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Global Demilitarization

Nobel laureate argues for disarming mentally too

By Oscar Arias / November 3, 1997



I come from a country that abolished its army in 1948, just as the rest of the world was arming for the cold war. Since then, Costa Rica has built a democratic welfare state and has achieved levels of human development envied by the rest of Latin America.

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I firmly believe that demilitarization is a crucial step toward reducing poverty in many nations.

Many developing countries continue to be burdened by high percentages of their population living in misery. Nearly 1 billion people are illiterate, more than 1 billion lack access to potable water, and 1.3 billion earn less than $1 a day.

Who can deny demilitarization would be an investment in humanity?

The last 10 years have seen the independence of many small nations formerly under the rule of a regional power, such as the USSR, or previously part of another nation-state such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

As those peoples rejoice in their freedom and self-determination, we must encourage them to build their democracies on the basis of disarmament.

For example, I recently visited Slovenia, which gained independence in 1991 and has a population of under 2 million. During my visit, President Milan Kucan expressed to me his worries regarding the protection of his country's national security. On the one hand, he is being pressured by the European nations to join NATO. If he chooses not to, he feels that his only other option would be to arm his country to protect it from possible external threats.

I told him his country had more than two options. A third would be to declare peace with his neighbors, Italy, Austria, Croatia, and Hungary, with whom Slovenia has traditionally enjoyed good relations.

Both individual nations and the international community must take concrete steps toward demilitariztion to free resources for development.

First, I have consistently called on the world's arms manufacturers to exercise restraint in their sales, especially to the developing world. This May in New York, I joined seven other Nobel Peace laureates to present publicly an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers that we have written.

Second, I advocate preventive diplomacy among arms-purchasing nations through regional disarmament talks in order to gradually reduce defense spending and, thus, prevent regional arms races. Earlier this year, I proposed that all Latin American and Caribbean governments agree to a two-year moratorium on the purchase of high-technology weapons and the majority of them have agreed to the moratorium. If it takes effect, we could consider expanding an earlier treaty which made Latin America a nuclear-free zone and negotiate an accord to restrain voluntarily from purchasing high-tech weapons in the region.

Violence and war have been all too commonplace in this century, and the victims of this violence are mostly civilian. The leaders of the 21st century will have to understand that humanity cannot survive if it follows the ethics of the 20th century.

We can no longer support arrogant leaders who isolate themselves from the world around them and confuse force with virtue. True valor is not found in responding to a crisis or declaring war; true valor is rising up to the circumstances around us and recognizing that no problem is too big to be tackled or too small to concern us.

There is a need for a new ethic of responsibility and morality. We must accept that today's problems were created by our thoughts and actions. The world cannot change without a transformation in human consciousness, and that transformation can only happen if we each assume certain obligations:

* If we seek peace with our fellow humans, then we must start by developing inner peace: honesty, solidarity, generosity, fairness, and compassion. We must begin by being honest with ourselves, acknowledging our faults, but also learning to forgive ourselves.

* If we want sustainable devleopment, we must be prepared to adapt our lifestyles to sustainable patterns of living. We must seek peace with our bodies by realizing what our real physical needs are and discarding patterns of overconsumption or abusive indulgence.

* If we want emotional security, we must remember that people should be valued based on who they are, not what they have. By resting our sense of emotional security in material possession, we condemn ourselves to insecurity because material possessions can always be lost, destroyed, or taken away. Real security depends on our ability to give and receive love, a psychological disposition that will foster human relations based on compassion, generosity, and solidarity.

*Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica, won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the Central American peace plan. This article is an excerpt of a speech he delivered Thursday as he received the Global Citizen Award by the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, a peace institute.