For we have promises to keep: Ensuring peace for future generations


Oscar Arias Sánchez
Centennial Lecture, Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona

01 de noviembre de 2011

My friends,

Tonight marks the end of a journey for me – not just the distance I traveled from Costa Rica to Phoenix, but also my three-day odyssey through this extraordinary University. With your professors and students as my guides, I have received a brief but fascinating tour of a place unlike any other in the world. For this is a place whose architecture and music show the march of history across the desert landscape. This is a place whose language and culture are a product of conflict and cooperation, give and take between peoples and nations. This is a place whose context and challenges are the product of the centuries we drag behind us, but whose solutions could be key to the century before us. This is a place where diversity is not an abstract concept, or a dream, but a daily privilege, challenge, and opportunity.

In the words of your own literary treasure, the great Alberto Ríos:

…We gather today
On the border between our past and what will come tomorrow,
We are and have been Indian, Mexican, Canadian, Sudanese.
We are and have been herder, engineer, laborer, inventor.
We have been warmed by the winter sun, its set and rise.
Arizona itself lives inside us, each so different from the other.
Different, yet, we hold in common more than not:
We have all been children, been thirsty, done a hard day’s work.

This remarkable state has a unique opportunity to teach us how to recognize the common thread between us. It has a unique opportunity to remind us that no matter how bitter our opposition to each other’s views, we have all been children, been thirsty, done a hard day’s work. It is a lesson our world needs to learn. For all of us find ourselves on the border between our past and what will come tomorrow. All of us find ourselves confronting the spaces that separate us from other people. All of us, whether we realize it or not, face a choice between moving closer together, or growing further apart.

I do not need to tell you that we often make the wrong choice. We humans have devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to building up and protecting the divisions between us. There are walls keeping the poor from the rich in Río de Janeiro; walls dividing families in Korea; walls separating Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland; walls splicing Pakistan from its neighbors in both Iran and India; walls running through the Holy Land. Just south of here, a wall divides my region from yours. There are walls made of concrete and of cables, of spikes and barbed wire; there are walls built stone upon stone, and walls that use the latest technologies and cost billions of dollars. According to an estimate from the BBC, these walls that stand, and the walls now being built, total more than 19,000 kilometers. That’s three times the length of the Nile. It’s almost long enough to reach from the North to the South Pole. In a manner of speaking, we are dividing our world in two. We are splitting our globe down the middle.

They say good fences make good neighbors, and that can certainly be true. Diplomacy and international relations would crumble into disorder without the geographical boundaries that define our world. But we must also consider the other kinds of boundaries we have created. Robert Frost wrote: “something there is that doesn’t love a wall / and wants it down.” In the world of his poem, that “something” was frost and hunters. In our world, it is human suffering. The borders between nations are important, but I argue that in the 21st century, they are no longer the kind of border that matters most. We should be more concerned about the borders made up of socioeconomic barriers, which history has created, and our neglect has held in place. The breaches between the rich and the poor. The breaches between those who are fed, and those who hunger. The breaches between those who are cared for, and those who die needlessly of preventable diseases.

These are the divisions that increase inequality, desperation, migration, and violence. I have said many times that poverty needs no passport to travel. No dividing line can separate us from human misery, especially in the modern world, where we are tied more closely together than ever before. To paraphrase former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, we cannot hope to sustain paradise within our borders, if we allow hell to exist just outside them. Whether our priority is immigration, or security, or environmental protections, any approach that ignores human development is treating the symptoms, not the disease. Until we address the root causes, the problems that cause us to launch wars and reinforce our defenses will never disappear.

This might sound like a radical idea. But in fact, all it requires is something that humanity has already agreed to do. All it requires is a return to the promises our parents and grandparents made long ago. All it requires is a willingness to use this new century that stretches out before us, to follow through on the vows we made during the century now past.

When I was a child, two promises were made to me: one by my country, and one by the international community. Costa Rica made its promise to me when I was eight years old. At that time, we were recovering from a civil war, province against province, cousin against cousin. When the war ended in 1948, my country 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.

Six decades later, Costa Rica has kept its promise to the child I once was, and to all its children. Six decades later, our wise investments have helped build a country that is educated, healthy, and green. Six decades later, the young Costa Ricans who looked on when our government made history, have had the chance to lead peaceful and prosperous lives. We have been taught by our parents and grandparents, and by our government, that security does not lie in armies or weapons or fences. Security lies in human development. Even a small country, subject to the whims of global politics and the winds of global change, can silence the guns and use the dividends of peace to feed, educate, and care for its people. Even a small country can change the landscape of war into the landscape of peace.

The other promise made to me during my childhood came from farther afield. When the United Nations was founded, its Charter called on the Security Council to devise a plan to reduce arms spending and control the proliferation of weapons. Its words were very clear: “In order to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources, the Security Council shall be responsible for formulating… plans… for the regulation of armaments.” In the San Francisco Opera House on June 25th, 1945, delegates from fifty nations rose to their feet to approve the charter. On behalf of all the world’s children, they literally stood up for a safer, stronger, more peaceful world.

I do not need to tell you that this promise has not been kept. Neither the end of the World Wars, nor the end of the Cold War, has freed the human race from its obsession with weapons. We have been distracted by needless violence, by the unrestricted trafficking of arms, by human rights violations, by the insane escalation of military spending for wars that don’t even exist. Global military expenditure reached 1.63 trillion dollars last year, representing 2.6% of the world’s GDP. My home region of Latin America managed to claim nearly 63 billion dollars 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, those figures are dwarfed by the expenditures of the United States. This country’s defense spending increased by 70% between 2001 and 2009, and represents nearly half of the world’s total.

We are told that these spending choices make this world a safer place. But as I have said before, no world can be safe where 925 million people go to bed hungry every night, and 16,000 children die every day of hunger-related causes. We cannot eliminate the symptoms without attacking the disease.

It may seem that there is little you and I can do about this problem. World military spending is so immense that it can seem inevitable. However, as the scholar Marshall McLuhan once said, “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” I ask you, each of you, to join me for a moment in contemplating what is happening with our world’s priorities. I ask you to join me in contemplating what might be possible if we shifted those priorities, even just a little.

If the world reduced its military spending by one-quarter, we could buy 1.9 billion computers from One Laptop Per Child. That means that not just every child in Costa Rica; not just every child in Latin America; but every child in the developing world would walk into his classroom tomorrow and find his own laptop waiting for him. Just think of the effect this could have on literacy, employment, income, and human development in my struggling region, and other developing nations.

Let us say that a 25% reduction seems too extreme. If the world reduced its military spending by just 10%, we could provide monthly scholarships, like those I instituted in Costa Rica to keep kids in school, to 153 million high-risk young people for an entire year. That would keep them off the streets and address issues of drugs and crime, right at their very root.

Is ten percent still too much? Well, with a reduction of just five percent, we could buy enough mosquito nets to protect the entire population of the developing world from malaria – three times over. With a reduction of just one armored helicopter, we could provide school lunches for thousands of children throughout elementary school. With a reduction of just one combat plane, we could protect dozens of square miles of primary forest. And with the reduction of just one soldier’s salary, we could pay for at least one English teacher. With the smallest percentages – changes most of us would never even feel – we could equip all homes with electricity, achieve universal literacy, and eradicate all preventable diseases. Those are the dividends of peace. That is what we would gain if we put an end to our Russian Roulette of military spending.

To this day, the most shocking example I can tell you about is a disaster that moved the entire world in 2010. 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, in the past year, 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.

Some argue that we would risk too much by cutting our militaries. The fact is, we risk much more by staying the same. Our world is made more dangerous, not less, by those who value profits over principles. It is made more dangerous, not less, by the sea of arms flowing unrestricted into developing countries. It is made more dangerous, not less, by cruel and perverse investment choices that neglect the poor and the sick. Our commitment to violence is not a matter of necessity. It is a choice – a matter of will. The ability to reduce the divisions between us is within the reach of our world leaders, of the people who elect them, of all who have a voice.

I am proud to say that Costa Rica is using its voice to pursue three projects that would help change this status quo. One of these is the Costa Rica Consensus, an initiative of my recent administration. It would create mechanisms to forgive debts and use 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. I also led the effort to enact an Arms Trade Treaty that 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, deserves the same or even more attention than military spending. During my last administration, after more than a decade of hard work, the Treaty was taken under consideration by the United Nations.

Finally, through the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, we are planning a Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution based in my country. This center will be a multipurpose institution that offers peace education for the public; conducts research into best practices in conflict resolution; and deploys mediators to open up avenues of communication in current conflicts around the globe. Recent events in the Middle East show that a center like this is certainly needed.

I hope that all of you will join us and become a part of these important efforts. Only with widespread support can we make these changes happen – for they face no shortage of opponents. Such people tell us we are dreamers. They tell us that arms regulation is unrealistic. They tell us that military spending cuts are impossible in the current global climate. They tell us that now is not the time.

But history tells us otherwise. We have always plucked hope from the jaws of despair. Our best movements towards peace have always been born during times of uncertainty and fear. It happened in Costa Rica, where the army was abolished when the country’s wounds of war had not even begun to heal. It happened in war-torn London in 1941, where a few brave souls signed a declaration of peace that planted the seed for the United Nations. And it happened in a secret location identified only as “somewhere at sea,” where Churchill and Roosevelt met aboard the Prince of Wales to sign the Atlantic Charter. In the middle of a war, in uncertain waters, the two leaders proclaimed that “all of the nations of the world… must come to the abandonment of the use of force.”

We, too, are “somewhere at sea” today – even here in this driest of states. We are tossed by currents of violence. We are buffeted by waves of destruction. But this gives us no excuse to ignore the needs of our fellow men and women, of people who were once children just like us. If we do not face our real needs with courage; if we do not heed the words of those who called for peace in the midst of war; if we fail to fulfill the promises that our countries have made to their peoples, we let down not only our sons and daughters, but our fathers and mothers as well. We fail the people whose sacrifice on the field of battle was meant to hasten the end of such sacrifice. We fail the people who, with the noise of war in their ears, spoke brave words of peace, and expected those words to become deeds.

Our promises to humanity can be written by hand or printed by machines, displayed in stone engravings or ornate frames. Still, no matter how fine or plain their appearance, they are no more than promises: promises that nations, or a group of United Nations, make to their peoples. It is time for us to take up once more the promises we have not kept. It is time for us to include them in the spinning kaleidoscope of our priorities, offering places like Arizona, like Latin America, a unique opportunity to do justice to the extraordinary cultural heritage their rich history has provided – and offering all of us the chance to give our children the future they deserve.

My friends:

I am so grateful to your University, President Crow, Dean Jacobs, Dr. Humphrey and the Barrett Honors College, for the privilege you have bestowed upon me today. I am also grateful to other people in the ASU community who have been good friends to Costa Rica during the past few years: Dr. Janet Burke, Dr. Carlos Ovando, and a number of students who are supporting our work in education. In Costa Rica, we have a historic commitment to our schools, but we cannot maintain that tradition without the help of friends far and wide. To those friends, on behalf of my country and the young people you have helped, I offer up the most beautiful words in my language: gracias, muchísimas gracias.

It is because of friendship and generosity like yours that I remain an optimist despite it all. As we stand on the border between our past and what will come, I believe we will take advantage of the opportunity that is being given to us. As a Nobel Peace Laureate – but most of all, as a Costa Rican – I tell you today that the peace we seek can be achieved. In my country, the dream of peace is no longer just a dream. It is a dream grounded in action, and in decades of wise decisions. It goes out with us each morning into our daily lives, into our streets, into our schools. It is alive and well in the hearts of my people. There is no reason why it cannot live and thrive in hearts all over the world.

That is my message for you. No matter the obstacles in our path, no matter the interests that oppose us, it is a message I will speak as long as I have breath to do so, for that is the only way we will be heard. As a human race, we have no more promises to make. We have only promises to keep. And the power to keep them is in our hands.

Thank you very much.