Thoughts on Peace from Oscar Arias: Nobel Peace Prize Winner

  • [From a speech given October 29, 1997 to Northeastern University students in Boston by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Oscar Arias, on overcoming obstacles to future peace. Arias is winner of the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end Central America's conflicts, Oscar Arias was elected president of Costa Rica (see map below) in 1986 and served four years. He used the Nobel monetary award to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, which seeks demilitarization and conflict resolution. Born on September 13, 1941, in Heredia, Costa Rica, Oscar Arias Sánchez, grew up in one of the wealthiest coffee-growing families in the nation. He studied economics at the University of Costa Rica and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Essex in England. In the 1960s he began working for the moderate socialist National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberación Nacional; PLN), and served in the government of President José Figueres in the 1970s. While harshly critical of the Sandinista government in neighbouring Nicaragua, he also forbade that regime's guerrilla opponents (the “Contras”) from operating militarily on Costa Rican soil. In February 1987 he proposed a regional peace plan for the Central American countries that set a date for ceasefires between government and rebel forces, ensured amnesty for political prisoners, and scheduled free and democratic elections in those countries. Arias Sánchez and the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua signed this plan in August 1987. In October of that year Arias Sánchez was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his efforts to achieve the beginnings of peace in the region.]
  • Oscar AriasFriends: I am honored to join you in celebrating the 100th anniversary of Northeastern University. It is always a great pleasure for me to exchange views with such a distinguished group as yourselves. Today, I would like to share with you some thoughts on peace and security which I consider important at this juncture in history.
  • In considering these two issues, we are undertaking an effort that is not without precedent. While the concept of peace has differed with time, its significance, and even more, its pertinence, has held true. We need peace for human sustenance, for human development, and, ultimately, for human survival. Peace is more than the absence of war. To live in peace is to live without want. Thus, security must encompass the full spectrum of human needs in order to ensure sustainable peace.
  • In the turbulent world of the late twentieth century, we frequently lose sight of the human being as the principal impetus of all political action. The modern international system, dominated by realism and the market, and swept up in the frenetic search for greater competitiveness and increased levels of production and consumption, frequently ignores the people whose well-being must be the most important focus of our time.
  • At the end of the twentieth century, humanity is at a point where it must decide its own fate. We are at a crossroads in human history, a turning point where peace in our time is, at last, a viable option. Countries previously immersed in a culture of militarism are trading in tanks for technology, arms for education. We can try to continue to survive in a world of insensible brutality, where societies in danger of collapsing drag others down with them. Or, we can maintain the security of a global neighborhood in which each citizen is concerned with the well-being of the entire community.
  • In my region of the world, as well as in most developing countries, the greatest obstacles to peace are poverty and inequality. Poverty deprives our fellow human beings of their right to education, health, shelter, work, and land. It robs us of the fruits of democracy, peace, and freedom. No country can ignore the fact that the world's poor, if left out of the world economy, will seek alternative means of subsistence that could jeopardize global stability. We already know that economic backwardness is often the cause of political disorder and social conflict. Yet we will continue to suffer the consequences of poverty if we do not address the root causes of destitution.
  • By now there is a consensus that education levels are the most influential variable for the economic prosperity of individuals and nations. Likewise, the disparity of educational opportunities is the most important factor in fostering social inequality. In Latin America, we have lost entire generations while we discussed, in exasperating detail, the possible merits and demerits of different developmental strategies. Yet we continually refrain from spending the resources and exerting the efforts that are necessary for equitable progress . . .
  • Map of Costa RicaEducation puts within our reach the tools and power necessary to augment happiness, respect nature, and dignify human life. We should not permit the talent, works, energy, and richness of human beings to be squandered on priorities that can only be qualified as perversions. During no other time has humanity had such a clear, precise knowledge of the location and meaning of its dangers. During no other time has humanity known with so much certainty where to find the resources and knowledge necessary to confront these dangers.
  • Perhaps the most perverse of these priorities is the one that countries-rich and poor, large and small-designate to the preparation for war. The production, trafficking, and accumulation of arms are, for the most part, direct causes of the poverty, inequality, oppression, and environmental degradation that burden us all. Even if global military expenditures have decreased in the past eight years, it is also true that humanity is still awaiting the expected benefits of peace dividends.
  • Our leaders must be willing to dedicate their resources toward the goal of peace. In order to live up to this task, it will be necessary for politicians to have the courage to make controversial decisions. The war on poverty will not be waged with threats or tanks. Our weapons will be our creativity, our sense of justice, and our humanity. We must put away our guns if we are to feed our children. We must all understand that to govern is to educate.
  • I believe that a global community has emerged that inherently supports human development and world peace. All of us are united against nuclear proliferation, deforestation, and destitution. But while we may have won wars, we have not yet won our peace. We must do more than simply declare our commitment to fight militarism, corruption, and poverty. We must back up these declarations with resources and sincere effort. We must work for our peace.
  • I believe that the eventual elimination of armed forces throughout the world is the only path to sustainable peace. Nevertheless, I understand [that] the conditions which would permit such an achievement are present in only a few countries. I come from a country that abolished its army in 1948, just as the rest of the world was arming itself for the Cold War. Since then, Costa Rica has focused on building a democratic welfare state and has achieved levels of human development envied by the rest of Latin America. In the region I come from, one other Central American republic-Panama-as well as two Caribbean island states-Dominica and Saint Kitts and Nevis-have constitutionally abolished their armed forces as well. Furthermore, in Haiti, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide took measures to demobilize his country's army. Presently, the initiative to constitutionally abolish the Haitian army is being guided through Haiti's Senate by president René Préval in collaboration with many civil organizations, including the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress. These small, yet inspiring, examples shine as beacons of hope for other countries to follow.
  • I have always condemned countries whose commercial avarice is the primary cause of elevated military expenditures in my region of the world. Often in the developing world, weapon acquisitions originate out of contract negotiations by arms manufacturers and, frequently, diplomatic pressure from the countries that are home to the industry. It is paradoxical that developed countries justify arms trafficking as a natural response to an existing demand while at the same time they insist that drug trafficking be eradicated on the supply side.
  • It is inconceivable that the United States continues to undermine global human security by endorsing and promoting a global arms market. The U.S. sells its weapons to the highest bidder, whether it be new friend or old foe. As you may know, the U.S. is the world's largest arms supplier, reaping $32 billion in arms sales in 1996. Furthermore, the U.S. supplied forty percent of the arms sold to the developing world in the same year. Regrettably, 1996 registered the first increase in arms trade to the developing world in four years. Even more disturbing is the fact that eighty-five percent of U.S. arms exports go to nondemocratic governments.
  • There is no doubt that the cause of world peace would benefit greatly if a good part of U.S. military funds were dedicated toward promoting human development instead of building arsenals. Ironically, official U.S. development assistance has fallen instead to its lowest levels in twenty-three years. Contrary to the popular belief of its citizens, the U.S. government spends only 0.1 percent of its GNP on foreign aid. This sum is but one-eighth of what the Nordic countries give in foreign aid.
  • We must end the arms trade, or we will never put an end to violence. What can be done? What must be done?
  • First, I have asked my fellow Nobel Peace laureates to join me in promoting an International Code of Conduct on Arms Trade. Building on similar proposals being debated in the U.S. Congress and the European Union, this code of conduct would stress that any decision to export arms should take into account several characteristics pertaining to the country of final destination. The recipient country must endorse democracy, in terms of free and fair elections, the rule of law, and civilian control over the military and security forces. Its government should not engage in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. The International Code of Conduct would not permit arms sales to any country responsible for armed aggression in violation of international law. Finally, the code would require the purchasing country to participate fully in the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.
  • I also advocate preventive diplomacy among arms-purchasing nations. Earlier this year, I proposed that all Latin American governments agree to a two-year moratorium on the purchase of high-technology weapons. The majority of Latin American and Caribbean nations have agreed to this initiative. Hopefully, this accord will lead to a voluntary restraint on high-tech weapon purchases. This is of particular urgency now that the Clinton administration has lifted the ban on the sale of high-tech weapons to Latin America.
  • Most of you here today are from a rich and powerful nation, one whose global influence today is greater than ever. The actions that the citizens of the United States undertake affect every nation, large and small, throughout the world. Because acts of the government are the acts of its people, those who live in a democracy share the victories, as well as the mistakes, of their leaders. Thus, you have a great responsibility.
  • Friends: The twentieth century was marked by cynicism, hypocrisy, selfishness, greed, and the desire to please all without changing the status quo. If humanity is to survive in the twenty-first century, we must demand politicians with character and morality whose actions are based on principles and responsibility.
  • A new vision of human obligations is necessary for several reasons. Of course, this idea is new only to some regions of the world, as many societies have traditionally conceived of human relations in terms of obligations rather than rights. This is true, in general terms, for instance, for much of Eastern thought. While traditionally in the West, the concepts of freedom and individuality have been emphasized, in the East, the notions of responsibility and community have prevailed.
  • The concept of human obligations also serves to balance the notions of freedom and responsibility: while rights relate more to freedom, obligations are associated with responsibility. Despite this distinction, freedom and responsibility are interdependent. Responsibility, as a moral quality, serves as a natural, voluntary check for freedom. In any society, freedom can never be exercised without limits. Thus, the more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves. The more talents we possess, the bigger the responsibility we have to develop them to their fullest capacity.
  • The opposite is also true: as we develop our sense of responsibility, we increase our internal freedom by fortifying our moral character. When freedom presents us with different possibilities for action, including the choice to do right or wrong, a responsible moral character will ensure that the former prevails.
  • Without a proper balance, unrestricted freedom is as dangerous as imposed social responsibility. Great social injustices have resulted from extreme economic freedom and capitalist greed, while at the same time cruel oppression of people's basic liberties has been justified in the name of Communist ideals and the common good. Either extreme is undesirable.
  • At present, with the disappearance of the East-West conflict and the end of the Cold War, with the failure of Marxist experiments and the gradual humanization of capitalism, humanity seems closer to the desired balance between freedom and responsibility.
  • We have struggled for freedom and rights. It is now time to foster responsibility and human obligations.
  • The initiative to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations is not only a way of balancing freedom with responsibility, but also a means of reconciling ideologies and political views that were deemed antagonistic in the past. The basic premise, then, should be that humans deserve the greatest possible amount of freedom, but also should develop their sense of responsibility to its fullest in order to correctly exercise their freedom.
  • Because rights and duties are inextricably linked, the idea of a human right only makes sense if we acknowledge the duty of others to respect it. Regardless of a particular society's values, human relations are based universally on the existence of both rights and duties. This is hardly a new idea. Throughout the millennia, prophets, saints, and sages have implored us to take our responsibilities seriously. In our century, for example, Mahatma Gandhi preached on the seven social sins:
    1. Politics without principles
    2. Commerce without morality
    3. Wealth without work
    4. Education without character
    5. Science without humanity
    6. Pleasure without conscience, and
    7. Worship without sacrifice
  • We must accept that today's problems were created by our thoughts and actions. Peace, human development, and environmental sustainability must begin in our own minds and deeds. The world cannot change without a transformation in human consciousness.
  • As humans, we have an unlimited potential for self-fulfillment. Thus, we have the obligation to develop our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual capacities to their fullest. This is an obligation we have to ourselves and to our creator. By striving to do our best, we are certainly contributing to making this a better world for all.
  • Dear students: Knowledge is one of the ultimate pursuits of life. We must push forward in full confidence that each new concept or perspective that we learn is one that will allow us to solve the problems we face today, and grow close as a community of individuals.
  • I see before me today a sample of the best this society has to offer. I see before me the future leaders of a nation with a renewed leadership role in the world. I see before me the elite of a society for which history has reserved an unprecedented political and economic prominence. You must ask yourselves how you will satisfy the great expectations of intelligence and wisdom that the rest of the world holds for you, the youth of the United States of America.
  • For every human being who was not born within the borders of your nation, this is an important question. But I am sure it is also a source of concern for all of you. Upon your shoulders rests a responsibility of great magnitude. In contrast to my own generation, most of you will see your creative and productive lives develop free of the tensions and uncertainties that characterized nearly four decades of East-West confrontation.
  • I hope that your professors share my belief that, with you, we are constructing a new history. The resolution of the problems that past generations have created or left unsolved requires great energy, great will, and great capacity. We must inspire in you, the future leaders of the world, the determination to persevere in the face of adversity, and the compassion to lift those who may already have fallen before it. Where, if not in you, exists the possibility of liberating human beings from prejudice and from fear? You can ensure that the twenty-first century will be an epoch of hope, and not another hundred years of frustration.
  • Thank you.