Speech given by Dr. Oscar Arias at the Rotary International Convention: Foundation Day. Monday 8 June, 2015, 10 am. Anhembi Palace, Sao Paulo, Brazil.

My friends:

It is a wonderful thing when life continues to surprise and to amaze us. Here I stand, a citizen of a small country in Central America, and a visitor to vast and vibrant Brazil. Here I stand, looking out at thousands upon thousands of leaders and scholars and movers and shakers from around the globe. Here I stand, a man from San José, Costa Rica, about to quote the writings of a man from Wisconsin who went on to change the world. I can think of only one organization that could bring about such an eclectic and international situation, in an environment of friendship and fellowship. There is no doubt about it. This is Rotary International.

Addressing this extraordinary audience is a once in a lifetime privilege, for which I am deeply grateful to President Gary Huang and Trustee Chair John Kenny for inviting me to be here today, as well as Past Trustee Carolyn Jones who has supported me during my visit. Of course, speaking to an audience like this one is also a challenge. I cannot remember ever addressing such a large and diverse crowd of people all united by a mission to make the world a better and more peaceful place. Over the course of my career, I have met with groups of students, educators, entrepreneurs, politicians and civil leaders, seeking peace in countries and regions all over the planet – but I cannot remember a time when I met with all of those categories at once.

That man from Wisconsin I mentioned, your Founder, Paul P. Harris, memorably wrote that “the most virtuous war is the war against war.” This is a battle cry for all of us. We have all enlisted in that effort to avert conflict and build peace. But for an organization as broad as Rotary International, and for global citizens around the world, what does the war against war really look like? How is it waged? Where are its battlefields? Who are its soldiers? And, most importantly of all, how can this war be won?

I have spent the better part of my life trying to find answers to these questions. While I cannot say I have finished the task, I have learned this: that the war against war must seek much more than an end to violence. The laying down of arms is just a single battle. To achieve real peace, lasting peace, we must also win much broader victories.

The war against war is a war against poverty – for, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” As long as this situation endures, the desperation of poverty will always drive good people into conflict and provide fertile ground for dangerous movements around the world.

The war against war is a war against environmental destruction – for if humankind has been willing to kill over money and land, we cannot hope to avoid conflict over resources that are necessary for life, such as clean water. We must recognize the link between conservation and security, change our international aid structures to reward countries that protect their natural resources, and lobby until the world’s most powerful nations provide the leadership we need to combat climate change and end our war on nature.

The war against war is a war against indifference – for no other word than indifference can describe a world that spends its riches on weapons and leaves its children without sufficient food, or safe water, or basic medical treatment. In 1961, John F. Kennedy said that for the first time in history, “man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.” Fifty-four years later, we are still following the wrong priorities. We are investing in the abolition of life, rather than in the alleviation of misery.

The war against war is a war against ignorance – for no other word than ignorance can describe the pervasive attitude that a wealthy country can escape the suffering of other nations. To paraphrase former British Prime Minister Clement Atlee, we cannot sustain a paradise within our borders if there is an inferno beyond them. Poverty needs no passport to travel. It travels in the form of immigrants crossing border walls in Texas or California, or the Mediterranean Sea, in search of a better life. It travels in the form of terrorist attacks and the formation of terrorist organizations. It manifests itself in thousands of dangerous ways, but we will never defeat those manifestations until we accept that they are only symptoms of a deeper problem. We will never achieve security for our own people until we achieve security for all people.

This war against poverty, against environmental destruction, against indifference and ignorance, and against the countless other threats to peace, is the largest struggle in human history. Its battlefield is our entire planet. To win it, we need millions of champions of peace – because, terrible as it may seem, the forces with an interest in maintaining the status quo are powerful indeed.

I know those forces are powerful, because I have dedicated most of my life to struggling against them. To be precise, I have come up against those forces during two major battles in my career. One was a sprint, the other a marathon, but both required the most important weapon in the war against war: perseverance. Endurance. Grit.

The sprint was the drafting, negotiation and signing of the Central American Peace Accords that ended our region’s Civil Wars in the 1980s. The United States and the Soviet Union, who were using our region as a prop in their own Cold War agendas, did not want Central America to find its own solution. Peace in our region, on our own terms, was not in the interests of the two reigning superpowers. In order to achieve the goal I knew my region had to achieve, I had to get up every morning, month after month, and listen to some of the world’s most powerful people tell me my efforts were doomed to failure. I had to take one step forward, two steps back, again and again. I had to trust that even so, I was on the right path. I had to continue during the darkest of days, knowing that my region had no other choice than to succeed.

That was the sprint. The marathon was the approval of the International Arms Trade Treaty. That struggle began when I watched my region, now at peace, suffer from the continuing effect of the many weapons that had been imported to our countries when we were still Cold War pawns. I learned that the international trade of arms, free from any regulations whatsoever, was feeding unnecessary violence in Central America and all over the world. In 1997, I began my call for a treaty to regulate the trade of arms, and once more, people told me it was an impossible dream. This time, however, I had to continue my struggle not for years, but for decades. I raised my voice for peace again and again. In front of any group that would give me a microphone, in any newspaper that would give me the time of day, in any meeting or conference or casual conversation, in any language I knew how to speak, I spoke out in favor of the Treaty. I continued even when it seemed no one was listening. I continued even when organizations as powerful as the National Rifle Association in the United States came out against me. I continued even when it seemed that all hope was lost.

Yes, people all over the world told me that Central America could never achieve its own peace. People all the world told me that convincing some of the world’s largest arms exporters to regulate their sale of arms was an impossible dream. But in 1987, the Presidents of Central America signed the Peace Accords that ended our civil wars and conflict. And this past December, more than 17 years after my efforts to create an International Arms Trade Treaty began, the treaty took effect and became a part of international law. We can win our battles in the war against war. We can win them if we remember that we cannot give up, because too much depends on our success.

I have spoken of days of hopelessness and struggle. Today is not one of those days. Today is a day for hope, because of what I see when I look out before me in this room. Today is a day for hope, because of the ocean of leaders that has swept into Sao Paulo because they believe that a solution is possible. Today is a day for hope, because of you. Today is a day for hope, because of Rotary International. And today is a day for hope, because of me, for I am now a Rotarian, too. When I joined your ranks three months ago in my hometown of San José, Costa Rica, I joined a fellowship unlike any other on the planet, and I energized my own war against war – because the steps we must take to win this struggle are the steps that this organization has carried out since its inception.

We will turn the tide through greater interaction between nations – not only on an official level, but through the person-to-person interactions that take place between Rotarians every day.

We will turn the tide by ensuring that a person who speaks out against violence and injustice anywhere, is quickly supported by friends and colleagues everywhere.

We will turn the tide by building a network for peace that is stronger than the formidable network for war, by sharing with each other the projects we believe can make a difference. I look forward to sharing with my fellow Rotarians the Museum for Peace that the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress is working to build in San José as a source of inspiration and support for peacemakers around the world. Most of all, however, I look forward to learning more about you – about the initiatives through which you are changing the world, every day. If we support each other, we will do more than win these battles. We will win the war.


My friends, my colleagues and my fellow Rotarians:

I am not here today to tell you how to end violence on our planet. I am here to urge you onward in your efforts. I am here to add my voice to the chorus for peace that you represent. I am here to promise you that, ambitious though our goals might be, difficult though our path may prove, I will not tire, I will not slow, I will not pipe down. I will raise my voice for peace as long as I have breath to do so, and I trust you to do the same. For we are not alone. We are 1.2 million strong. And we have the force of history on our side in the most virtuous struggle of all.

Thank you very much.