more lives. We learned the hard way that a shipment of weapons into a developing country is like a virus in a crowded room. It cannot be contained; we do not know whom it will attack; and it can spread in ways we would never have imagined. As I watched what was happening to my region, I realized that the same story was being repeated, time and time again, in developing countries all over the world…As any Central American can tell you, the weapons sold to the Middle East today might end up in anyone's hands. We cannot foresee their consequences. The only certainty is that we cannot control the outcome…"

Arias aptly ended his speech giving us a new vision for the work ahead: "If we can rise to the challenge, the day may finally be in sight when we begin to write a new story for humankind. The day may finally be in sight when violence ceases to be the birthright of our sons and daughters. The day may finally be in sight when, at long last, the Art of War gives way to the art of peace."

Dr. Arias's speech in its entirety can be found at Foreign Policy in Focus's website: §

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