Speech given by Oscar Arias at the Rotary Symposium “Partnering For Peace: Today’s Challenges, Tomorrow’s Successes.” Thursday 4 June 2015, 9 am, Sao Paulo Brazil.


My friends,

I have been asked here today to share with you my thoughts and my experiences. However, I would like to begin with yours. That is, I would like to begin by asking each of you to think about the path that has brought you here to Brazil, and that led you to become a Peace Fellow. I suspect that for you, as for me, those memories include some dark moments. Perhaps you witnessed firsthand, or through the stories of your parents or grandparents, the impact of violence on your community or your country. Perhaps you were moved by what you saw beyond your borders. Perhaps you found tragedies in your history books that you could not dismiss. Perhaps you were like me: a child who grew up surrounded by peace and harmony, but was dragged by the currents of history into close contact with the realities of armed conflict. Take a moment to reflect upon those shadows from the past, and the path they set you upon.

The truth is that in history’s darkest moments, we can find unexpected light. It was true with both of our World Wars, one of which generated the League of Nations, the other the United Nations. It was true of the violence that swept my own country, Costa Rica, in 1948, and led us to become the first country on earth to voluntarily abolish its armed forces. I recently found another example: the essay that the founder of Rotary International, Paul P. Harris, wrote in an issue of “The Rotarian” published in February 1940.

In the essay, Harris explained that he had been sitting at his Chicago home, reading dispatches from Rotarian leaders throughout Europe, taking stock of a situation that was growing increasingly dire. He wrote: “This is a critical year. It is not easy to be optimists while storm clouds obscure the sky. How slowly move the hands of the clock, how weary the waiting for the break of day! Is there no light in the east? I think there is light discernible. But, we ask, must the best genius of men be devoted to the science of war and none to the science of averting it?”

This is a question many people before him, and many people since, have asked as well. However, Paul Harris did not simply ask the question. He worked to answer it. In this room today, we see part of the result. We see remarkable leaders from around the globe who have chosen to make conflict resolution their calling card, their speciality, their area of focus. We see people who have chosen not simply to dream of a world without violence, but to pursue practical studies that can help them achieve it. We see proof that while humankind continues to devote significant resources to the science of war, it is also dedicating its genius to the science of peace.

Of course, peace, like diplomacy, is better known as an art. Negotiation itself is a very human process: hard to predict, subject to individual whims and beliefs. The steps that lead two people, or two countries, to lay down their arms and shake hands at last, are hard to define, to quantify, or to calculate. One can train, prepare, study, analyze and strategize, but the end result does have a certain mystery.

However, peace is much more than a successful negotiation. Averting war requires much more than diplomacy. It depends on the investments we make, the spending priorities we choose, the poverty rates we allow to exist in our countries, the percentage of teenagers who graduate from high school, the indices of human development we achieve. Averting war is a science just as much as it is an art. In fact, that is part of what all of you, and the certificates you have earned, represent: a professionalization of the pursuit of peace. Those of us who devote our lives to the science of averting war are not only dreamers, as our opponents often like to say. We are simply pragmatists who have our priorities straight. We are pragmatists who refuse to accept that needless human suffering is an acceptable part of the human condition. We are pragmatists who know that when it comes to the best ways to invest in the future of our planet, the numbers are on our side.

In that spirit, I want to talk to you today about three numbers that define the world’s potential for peace. The first number is 1.77 trillion. That’s the number of dollars that the world spent on its militaries in 2014. It is a number that each and every one of us in this room must remember and confront every day. All the peace negotiations in the world, all the good will and skillful diplomacy on Earth, cannot overcome the power of this massive and outrageous figure. For the military-industrial complex, it is their bottom line; for us, it is the upper limit of our efforts for peace.

I speak not of the damage that could be done by the weapons and infrastructure this money buys. In a world that already possesses the power to destroy itself many times over, that threat is, sadly, a foregone conclusion. I am talking about the other things we are purchasing with our 1.77 trillion dollars. That money buys us more than weapons and war: it buys us desperation and hunger, illiteracy and ignorance, preventable disease and lack of drinking water. When we direct such huge resources away from human development, we are squandering our potential to address the root causes of violence. This is the problem Paul Harris spoke about in 1940. It is the problem Dwight Eisenhower spoke about in 1953, when he said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

We are here in Brazil today – so what does that cross of iron look like in Latin America? Latin America’s military spending last year was 77.7 billion dollars. In the past decade alone, South America’s military spending has risen by 48%; spending in our host country, Brazil, has risen by 41%, and spending in my home region, Central America, has risen by 58%. This is preposterous. The primary enemy of Latin America is not any foreign nation; it is poverty. The primary danger we face is not from any terrorist group; it is from inequality and illness. It is insane for us to throw our resources down the drain of phantom military threats, instead of investing them in real solutions for our people.

In a country with a long tradition of significant military spending, such a state of affairs can seem inevitable. A country like the United States, whose 610 billion dollars in spending last year made up 34% of the international total, has been spending so much for so long that many of its leaders no longer understand the opportunity cost of that military investment. However, I am here to tell you that reduction in military spending can change a country and region forever. I know this, not because of my career or my studies. I know this because I am a Costa Rican.

As I mentioned earlier, Costa Rica abolished its army when I was just eight years old. 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. In other words: My country decided that it had devoted its resources to war long enough, and that it wanted to devote the genius of its people to the science of averting war.

This resulted not only in a healthy, educated, and free society. It resulted in concrete gains for national and regional security. When conflicts and civil wars swept our region in the 1980s, Costa Rica was able to maintain its stability and freedom from violence. What’s more, this enabled my little country to become the platform for the peace accords that gradually ended the unrest in our part of the world. And today, while the terrible consequences of drug trafficking in our region and consumption in the developed world are posing serious challenges to our government, Costa Rica continues to maintain its foothold in the world of peace.

The rest of the world can gain just as much. With tiny fractions of the funds currently spent on weapons and war, we could abolish preventable diseases such as malaria, or achieve basic primary schooling for all our children. Steps such as these would do much more for international security than any battle or bombing. I do not have to tell a room full of Peace Fellows that violence feeds off of illiteracy and desperation. If we can change the numbers of our military spending, we will shift the balance towards peace.

The second number that determines our potential for peace is 10. That’s the percentage of people in the world who possess a weapon, thanks in large part to the enormous global trade of instruments of death. Worth 4.63 billion dollars a year, this trade allows small arms and light weapons to flow unchecked across international borders, often from the world’s leading arms exporters to developing countries where those weapons will destroy millions of lives. Our failure as an international community to regulate this trade, even though we regulate the trade of most any other product, is a matter of gross negligence.

That is why, in 1997, I began an effort to establish a comprehensive Arms Trade Treaty, which 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. When Costa Rica honored me by electing me to the presidency for a second time, one of my first actions was to send the Arms Trade Treaty to the United Nations.

To tell you the truth, I never thought I would see this treaty become a reality in my lifetime. I never thought that I would get to see the idea that first took shape so many years ago, become a part of international law. I was astonished and thrilled when, after more than fifteen years of hard work, the Arms Trade Treaty was finally approved at the United Nations and took effect last year. The treaty is the greatest contribution to humanity that my country has made to date. And how did it come to be a reality? Through the support of the Nobel Peace Laureates I convened to join me in the process from the start. Through the collaboration of governments, organizations and individuals from countries all over the world. In other words, it is powerful proof that when it comes to concrete achievements for peace, where there is a will, there truly is a way.

That brings me to the third number that defines our potential to achieve peace. It is an easy one to remember. The third number is one. That’s the number of exits we must allow from a negotiating room. For success to be achieved, the leaders involved must be willing to put everything on the line. They must be willing to accept that peace is the only viable exit, and that the door to war is closed to them forever.

I have been asked many times since 1987, the year when Central America achieved the Peace Accords that ended the pervasive armed conflicts in our region, what the secret was to our success. All of you are far too expert in conflict resolution to believe that there was just one secret – but, of course, it is important to examine past successes for best practices, especially when history affords us so few examples of conflicts solved entirely through negotiation. Many factors aligned that allowed the presidents of Central America to come together in support of the Peace Plan I had drafted. However, one key element in the process was my decision to follow the example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and lock my fellow presidents into the negotiating room with me until we reached an agreement. Only by closing that back door, and with it, the easy way out to war, could we manage to cross the threshold of peace that had escaped us. We had to recognize that peace was the only acceptable outcome before we could rise above the status quo. We closed the door to war; we opened our hearts to peace. And our region was never the same.

In some of the conflicts plaguing the world today, I see an inability or unwillingness to take this same approach. The tragic ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine is one example. I could never pretend to have known the obstacles and dangers that the people of Israel and Palestine have faced. But I have walked the path of the peacemaker; I know it is a difficult one; and I know that Israel and Palestine have escaped through the back door to war, far too many times. On occasion, its leaders have stood at the threshold of peace, but have found reasons to walk away: in the implementation of the 1993 Oslo accords, which earned its authors the Nobel Peace Prize, but later weren’t executed because of a lack of will; at Camp David in 2000, when disagreements over a small handful of issues derailed the entire process. It is a pity, perhaps, that Bill Clinton did not lock Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak into a room, and that those two leaders failed to understand that there is no price too high for peace. I believe that peace for the people of the Holy Land is within reach, should the necessary will be found.

I have also seen other common misconceptions at work in peace negotiations that are worth mentioning. One is that certain preconditions must be met before peace talks begin. On the contrary – the negotiating table is the place where all these issues should be resolved. The only precondition to negotiation should be the presence of all parties at the table. To think otherwise is to put the cart in front of the horse.

Another misconception is that difficult issues should be resolved later, and easier issues tackled first. Instead, I believe it is crucial to begin with the most difficult possible issues. To return to the example of Israel and Palestine, these would be settlements, borders, Jerusalem, and refugees. The urgency of the situation facing the people of the region allows no other approach.

Finally, there is often a misconception that a peaceful solution can come from outside the region at war. Another lesson from Central America was that nations in conflict must create their own solutions, no matter how hard that might be. External players can help a troubled region reach a temporary truce, but lasting peace depends on the capacity of the governments involved to maintain their democratic institutions, deliver justice, protect human rights and ensure human development. Because of this, those governments must be the authors of their own plans for the future.

As the great French philosopher Guizot once said, “Pessimists are nothing more than spectators; it is the optimists who transform the world.” History is not written by those who predict failure for every new opportunity, or those who surrender before their greatest challenge. It is written by those who dare to dream. It is written by those who dare to sit down at the negotiating table, without preconditions. It is written by those who understand that the end of violence is the product of dialogue, not a prerequisite. It is written by those who dare to speak words of agreement in the face of terrible discord. It is written by those who realize that the ultimate act of courage is not to take up arms, but to lay them down – and those who find the strength to make that powerful choice.

My friends:

I said I wanted to give you three numbers today that determine our potential for peace in the world – but actually, there is a fourth number I should mention, and it is a number that you have given to me. That number is 1.2 million. You might recognize it. It is the number of Rotarians in the world. It is a number that increased by one just three months ago, when I became a Rotarian during a ceremony in my home city of San José, Costa Rica. This organization, of which I am now so proud to be a part, is without any doubt a key player in strengthening and building the science of peace. And within this organization, the scholars of nonviolence before me today must lead the way. You have tremendous potential, each and every one of you, to recalculate the mathematics of war that has dominated humanity for so long.

I began my remarks by remembering the darkness that each of us has experienced, the shadows of history that have inspired us to make a difference, the gathering clouds of war that Paul Harris watched from his study in 1940. I began my remarks in the dark, but I end them in the light. I end them in the light of reason that each of the Peace Fellows is ready to bring into the world. I end them in the light of hope – hope for a world where the numbers of lives and dollars wasted in pursuit of war march down towards zero. I end them in the light that shines forth when we cast off the bonds of violence; when we close the door to suffering; when we open the door, at long last, to peace in our time.

Thank you very much.