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About face!

Dr Oscar Arias Sánchez

Dr Oscar Arias Sánchez is running for the presidency of Costa Rica again. He’s already campaigning for elections that will take place in February next year. So, when I contact him for an interview about the abolition of world armies, I’m rather surprised that he’s got time to talk. But then again, I really shouldn’t be: he has been a passionate international advocate for demilitarization for two decades now.

The Central American country that he led from 1986 to 1990 has had no army for nearly 60 years. Following a civil war that lasted just five weeks, but killed 2,000 people, the victorious leader José Figueres made a revolutionary pronouncement on 1 December 1948: ‘The Regular Army of Costa Rica today gives the key to its military base to the schools... [T]he Government hereby declares the National Army officially abolished.’ As a result the nation’s limited resources were channelled into infrastructure, especially education and health, which rewarded the country with the highest living standard in Central and South America.

‘At that time the army was not very large and so there were no sudden potfuls of money to finance these goals,’ explains Dr Arias. ‘But the abolition of the army helped us avoid the quagmire that in the following decades would slowly engulf our neighbours: deepening poverty, brutal military repression, guerrilla movements and foreign military intervention. If Costa Rica had an army in the 1980s, we almost certainly would have become like Honduras – a militarized outpost of the US in its campaign against the Nicaraguan Government. Instead, we were able to promote a regional peace plan, to keep our economy growing and to build new schools.’

Twenty-eight nations now have no armies

Fourteen countries have now followed Costa Rica’s example and demilitarized through Constitutional amendments. Twenty-eight nations now have no armies. Dr Arias encouraged and supported the Presidents of two of these countries – Panama and Haiti – to demilitarize. ‘My goal was to impress on them the importance of preventing the rule of men with guns. Abolishing the army reduces the immediate threat of coups, but without a comprehensive programme to disarm and reintegrate soldiers into society, armed groups can reform under a different banner.’

Panama listened. Haiti – where massive internal conflict erupted last year, causing the ousting of its President – did not. But Dr Arias believes that the abolition of the Haitian army makes as much sense today as it did in 1995. ‘Given the past role of Haiti’s military in fomenting coups, spreading chaos and attacking civilians, an organized army would have only deepened last year’s crisis.’ But Haiti is a potent reminder that demilitarization will not rid a country of violence if other conflict flashpoints, like widespread gun possession, remain.

Indeed even in military-free Costa Rica, Dr Arias sees guns generating violence. ‘As the media reports more and more crime, many people see no other recourse but to arm themselves, which in turn generates greater insecurity. Disarmament of society is a much longer process [than demilitarization] that requires a fundamental change in outlook and behaviour.’ This helps explain why Dr Arias – winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 – used his prize money to establish a foundation that works for peace internationally as well as within his own country: work that presently includes peace training in schools.

The benefits for big nations

I ask Dr Arias how practical it is to expect large nations to abolish their armies. After all, $1,035 billion was spent on militaries worldwide last year. In the US alone, military spending in 2003 was 40 per cent higher than in 2002. ‘For countries with enormous military power my argument would not be that they should abolish their armies all at once as Costa Rica did, but rather reduce their military spending bit-by-bit in co-ordination with other countries. The advantages to superpowers are greater geopolitical security and an alleviation of the sense that a mushrooming military power is driving their governments closer to the abyss.’

And what of countries that need to protect their resources – say in Africa? ‘I agree that the threat of invasion makes it more difficult for a country to contemplate demilitarization. Indeed, the very purpose of an army is to protect a country from external aggression. But if you look at the [real] role of the military in Africa, you will see that it is the backbone of dictators and an instrument of internal repression.

‘I would not be so arrogant as to say that what worked for Costa Rica and Panama should work in Sudan or the Congo. If a government decides to abolish its military all at once, how is it then to deal with the rat’s nest of paramilitary groups operating within its borders? But I do believe – and I have made this argument with African presidents – that it is vital for leaders to [start making] demilitarization a central priority of their governments. [As an international community] we have to think of ways to fund nations that are trying to reduce the size of their militaries [such as establishing] a framework for debt forgiveness to developing-world governments that take steps to invest more in education, health and housing, and less in soldiers and weapons. This would support governments in impoverished countries which seek to better protect and serve their citizens and also encourage a reordering of worldwide priorities that are currently so tragically misguided.’

These are indeed perspectives befitting a President. Are you listening, Mr Bush?

New Internationalist issue 381 magazine cover This article is from the August 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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