San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

University for Peace: A Dream Come True

(Part two in a four-part series about the University for Peace)

EL RODEO – Two men are often credited with founding the University for Peace nearly a quarter century ago in this small community, 25 kilometers west of San José. However, in the words of one of them,“…when there are ideas like this, nobody can say, ‘I am the father, or I am the mother.’ It was born out of the collectivity and culture of Costa Rica.”

While this quote from former Costa Rica President Rodrigo Carazo (1978-1982) is true from one angle, the birth of the university is more accurately the product of visionaries from around the world. Years before Carazo brought the idea of UPEACE to the floor of the United Nations, where it was heard and seized upon by fellow founder Robert Muller, former U.N. Secretary General U Thant (1961-1971) had dreamed of such an institution. The Burma native did not believe peace on the planet was possible without an educational branch of the United Nations.

“But at that time, governments didn’t want the United Nations to have that much power, to have a direct contact with youth,” said Muller, who was Thant’s assistant. That opinion persisted in 1978 when Carazo offered the United Nations land in Costa Rica to house a peace university. “In those days, Central America was in pretty deep trouble, and the idea of a peace university was not in great favor by some major governments. If you started talking about peace in Central America, people thought that this was kind of left-wing thinking,” said UPEACE rector Martin Lees.

However, it was precisely the conflict in surrounding countries, particularly the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship inNicaragua, that inspired then-President Carazo and his cabinet to propose UPEACE, Carazo says in his book “Carazo: Tiempo y Marcha” (Carazo: Time and March). The proposal was made on Sept. 27,1978, 15 days after Somoza attacked CostaRica, Carazo wrote. When Muller heard Carazo’s offer – sitting in his office on the 38th floor of the United Nations building in New York, listening to the speeches below as the assistant to Thant’s successor Kurt Waldheim – he jumped up and ran to the General Assembly, embraced Carazo and thanked him for coming to fulfill the dream of Thant.

Muller, who is from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France and is now 80, said he spent the next year convincing U.N. ambassadors to support a resolution establishing the university, which finally happened Dec. 5, 1980. That was the easiest part. It would be years before the first UPEACE students would learn about conflict resolution (TT, Oct. 1) or committees would meet on the campus to discuss strategies for peace in Central America.

When Muller first visited the site of the long-awaited peace university, he went away feeling like a fool, he recently told The Tico Times. The road from Ciudad Colón, west of San José, to the land was not paved. There was no running water or electricity, and with no financial help from the United Nations and not much from the Costa Rican government, little chance of seeing either soon. All they had was the land, Muller said.

But the UPEACE site is more than just a piece of property. It was originally owned by conservationist Cruz Rojas Bennett, a Costa Rican who often invited young intellectuals over for long chats. One of those young men was Carazo, to whom Bennett said if he ever became President, he would donate 400 acres of land to use for an institution for peace (TT, March 10, 1995). When Carazo took office in 1978, Bennett had already died, but his family fulfilled the promise. The property had been preserved in its natural state, in the understanding it should be shared.

Mysticism has come to surround the land – with New Zealand geomancists, who conduct divinations by means of geographic features, claiming it emits powerful magnetic forces; historians saying it is near where three-time Costa Rican President José (Don Pepe) Figueres decided to abolish the Costa Rican army; and Muller calling it the home of the indigenous legend of Rasur. In the legend, recorded by Costa Rican poet Roberto Brenes (1874-1947), the children of the village of Quizur were lured underground by a melodic voice. They began a long journey and learned about the secrets of harmony with nature, as their parents followed their laughter and singing from above ground. At the end of the journey, the god Rasur appeared as a white light and said a civilization of peace would emerge from the area (TT, Sept. 25, 1992).

Muller did not have the benefit of this foretelling information when he returned to the United Nations after his first visit to the rural area. He was dejected and said the dream of a peace university was dead.

“But then one day this tall man walks into my office and almost shouts at me –‘Mr. Muller, I want you to tell me all about this university for peace.’ I didn’t ask who he was, I just told him whole story,” Muller said.

When he finished, Muller’s guest, Ryoichi Sasakawa, explained he was a Japanese war criminal, imprisoned for financing World War II. He said he did not feel he had done anything wrong though, as he was only fulfilling the duties he was taught in school. Upon release from prison, Sasakawa decided to make a fortune and give money to everybody who wants to teach peace, Muller said.

He created the Sasakawa Foundation, which donated $1.2 million to UPEACE. With this money, the campus was built. Sasakawa’s contribution is recognized at the university’s Monument to Peace, where a quote by the benefactor reads, “Happy is the Costa Rican mother who giving birth knows her son will never be a soldier.”

In spite of the founders’ enthusiasm, UPEACE struggled at first. “All the beginnings of institutions that go beyond nations are difficult,” Muller said. “When I joined the United Nations, a British delegate told me I was wasting my time and the organization would die within five years. People said the same about the University for Peace.”

Six administrations and more than two decades later, UPEACE has faced challenges and criticism. A student-to-teacher ratio that at one time was five-to-one graduated no more than 200 students in the first 20 years, according to Lees.

“Every administration I saw criticized the previous for mismanagement. And then in turn, generally every administration had its own problems,” said James Latham, director of Radio for Peace International (RFPI), which was housed on the campus from 1987 until UPEACE evicted it in 2003 (TT, Nov. 14,2003).

Some of the problems were related to funding, which was never tuition based and relies heavily on international government support. After Carazo left the presidency and became the school’s first rector, the Costa Rican government had little involvement in the university. “It is very difficult for people to support something that other people have created; this is a problem of political character,” Carazo said.

The university’s budget, about half of which is spent in Costa Rica, is $6-7 million and has until now been funded through donations from countries such as Sweden, Canada, Norway, Denmark and Italy, Lees said. Early on, donations often came directed at specific, short-term projects, which often caused problems financing the school as a whole.

Nevertheless, UPEACE’s early years successfully developed several master’s programs, teamed up with universities around the world, and offered a variety of well-attended short courses on peacebuilding and conflict resolution. In the early 1980s, U.N. Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuellar (1982-1991), of Peru, decided to use the university’s grounds as his place for “personal diplomacy,” not necessarily supported by the U.N. Security Council, according to Muller.

The school became a place for mediation, a safe and neutral ground where guerilla leaders – from Nicaragua, ElSalvador, Colombia, and Guatemala – went for their first encounters of peace with their respective governments. “There were some remarkable conferences that happened there over the years,” Latham said.

Still, the university never took off the way the U.N. hoped it would, according to Lees. “In the first 20 years it worked honorably and usefully but on a small scale,” he said. “It is intended to be a worldwide operation, and for a number of years, it didn’t get to that point. It did useful work in Central America, very useful work, on the culture of peace and human rights, in this region.”

So when in the late 1990s U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was taking a hard look at reforming U.N. entities everywhere, UPEACE’s functions were scrutinized. He determined the institution needed to be strengthened and asked Maurice Strong, undersecretary general for the reform process, to lead the institution. Strong became the rector of the university in 1999 and in 2001 took over his current position as the president of the UPEACE council.

While many welcomed the newly inspired support of the United Nations, some found the reforms that followed hard to swallow, particularly the removal of RFPI from the UPEACE campus.

Critics of these changes, including Latham, hope the university remembers its roots as it looks to the future. “The important thing is, a lot of people put a lot of effort into University for Peace,” Latham said. “I’m afraid none of these people are going to be remembered.”

(Next: Read more about the controversies surrounding the UPEACE reforms.)

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