The Costa Rica Consensus

Oscar Arias

Oscar Arias

We´ve met for the last two days in a cathedral of words; a monument to those who record the path of humanity; an extraordinary collection of historical events, captured on the page and on the screen. Immortalized all around us, on broadsheets and in photographs, in newsreels and transcripts, are the adventures and misadventures of the human race. As a student of history, I cannot help but marvel at the fact that we are currently surrounded by more than 35,000 front pages, announcing five hundred years of news.As a student of peace, I cannot help but note that of all these many thousands of documents, the oldest artifact on exhibit is the record of an armed conflict: a letter from 1416, bearing news of the Battle of Agincourt, Britain’s improbable defeat of the French during the Hundred Years’ War. William Shakespeare would later transform that battle into art by giving Henry the Fifth one of literature’s most rousing speeches: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” But here, in this building, are words set down on paper not to create great poetry, but to commemorate the real event in which human lives were lost.

Here, in this building, many a band of brothers is displayed forever for all to see. Here, behind glass or on a digital display, men and women look out at us: men and women from all creeds and nations, who lost their lives, or lost their families. Here, carefully shelved or filed in archives, are the stories of parents who sacrificed, willingly or unwillingly, and children who sacrificed without ever being given a choice. Here are revolutions and rebellions, hot wars and cold, Civil Wars in every hemisphere and every century. Here are Paris and Waterloo, Bunker Hill and Gettysburg, Dresden and Hiroshima, Saigon and Chosin, Baghdad and Kabul. We share this space, these walls, this roof, with a million strokes of a pen, a million strokes of a key, that have set down for posterity our human story – a story that is sometimes triumphant, sometimes tragic, and nearly always violent.

The reason we are gathered here is that the present reality with which we are grappling is very different from the past reflected in this museum. When it comes to security, it is increasingly difficult to apply the words and lessons of times gone by to the threats and dangers we now face. Some of the oldest written words anywhere in the world are those found in The Art of War. Not five hundred, but two thousand years or so have passed since Sun Tzu authored the basic precepts of an expert general.This ancient text describes Five Factors for success, Three Areas of Resistance, Six Ground Positions, and Nine Terrains. It also tells us that “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” In this twenty-first century, this advice is hard to hear, because our enemies are not clear to us. We no longer face forces easily defined by formations, flags or uniforms. We can no longer separate ourselves from them by building a wall between our country and theirs. We can no longer defend against them with soldiers and weapons, with barracks and bunkers.

To paraphrase Clement Attlee, we cannot sustain a paradise within our borders if there is hell on the other side. Waves of immigration, both legal and illegal, are literally bringing home the concept that poverty and crime in faraway places can have a tremendous impact on our own soil. The terrorist attacks of recent decades have shown that our real enemies today are climate change, poverty, inequality, hunger, disease, environmental degradation and illiteracy, which can create dangers anywhere in the world.The interconnected nature of this globalized planet makes it impossible to isolate ourselves. All of this requires us to change our approach – and the economic reality of our time requires reduced, smarter spending. In the 20th century, we might have used hawks and doves to define our positions, but these ideological separations no longer make sense. In today’s context, the only thing that matters is getting results. The situation we face today is something much closer to Deng Xiaoping’s cat – the one he used in his famous assertion that “it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

But I am preaching to the choir. I am standing before a group of people who have been brought together by their belief that the way our world approaches security must change. I am standing before a group of people who recognize that a world that devotes less of its resources to weapons and war has become not only a moral goal, but a practical necessity. I am standing here thanks to two visionary institutions, the W.P. Carey Foundation and the East West Institute, which have asked us to explore, not whether we should reduce military spending, but how to do so. How can the developed world reduce its military budgets while protecting the safety of their citizens? How can we spend less, with greater impact? And how can someone from a country without any military budget at all, add to what has been done and said during these past two days, by leaders and scholars whose expertise in this field is unmatched?

To address these questions in the time left to me, I would like to begin with the story of my country. I do this not because I believe other countries will repeat our actions, but because I believe thatour experience can provideconcrete lessons for the international community as it seeks maximum impact with minimum spending. In keeping with the style of the Art of War, let us call them the Three Ideas Whose Time Has Come.

The Costs of Military Spending

When I was a child, Costa Rica endured a war of its own, though it did not receive any attention in the pages housed in this building. When the war ended in 1948, Costa Rica made a voluntary decision that no other country had ever undertaken: to abolish its army and declare peace to the world. By doing this, my country promised me, and all its children, that we would never see tanks or troops in our streets. My country promised me, and all its children, that it would invest, not in the weapons of our past, but in the tools of our future; not in barracks, but in schools, hospitals, and national parks; not in soldiers, but in teachers, doctors, and park guards. 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.

This resulted not only in a healthy, educated, and free society. It resulted in concrete gains for 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.

That is the first of the three concepts I want to share with you: the concept that security does not lie in weapons or fences or armies. Security lies in human development. Social spending and military spending have too long been divorced in our minds. Investing in human development is not a competing priority to defense spending. Such investment supports security. And no matter what the economic constraints at hand, there is no arguing with the fact that the developed world has unprecedented resources to make a difference. Global military expenditure reached $1.73 trillion in 2011, representing 2.5 percent of the world’s GDP. My home region of Latin America managed to claim nearly $70 billion of that sum, while remaining one of the most violent and economically unequal regions in the world, with almost 200 million of its inhabitants living in poverty. Of course, these figures are dwarfed by the expenditures of the United States, responsible for nearly half of the world’s spending. U.S. defense spending increased by 70 percent between 2001 and 2009, in a world where 925 million people go to bed hungry every night, and 16,000 children die every day of hunger-related causes. 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.

As a point of reference, please consider the $487 billion that the U.S. Defense Department had anticipated spending for the coming decade. Four hundred eighty-seven billion dollars represents a sea of weapons and soldiers. But it is important to keep in mind what $487 billion represents for human development as well. Here is just one example: that amountcould buy 2.4 billion computers from One Laptop Per Child. That means that every child in the developing world would walk into his classroom tomorrow and find his own laptop waiting for him, with plenty of funding left over for teacher training and connectivity.

Does such a large investment in education sound impossible? Let’s see what could be done with much smaller amounts. Fifty cents on every dollar of the proposed cutscould provide monthly scholarships, like those I instituted in Costa Rica to keep kids in school, to 243 million high-risk young people for an entire year. One quarter out of every dollar could vaccinate three billion people against yellow fever or typhoid. One dime of every dollar could build more than one thousand hospitals, or 16,000 schools. One penny of every dollar could provide a hot lunch to 6.2 million people for an entire year. With tiny percentages of current world military spending, we could equip all homes with electricity, achieve universal literacy, and eradicate all preventable diseases.

A disaster that moved the entire world in 2010 provides the most shocking example of all. We could not have prevented the earthquake and hurricanes in Haiti, but we could have prevented what followed. With just one-fifth of one percent of world military spending – that’s point two percent – we could have built a safe home for every single family in Haiti left homeless by the earthquake; provided clean drinking water for every single Haitian, thus preventing the cholera epidemic; built a brand new hospital through Partners in Health; fed a hot meal to all of Haiti’s children, every single day; and put all of those children through a year of school. We all lament poor Haiti’s suffering, but that suffering only continues because of the world’s priorities. Eleanor Roosevelt once asked, “When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery, rather than to avenge it?” I am afraid that we must answer her, “Not yet. Not yet.”

Imagine the impact on security of reducing poverty by half. Imagine the impact on security of universal primary education. Imagine the impact on security of eliminating the digital divide. Imagine the impact on security of drastic reductions in hunger and sickness. These changes would take power from dictators and terrorists in ways that weapons never could. Certainly, some of the threats we now face could not be resolved by human development alone, but it is impossible to deny that the vast majority of them would be changed forever, or completely eliminated, by a more comprehensive approach. This is an idea whose time has come. But the change will not occur by chance. It can only occur by choice.

To explain the second idea, I must return for a moment to the sad story of Haiti. Not only has that country been ignored by the world, but it has also been punished for one of the best decisions in its history. I am sure that not everyone in this room knows that I worked closely with Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1995, helping to bring about his abolition of Haiti’s armed forces. However, current president Michel Martelyis now considering reestablishing the country’s army. This would cost $95 million in one of the poorest countries in the world. As I wrote to President Martely last year, that money “should be invested in education for your people, in health for your children, in strengthening yourdemocratic institutions to guarantee a minimum of political stability.“ I believe those actions would do far more for his country’s security.

But that is not the message that the rest of the world has sent. The developed world has done nothing to create an incentive for Haiti to invest funds in human development. In fact, it has done the opposite. I know this because my country and my region learned the same lesson. In the 1980s, the countries of Central America received no end of attention from the superpowers involved in our conflicts. They supplied the weapons, and we supplied the bodies. But after 1987, when the presidents of Central America came together to put an end to our conflicts by signing my Peace Plan, we found that the rest of the world forgot us. When Costa Rica’s neighbors needed support to educate former soldiers, to rebuild destroyed economies, there was little help to be found. The rules our international community has established for aid and debt forgiveness, say that a country that makes good decisions must be punished. A country that invests wisely and achieves improvements in human development, is then told it is “too rich” for debt forgiveness or aid. A country that finds a way out of war is told that it is no longer of interest to its more powerful neighbors. That is one reason why, today, when homicide rates are considered, the northern region of Central America is the most dangerous in the world. It should have been different. It easily could have been different.

The Costa Rica Consensus

That is why I have proposed a change: the Costa Rica Consensus. This simple idea 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 change the way international aid is distributed. 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.

During my recent presidential administration, I took this proposal to leaders around the world, including the World Bank and regional development banks. I was told that these organizations can’t easily modify their regulations without support from their donor countries. That is why I´ve called on the World Bank and on regional development banks to invite their donor countries to create funds designed to supportnations that comply with the basic requirements of the Costa Rica Consensus. Specific funds already exist for technology, for water, and for climate change. Why not a fund that motivates countries to use their resources to improve human security? Why not allow rich countries to double the impact of their aid dollars by not only addressing human need, but also requiring developing nations to make changes from within, and promoting best practices in socioeconomic development? We are all familiar with Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” My friends: what is the plight of sub-Saharan Africa, if not insanity? What is the continuing suffering of Haiti, if not insanity? What is the continuing failure of my own region to overcome its past and join the developed world, if not insanity? What are the tragedies of Afghanistan and Pakistan, if not insanity? Revising the rules of the game is not foolish. It is the only sane approach.

Of course, I do not suggest that international aid is responsible for the failures I have mentioned. But without a doubt, it has not been leveraged as it could be. Without a doubt, it has not fulfilled its potential to bring about a solution. And for those concerned with making the best use of limited resources, that must be an issue of utmost concern. This is an idea whose time has come. But the change will not occur by chance. It can only occur by choice.

The third and final idea I offer here today is linked to another initiative of my recent administration. Like the Costa Rica Consensus, it has the power to improve international security without any spending to speak of. Like the Costa Rica Consensus, it has emerged from painful lessons my country learned in the 1980s. Despite the end of conflicts in Central America, the irresponsible flow of small arms and light weapons that occurred in the previous decades had done its damage, and continued to wreak havoc in our societies. 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 wereshipped 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. It is happening today, in countries such as Libya and Syria, where conventional weapons are being channeled in the service of short-term goals, with no thought for the eventual consequences. 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.

Arms Trade Treaty

That is why I began an effort in 1997, along with other Nobel Peace Laureates, to establish a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty, which would prohibit the transfer of arms to States, groups or individuals, if sufficient reason exists to believe that those arms will be used to violate human rights or International Law. The destructive power of the 640 million small arms and light weapons that exist in the world, most in the hands of civilians, demands our attention. It is a threat to security that requires no great expenditure to combat. It requires only political will. That is why its path to reality has been such a difficult one. It is scheduled for a vote this July at the United Nations, but the struggle to ensure that that event results in a comprehensive and binding treaty that covers all conventional weapons, munitions and ammunition, faces opposition from the strong and consolidated interests of some of the world’s leading arms exporters – foremost among them, the United States.

These arms exporters might ask why they should sacrifice any of their own sovereignty or discretion, voluntarily. My answer to them is that no definition of sovereignty can include the freedom to enable the violation of human rights, the murder of the innocent, the oppression of the world’s neediest and most helpless. No definition of national security or self-defense allows room for such acts. These concepts are thoroughly ingrained in the framework of international law that our world has developed in the past half-century. All the Arms Trade Treaty does is draw the link between enabling these violations, and committing them. It simply fills in the blanks of the promises of the past, in order to address the demands and dangers of this new millennium.

For in today’s world, this treaty is no longer a matter of idealism alone. It is a matter of practical concerns. If it is legitimate for us to worry about the possibility that terrorist networks gain access to a nuclear weapon, it is also legitimate for us to worry about the rifles, grenades and machine guns that are given into their hands, not to mention the hands of young people, gangs, and drug cartels. Who said that killing thousands, in a single instant, is worse than killing thousands, one by one, every day? The regulation of conventional weapons is essential to the safety not only of countries in conflict, butof all countries.I hope you will lend us your support, either from the governments of your countries of origin, or as a part of the international Control Arms Coalition, based in New York, through which civil society organizations can join forces with us to lobby for a comprehensive Treaty. This is an idea whose time has come. But the change will not occur by chance. It can only occur by choice.

The Legacy We Leave

The Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus likes to say that he hopes one day, the children of his country, Bangladesh, and the children of the world, will have to go to a museum so they can learn about poverty, since it no longer exists. In Costa Rica, we have not yet reached that goal, but our National Museum is housed in what was once military barracks, so that our children really do have to go to a museum to see what military spending looks like.

I am not so naïve as to think that many other countries will confine its weapons to a museum. But as the exhibits that surround us here demonstrate, the pace of change on our planet means that today’s news is always tomorrow’s historical artifact. There is always something about to be lost, about to become part of the past and not the present. And whether we like it or not, in a museum of news, we are all part of tomorrow’s exhibit.

So the choice before us is this: what are we willing to leave behind? What legacy will we leave on these walls? Will it be more documents with losses and casualties? Will it be evidence of continued military spending beyond all proportion? Will we place behind glass the faces of children whose hopes were dashed by our choices, whose dreams were deferred by a refusal to use our resources to alleviate human suffering?

Or will we start to replace those artifacts with headlines about a change of strategy, intelligent reductions of weapons, a consensus for development, and a treaty to stop needless bloodshed? Will we start to replace those artifacts with news about the world’s realization that we cannot afford to continue as we are – neither in economic terms, nor in human terms?

We are gathered here because we know the answer. We are gathered here because the choice is clear. And, if we have done our work well, we will leave here with hope, knowing that the tools to change the world really are within our grasp. 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.

Thank you very much.

Former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his work on promoting peace in Central America. He gave this speech at the Affordable World Security Conference at the Newseum sponsored by the W.P. Carey Foundation and the East West Institute on March 28, 2012.