San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Arias Seeks Disarmament Abroad

For President Oscar Arias, Costa Rica isn’t just a country. It’s a moral force. And the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize-winner is the one to lead it to its rightful place on the world stage.

That’s the sense one gets when Arias discusses his two major international disarmament initiatives, the Costa Rica Consensus and the Arms Trade Treaty. Though the President, who made his name internationally during his first term (1986-1990) for authoring the Central American Peace Plan, promised his agenda would focus on the country’s domestic problems when he was re-elected last year, he also refused to abandon the efforts that consumed much of his time between his two terms: addressing international military spending he calls “immoral.” The treaty, which grew out of a decade-old collaboration with other Nobel laureates, would crack down on the trade of arms to countries violating human rights, while the Costa Rica Consensus would restructure foreign aid to reward developing nations that cut military spending.

Arias, 66, who’s drawn criticism within Costa Rica for the time he’s spent lobbying for disarmament in Washington, D.C., New York and Europe since taking office, says that the time he spends on the initiatives is not only about disarmament, but also about elevating Costa Rica’s profile. He referred to the decision of his predecessor, Abel Pacheco, to place Costa Rica on the “Coalition of the Willing” supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq as “the negation of what Costa Rica is.” (A high court here later ruled this unconstitutional, and Pacheco claimed that he meant to support the war on terrorism, not specific military operations.)

Supporting disarmament “gives Costa Rica prestige,”Arias told The Tico Times during an interview last month at his home in the western San José suburb of Rohrmoser. “Now we have a foreign policy – before, we didn’t. One of the points I made (during the campaign) was returning dignity to our foreign policy, and that’s precisely what we’re doing.”

He also paints a bigger picture.

The world is “spending more than $1 trillion (on arms), and why?” he asked in his deliberate speaking style, dragging out his syllables still further to emphasize this amount. “Why is the United States spending half of this more than $1 trillion on something completely irrational, incomprehensible, senseless – even immoral, seeing so much need in the world, when the money could be spent on education, health, reducing inequality, protecting the environment… how can this be?”

Though addressing similar goals, the Arms Trade Treaty and the Costa Rica Consensus are at very different stages. The treaty is already being studied by the United Nations following a successful vote last year in the General Assembly, and has the support of a coalition of nations including the European Union, while the Consensus is still just an idea.

Arias explained that the Arms Trade Treaty grew out of his frustration with the failure of developed nations to curtail arms spending following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“The Cold War ended, and I said to myself, ‘OK, now we’ll have to see some big dividends,’” he said. “But where are the big dividends?”

In 1997, Arias convened a meeting of Nobel Peace Prize-winners in New York City to discuss ways to control the arms trade. The result was a Code of Conduct on International Arms Transfers that contained the basic principles of what is now the treaty.

Those principles, according to an executive summary of the treaty available at, a site powered by the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, are as follows: “no arms for atrocities, genocide, or violence against humanity; no arms for violations of human rights or humanitarian law; responsible transfers of weapons; and respect for sustainable development and peaceful coexistence.”

The Nobel Peace laureates now supporting the treaty include former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, Polish labor leader Lech Walesa, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and a host of others. To move the treaty toward reality in the United Nations, 116 countries threw their weight behind the effort, said Tom Kennedy, British Ambassador to Costa Rica.

“The United Kingdom has been… in a small group of countries including Costa Rica that worked very hard to prepare the draft resolution that went to the United Nations in the autumn,” Kennedy told The Tico Times. “All the countries involved went out to really try and sell this thing…’’

Those efforts culminated in the November vote in the U.N. General Assembly, where 137 countries voted in support of the draft resolution; 28 countries abstained, including major arms manufacturers Russia and China. However, other defense-industry leaders including France, Germany, and Britain, as well as emerging arms exporters Bulgaria and Ukraine, were among the supporters (TT, Nov. 3, 2006).

According to Cristian Guillermet, director of foreign policy for Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry and a diplomat with U.N. savvy, thanks to three years at the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, the “yea” vote means the Secretary General must now begin studying what would be involved in turning the resolution into a legally binding document. During a process applied to all international treaties, member countries have a chance to present their arguments as the body works toward consensus; if a consensus cannot be reached, a vote will eventually be held to determine whether the treaty is adopted, he said.

Guillermet added that it’s difficult to anticipate how long the process might take.

According to Kennedy, “it’s an ambitious objective to get a legally binding instrument across in the international community – different members come in with different angles and interests.”

Only one country voted “no” in November: the United States. Asked why during an interview later that month,U.S.Ambassador to Costa Rica Mark Langdale told The Tico Times the country is worried that during the potentially difficult negotiation process within the United Nations, the treaty could end up significantly watered-down from its original form.

Asked to evaluate this argument, Arias seemed impatient.

“Let’s see. If they want more teeth, they can get involved and fight for those teeth,” he said. “If they’re worried that (the treaty) will be limited because we have to make concessions and cede to different governments, both buyers and sellers, it’s still better to have something than to have nothing.”

He pointed out that other international initiatives, such as the Kyoto Protocol to combat global warming and the ban on land mines, have had relative success without the participation of the United States.

In contrast to the Arms Trade Treaty, the Costa Rica Consensus is still so new that the Foreign Ministry can’t yet release a list of countries expressing support – since the details haven’t been worked out, it’s too early for such a formal step, Guillermet explained.

However, the basic idea is that rich countries would change their formulas for calculating foreign aid so that not only a recipient country’s poverty level, but also their spending habits, would be taken into account.

“We’re seeking to change the criteria for aid,” Guillermet said. “Countries like ours…

with zero military spending, are now being penalized because we’re not poor enough to get aid. That’s why the President talks about ‘ethical spending.’”

Arias said the idea of the Consensus occurred to him during the recent presidential campaign.

“It seems unethical to me to forgive the debt of a poor country (so the government can) use the savings to buy arms,” he said. “The middle-income countries don’t get much help from the United States, from the European Union.”

A mid-January visit to Costa Rica by Trinidad Jiménez, the Spanish Secretary of State for Latin America and Iberia, underscored this point. Arias had asked Spanish leaders to forgive Costa Rica’s $58 million debt to Spain so the funds can be spent on education and other areas, but Jiménez explained that Spain’s Debt Law states that the government can grant debt forgiveness only to countries with a certain proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) to total debt to Spain. Because Costa Rica’s debt is relatively small and its GDP relatively high for a developing nation, it’s not eligible.

Later that week,Arias signaled this denial as a prime example of the need for his Consensus.

Though a formal list of supporters is not yet in hand, leaders from many countries, including Jiménez and U.S. President George W. Bush, have expressed interest in studying the proposal. According to Arias, the next step is a technical meeting to be held in April or May to define the specifics of the proposal.

One of the President’s older disarmament goals – making Central America the world’s first demilitarized region – appears to have gone by the wayside.He continues to mention it in public, as he did recently in response to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s refusal to destroy missiles as the United States requested (TT, NT, Feb. 9), but told The Tico Times it’s a highly unlikely prospect.

“I don’t see any political possibility that any other government (in the region) wants to end its army,” said Arias, who added that his role in Panama’s decision to abolish its army in 1994 was “a beautiful demonstration of Costa Rican imperialism.”

However, he maintains his focus has come home to roost, and that Costa Rica is the ultimate beneficiary of his efforts abroad.

“Twenty years ago I had to leave the country to ask for support for the Peace Plan,” he said. “Not now. Now, it’s mostly to talk about my country, to ask that they help us.”


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