On Tuesday evening at the Barrett Centennial Lecture, I finally got to hear the remarks from former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias on peace building for the coming generation. I was very intrigued by his belief that countries could and should demilitarize and focus on overcoming the socioeconomic barriers around the world. Arias said the human race is obsessed with violence and I was shocked by how much we have spent on war.
He cited two key statistics: Global arms spending was $1.63 trillion last year, which is 2.6% of the world’s GDP. Defense spending has going up 70% between 2001-2009.
“Poverty needs no passport to travel,” Arias said. Hunger, poverty and disease affect every one of us; wars and conflict are only results of social inequality, so by engaging in combat we are not treating the root of the problem.
Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 and Arias said the government promised its people it would never see tanks and troops in the streets and would not invest in weapons, but tools.
“Security lies in human development,” he said. We should be investing in the process that makes violence unnecessary.
As president, Arias worked on three main projects to reduce militarization around the world. One project, the Costa Rican Census, created mechanisms to forgive debt and get international support. A second project was an arms trade treaty that prohibited the transfer of arms between states and individuals not in the army. A third project was the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Development, which is dedicated to supporting peace efforts and conflict resolution.
Arias said that people may think we are not ready to negotiate getting rid of armies during a time of war and crisis, but history tell us otherwise. He mentioned examples of progress toward peace during times of uncertainty like the creation of the United Nations and the Atlantic Charter.
He introduced the peace plan between Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador as president to address the conflict in the region because “it was as a necessity, it was a matter of survival.” He believed that there was no need to build a strong army to achieve peace and that Costa Rica has become so prosperous because its resources go towards education and the environment rather than weapons.
So far, he has been able to convince only Panama and Haiti to eliminate their armies. Sub-saharan Africa was difficult because poorer countries need a way to integrate soldiers into civilian life and compensate them.
“The dream of peace is no longer just a dream. It is an action in Costa Rica. There is no reason why it can’t live in other parts of the world,” Arias said. This left me on a hopeful note and determined to find a solution to the wasteful defense spending that not only the United States is guilty of.
What was interesting is that Arias did not believe that world peace could be achieved because he said there were too many dictatorships and territorial disputes that threaten stability.
“We need to have democracy because democracies don’t fight each other,” he said.