San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

CAFTA Arms Tariffs Spark Doubts

As President Oscar Arias in Europe urged other countries to adopt measures to reduce the arms trade and reward peace seeking countries, some legislators back home are claiming that the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which Arias supports, would allow other countries to import illegal weapons to Costa Rica.

Supporters and negotiators of the agreement say this assertion is false, and that nothing in the lengthy trade agreement would prevent Costa Rica from upholding its current law banning certain weapons, or enacting even broader weapons bans in the future.

The agreement’s tariff schedules do establish rates for weapons that are illegal in Costa Rica, however, and this has led Elizabeth Fonseca and Alberto Salom, legislators for the Citizen Action Party (PAC), which maintains CAFTA should be renegotiated, to argue that the pact opens to door to the import of the weapons.

“What’s at the bottom of (the pact) is lifting tariffs that weigh on the arms trade,” Salom told The Tico Times this week.

“There’s legislation that talks about the arms trade… but the treaty would supersede it.”

Pro-CAFTA legislator Janina Del Vecchio, who heads the commission that is de- bating CAFTA, denied this, saying the agreement does not grant any country the right to import arms, and includes a clause allowing any member country to take the actions necessary to ensure national security.

“Whether or not there’s a treaty doesn’t mean that a country… will take on a different position,” Del Vecchio told The Tico Times on Tuesday. “The law will be applied, and the law is very clear.”

Arias himself, asked about the issue last week before heading to Europe for an official visit, said the government will continue to regulate arms and added that his administration is “working on legislation to regulate even more and be more restrictive regarding the possession of arms,” though he did not provide further details.


What Does the Text Say?

The discussion is not a new one for CAFTA critics. The documentary “Costa Rica, S.A.,” which aired earlier this year on the University of Costa Rica (UCR) TV channel, included the statement that the trade pact would make Costa Rica “part of the international production of arms” and showed a page from the agreement that sets tariffs for rocket launchers and other weapons prohibited here (TT, March 17).

Law student Luis Roberto Zamora even filed a suit before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) claiming CAFTA violates the constitutional right to peace, though justices rejected the suit last week, according to Sala IV spokeswoman Sonia Villegas.

A look at Costa Rica’s 352-page tariff schedule reveals rocket launchers are indeed on the list, as well as other banned weapons such as flame-throwers, grenade and torpedo launchers, cannons, sables, swords, bayonets and “arms of war” – in between the provisions for tariffs on percussion instruments and airline seats.

However, according to the U.S. Embassy, it’s common practice for trade negotiators to set tariffs for any product under the sun, even those that are unlikely ever to be traded by the signatory countries, in an attempt to avoid having to return to the negotiating table should a country’s laws or product offerings change.

“There’s nothing about a trade agreement that forces a country to import or export any product,” U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Elaine Samson told The Tico Times.

“The reason that list of products is included in the tariff schedule is that the other countries in the agreement may want to export some of those products, so it needs to be explicit which products have zero tariffs and which products don’t. It doesn’t mean any of the countries are obliged to import them.”

But as one might expect with an agreement that fills thousands of pages, the discussion doesn’t end there. In the debate between the PAC legislators and Del Vecchio, which has played itself out in recent weeks on the opinion pages of the daily La Nación, Fonseca and Salom also point to Annex 3.2, where Costa Rica and the other countries that signed the agreement with the United States in 2004 – the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – listed national legislation that would restrict imports or exports.

Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras included their national arms-control legislation on their lists. Costa Rica, along with the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, did not, mentioning only laws that control the import or export of crude oil, hydrocarbons, coffee, ethanol, bananas and certain types of wood.

Salom argued that if countries are indeed free to control the import of arms to their country, “why did Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras safeguard themselves with their internal legislation… and Costa Rica, the civil country, didn’t? Interesting.”

Del Vecchio, Samson and Foreign Trade Vice-Minister Amparo Pacheco maintain that leaving Costa Rica’s Law 7530, which prohibits the import of certain types of arms and gives the Public Security Ministry the authority to control the import of weapons, has no effect on the country’s ability to apply the law.

According to Samson, nothing would keep Costa Rica from strengthening its arms-control law or even deciding to ban guns altogether, thanks to a clause in the agreement protecting national security.

Article 21.2 states that “Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed to preclude a Party from applying measures that it considers necessary for the fulfillment of its obligations with respect to the maintenance or restoration of international peace or security, or the protection of its own essential security interests.” This means there’s no limit on member countries’ ability to ban weapons, Samson said.

“Costa Rica didn’t include (the issue) in Annex 3.2 because it considered that unnecessary,” Pacheco, who was also a Trade Ministry official during the CAFTA negotiations, told The Tico Times Wednesday in an e-mail. “Under CAFTA, as is the situation today, the manufacture, use and trade of arms of war are prohibited (by Law 7530), and for the import of any other type of permitted weapons, authorization or a permit from the Public Security Ministry is necessary.”

She added that the agreement’s only effect on the trade of weapons is that if the Public Security Ministry authorizes the import of arms permitted under Law 7530, such as pistols or revolvers, the current 15% tax on those products would be gradually eliminated.


A Firm Stance for Peace

As this debate continued at home, Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for authoring the Central American Peace Plan during his first term as President (1986-1990), spoke before the International Labour Organization (ILO) June 8 in support of what he’s dubbed the Costa Rica Consensus, an initiative through which developed nations would offer debt forgiveness as a reward developing countries that reduce investment in weapons.

“It is time that the international financial community reward not only those whose spending is orderly, as it has done till now, but also those whose spending is ethical,” Arias told those gathered at the organization’s annual conference.

He described military spending in Latin America as “a new arms race” that has impoverished its citizens.

“In 2004 Latin American nations spent a total of $24 billion on weapons and troops, an amount that represents an increase in real terms of 8% over the last decade and an amount that has grown alarmingly in the last year,” he said. “Saying we do not have the money to educate our children is like a poor man complaining of hunger as he throws his bread to the birds…the resources Latin America has dedicated to military spending have in the best cases contributed to the poverty of those who bore the initial costs, and in the worst cases have ended up outright suppressing them.”

He pointed to the abolition of Costa Rica’s army in 1948 and the fact that the country’s children “do not know soldiers or tanks” as “a route that we wish all humanity to follow.”

The day before his Labour Organization speech, Arias asked representatives at a U.N. ministerial summit on armed conflict to support an anti-arms trade treaty. The treaty would require signatory countries to stop arms transfers to nations, groups or individuals if there is reason to believe the weapons will be used to violate human rights or international law.

Since taking office, Arias – who used his Nobel Peace Prize money to found the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, an advocate for arms control – has also attacked arms proliferation through his Public Security Minister, Fernando Berrocal, who announced last week that the ministry plans to take an inventory of the country’s weapons and destroy all Costa Rica’s semi-automatic military weapons (TT, June 9).

Luis Alberto Cordero, Executive Director of the Arias Foundation, responded to the PAC legislators’ assertions with an opinion piece of his own in La Nación, defending his organization’s founder.

“The free-trade agreement between Central American and the United States doesn’t limit the Costa Rican government’s power regarding the trade or import of weapons,” he wrote. “Therefore, Dr. Arias is not incurring any contradiction of principles.”




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