We remenber to continue making a better life possible

Oscar Arias Sánchez
XXXV Anniversary Nobel Peace Prize
Legislative Assembly
San José, Costa Rica
8 December 2022


My friends: 

A large part of my life dedicated to the search for peace has taught me that, in reality, there is nothing illusory or naively idealistic about it. Peace is not a dream, but an arduous task that is not undertaken because it is easy, but because it is necessary. Peace is not the spontaneous product of certain enlightened souls, but the laborious work of imperfect beings who struggle every day to learn the art of dialogue, persuasion and respect. Peace is not born, it is made. Like freedom, it is a conquest. It is not received as a medal, but learned as a discipline. 

The lessons of our history, with the experiences they have taught us, show us that peace is achieved neither by weapons nor by war, neither by death nor by hatred, neither by forgetting nor by indifference. Peace is achieved by placing the human being at the centre of our concerns. Peace is achieved by defending life. Peace is achieved by investing in our peoples and not in our armies; by exchanging ideas and not weapons; by preserving forests and not prejudices. It is achieved by changing the culture of war to a culture of peace in our societies. While it may seem like a pipe dream, I look forward to the day when we can agree with Gandhi, who told us: «There is no way to peace; peace is the way». But we are not there.

The art of living in society is simple, but that does not mean it is easy. On the contrary, it requires a different kind of courage than that of soldiers on the battlefield. I am not talking about the courage to take up arms, but to lay them down, the courage to choose the hard road of tolerance and not the dizzying descent into violence, the courage to change the rhetoric of combat, the rhetoric of enemies and victories for the measured rhetoric of dialogue and agreements. I am talking about changing a culture of war for a culture of peace.

A university degree does not per se guarantee a scale of ethical values. There are in the annals of humanity too many acts of barbarism carried out by educated people with ample academic credentials. There are too many examples of leaders who used their education only to sow hatred and division. What good is it to the world to educate educated people, if those educated people do not understand the value of a life? What good is it to the world to educate professors, if those professors consider that there is nothing reprehensible in an illegal military invasion? What good is it to the world to educate young people, if those young people do not care that dozens of people die every day in the cruellest, the most absurd, the most abhorrent of human rights violations: armed confrontation? What good is it to the world to graduate students if those students do not care that for the first time in human history, in 2021, global military spending will have exceeded 2.1 trillion dollars, 0.7% more than in 2020 and 12% more than 10 years ago? The United States and China account for more than half of the recorded spending, but on average countries spent almost 6% of their government spending on arms. To put this into perspective, this is almost 12 times more than the entire amount spent on development aid, despite record levels of development aid during the pandemic. These figures do not yet account for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has served as the backdrop for a tremendous deployment of the military industrial complex. Under no circumstances do I condone the atrocities committed by the Russian military, nor do I advocate an illusory policy of appeasement towards Vladimir Putin’s despotic regime. But I do object to the idea that the only way forward is to continue sending artillery and ammunition, until there is only the last Ukrainian left capable of firing them.

Two point one trillion dollars is the cost of war. But what if we spent those resources differently? What if we turned the costs of war into peace dividends? If they reduced their military spending by 5 per cent, it would be enough to provide student scholarships to 3 million young people for a year. If they stopped buying a single helicopter gunship, it would provide school meals for thousands of children throughout primary school. If they stopped buying a single fighter jet, they could protect tens of square kilometres of forest. And if they stopped paying the salary of just one of their soldiers they could pay the salary of at least one English teacher.

If we ever want our tax dollars to be spent by governments on meeting the most basic needs of our people, then we need an education with an ethical north, an education geared to preserving life as the primary value of the human species. We cannot continue to educate our young people the way we were educated. We cannot allow education to be a simple compendium of facts without moral values, a transmission of ideas without emotions. We cannot allow ourselves to educate scholars and not sages. We cannot allow ourselves to educate academic eminences and not human beings. We need to introduce in the academic curriculum an assignment to change the culture of war into a culture of peace.
Transforming a culture of war into a culture of peace requires a collective effort, a massive education in which we are all teachers, from rulers to parents. We cannot raise the generations that will sustain lasting peace if we do not raise peace-loving men and women. In the world that today’s young people will inherit, cooperation between nations and between individuals will be a prerequisite for survival. That is why we must develop human beings who understand peace as the ultimate expression of coexistence: not as the concession of the weak, but as the ultimate achievement of the brave. Instead of admiring the design of a fighter jet, we should teach them to admire the terms of an agreement to silence the guns. Instead of celebrating military strategies, we should teach them negotiating skills. I think it is obvious by now that we do not need more soldiers, but more entrepreneurs. We do not need more warriors, but better citizens. If we fail to convey to young people a basic concern for peace, our education will have failed as an instrument of change. If we make peace an extracurricular assignment, it will end up as an extracurricular attitude, a rarity of bohemians and dreamers.

This is an anniversary to remember, for remembrance is the best nourishment for peoples proud of their heritage.  Let us always remember and never forget. Let us remember that we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past and that we must learn from them. Like every great event in our lives or in our shared history, sometimes it seems as if everything that happened happened yesterday, and sometimes it seems as if it happened an eternity ago. In either case, that human beings harbour the prodigious virtue of memory is much more than a poetic quirk of history. It is an evolutionary sign and perhaps one of the most crucial skills of the species that left the shelter of the caves to undertake the wonder of civilisation. We do not remember to fill the drawers of the archives, nor to populate the stories of our grandparents. We remember to continue making a better life possible. In other
words, memory has an impact on the present: it gives us an advantage over the past. Memory is not a scribe of the past, but an aide-de-camp of the future. Marcus Aurelius rightly said in his Meditations that «time is a river». And although we sometimes pretend to see the river from the shore, the truth is that we are also sailing and we are not witnesses, but protagonists of the events of our time. Marcus Aurelius’ «river» is nothing other than our own historical consciousness.

We must remember that 35 years ago we were living in a time of fierce confrontation, when the great powers were playing dice with the destiny of our peoples. Central America was a huge battlefield. Hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters had died on the edge of insurrections and absurd civil wars. Warmongering madness is a blindfold that prevents us from seeing any other solution or way out. Central America had to face the same madness 35 years ago, in circumstances that evoke some of the same dilemmas. Then, as now, several countries served as pawns in the global chess game. Then, as now, the great powers fought wars through intermediaries beyond their borders. They provided the weapons, we provided the dead. It is true that the Central American wars were civil wars, but one would have to be very ignorant or naïve to describe them as purely internal conflicts: if one thing was clear from the immense military and financial flows that the United States and the Soviet Union sent to the region month after month, it was that they had very little to do with Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. 

War-mongering dementia was one of the worst enemies of the Peace Plan that we Central American republics negotiated. Even here in Costa Rica, the economic elites and the media were aligned with the United States and advocated military escalation. In the peace negotiations, I was always driven by the conviction that if we did not achieve a political solution, sooner or later Costa Rica would be dragged into the maelstrom.

When we signed the Peace Plan, we did not celebrate the victory of one country over another, or of one armed group over another.  We did not celebrate the annihilation of the enemy, or the destruction of the opponent.  We do not celebrate triumph on the battlefield, because in Central America nobody won the war.  We won the war, which is different.  To that «big monster that stomps its feet», in the words of León Gieco.  Central America won against death, and that is something we cannot fail to remember and celebrate. 

We Central American presidents dared to sign a document that aimed to find a diplomatic solution: a Central American solution to solve the problems of Central Americans. In 1987 we were the protagonists of the events of our time, and the signing of the Peace Plan in Guatemala City changed the history of Central America, and also changed my life forever. That same year, in the midst of the joy of the miracle that was being born in the region, I received the news that I had been honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Even after the signing of the agreement, there were those who sought any excuse to declare defeat. Insidious voices were raised predicting the imminent failure of the Peace Plan. But it was the Nobel Committee that gave decisive support to the cause of peace in Central America.  It refused to give up hope and came out to defend our efforts and support our dreams. 

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to men and women of very different ideologies, but united without compromise by the common ideal of peace.  Andrei Sakharov and Albert Schweitzer, Lech Walesa and Willy Brandt, Alva Myrdal and Betty Williams, Le Duc Tho and Ralph Bunche, Rigoberta Menchú and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, although of different political persuasions, were all laureates for their contributions to peace. \

When I received the news that I had been selected for the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize, I could not believe it.  What I did not know was that in Gothenburg Professor Lars Hanson, Mr. Bjorn Mollin and Mrs. Segerstedt Wiberg had nominated me for the Nobel Peace Prize.  I have an abiding feeling of gratitude to them. 

To be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize is a strange entrustment: an award that very often entails the responsibility of swimming against the tide. The other Nobel Prizes – in physics, chemistry, medicine, economics and even literature – are awarded for an individual’s contribution to a cause that shows more or less linear progress. But peacebuilding has never been linear. Peacebuilding is perhaps the most obstructed, the most subverted, the most threatened of all the tasks human beings have undertaken since their origins.

As a species, we have embraced the importance of understanding the laws that govern the universe and subatomic particles; of preventing disease and raising the quality of life of our peoples; of explaining our economic interactions and the behaviour of markets; of recognising the lyricism of a sonnet or the cadence of a stanza; but we remain incapable of maintaining an unconditional and irreversible commitment to peace. We remain uncertain and lukewarm when it comes to finding non-violent ways out of our conflicts. Despite humanity’s incredible achievements, we still have not abandoned the most primitive and savage of our instincts: the instinct to attack and kill. There are many who attack or kill, yesterday with the sword, today with a gun; others attack or kill by first defaming and then extorting, damaging the honour of the victim of their perverse animosity.

I am moved to celebrate the 35th anniversary of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. I am moved to remember those years of struggle to silence the din of war in Central America, that ghostly concert that mixed the sound of weeping with bullets. I am moved to know that 35 years have passed since that moment when we signed our Peace Plan.
My friends:

If we do not take up the pen, if we do not take up the pencil, we will lose even more pages in violent scribbling, in the inscrutable gibberish of war, hatred and confrontation that has already filled too many volumes in the history of our peoples. But if we exchange a culture of war for one of peace, we can begin a new chapter in the epic of humanity: one which, like the epics of old, will be written not by a single author, but by many. Each song of peace determines the end of this story. If we all do our part; if every government takes seriously the real needs of humanity; if we change the paradigms of violence that have governed world history, then we will conclude with a glorious victory. The victory of tolerance over dogma, the victory of coexistence over violence, the victory of peace in our times.

I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Co-operative Movement for making this event possible and to all of you for joining us tonight. It is recognition such as today’s that strengthens the bonds that unite us as a society, while allowing us to celebrate the virtues and the most beautiful gifts that each of us treasures. This Quixote, who one day had the audacity to fight without helmets or armour for peace in Central America, wants to tell the new Quixotes that the road to peace may be long, tortuous, uncertain, but it is the only possible road away from the edge of the precipice. We are still like Adam and Eve in a sidereal Paradise, minutes before being expelled by our own arrogance. It depends on our responsibility, our humility and our courage, that we do not lose our chance on Earth, that we do not squander the prodigy of this life that has brought us anguish and pain, but that has also allowed us to live happiness. The greatest Costa Rican poet, Jorge Debravo, said that hope is made of bone, more powerful than imagination and memory. May that hope, which still exists, give us the courage to take over from past generations and launch humanity into the vast lands of the future.

I, who have never given up and who do not intend to give up the struggle for peace, ask God for faith, to continue to believe in the unfathomable well of the human soul; for persuasion, to convince those who mistakenly believe that all conflict must be resolved by arms; and for strength, not to give up, not to lose heart, never to lower our sails on the long journey that will allow us to build a world that lives up to our dreams.

Thank you very much.