Costa Rica's track record of 72 years without a standing army demonstrates in a convincing way that it is possible, as well as positive, to organize a state on the principles of mutual trust, peace and non-violence.
Moreover, these seven decades and two years prove that military establishments, arms spending, and wars of aggression are incompatible with the construction of a culture of peace. Nations can enjoy internal security and external defence guaranteed by the institutions of democracy, international rule of law and multilateral organisations. The decision to abolish the army on a permanent basis is an act of courage, uplifting civilisation and certitude on the common sense of human co-operation.
In handing over the military headquarters to the Ministry of Education for a national museum, the statesman José Figueres Ferrer said on December 1, 1948: "We support the ideal of a new world in the North American and the South American continents. To the motherlands of Washington, Lincoln, Bolvar and Mart, we declare today: Other countries offer you their greatness. Modest Costa Rica offers you her love for civility and democracy. "
Long-desired ideals came true on that brilliant day. Four years after achieving independence from the Spanish Colonial Empire, the first head of state, Juan Mora-Fernandez, cautioned in 1825: "The armed forces - which in other states form a necessary element of government - have often been in themselves an ominous instrument of tyranny, a dark source of anarchy and disorder, or a plague that has devoured men and their properties."
And in 1891, the leader of radical liberalism Félix-Arcadio Montero Monge anticipated: "There will be no permanent army when peace reigns. To maintain domestic order and ensure the safety and tranquillity of citizens, the institution of the police is established."
The compact rural nation of 825,000 inhabitants that Costa Rica used to be, a true coffee republic cultivated on the steep mountain ranges at the centre of the country, chose the path of work and peace. And it confirmed what French historian Fernand Braudel wrote: "The mountain is the refuge of freedoms, democracies and the peasant republics."
These are five, among many, benefits that have directly resulted from Costa Rica's abolition of its army:
- Greater public investment in educational and social programs: 7.4 per cent of GDP in education, 7.36 per cent in public health, life expectancy is 80.4 years.
- A civil and pacifist culture, diffused to all aspects of daily life: 11.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2019, compared to 25.9 in Central America.
- World recognition as a free, democratic and peaceful nation - two foreign armed invasions have been repelled, and during the Central American security crisis of the 1980s, external pressures to re-establish the army were rejected.
- Institutional and political stability - since 1948 there have been 71 coups d'état in Latin America, none in Costa Rica.
- The country attracts foreign direct investments, $US2.8 billion in 2018, the eighth-largest FDI recipient in Latin America.
The abolition of the army was not a one-off act, but the result of a national trajectory. It is also a dynamic process that requires adjustments as conditions change. There are challenges, such as the rising levels of the seas due to climate change, public health security in the face of viral pandemics, the exploitation of our ocean's wealth by foreign fleets, the indiscriminate destruction of biodiversity, the threat of drug trafficking and the concomitant crime, the lack of drinking water and healthy food for all, extremist terrorism and human trafficking to enslave, the weakening of multilateralism, as well as new and subtle forms of hegemony. Defining and updating a national security and defence doctrine is a difficult task for countries without a standing army, as there are no examples to follow. Demilitarisation is not a bed of roses.
Costa Rica continues to develop legal institutions and human rights related to peace. In the most recent four decades, the republic has made a legal commitment to the international community to follow a strict policy of neutrality. It expanded the list of human rights to include the right to peace, as a guarantee to each inhabitant. It prohibited the manufacturing and import of weapons of war. It arranged to educate the entire population in a culture of peace and mutual trust. It is the headquarters of the UN University for Peace. In world forums, we have promoted initiatives such as the Arms Trade Treaty, the Central American Peace Accord, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. For these and other reasons, the people of Costa Rica as a whole were awarded the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.
There are 23 member states of the United Nations that do not have a standing army: Andorra, Costa Rica, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, the Federated States of Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru, Palau, Panama, Samoa, San Marino, the Solomon Islands, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the Vatican. Perhaps the time is near for these nations to come together to, among other objectives, give voice to common positions against the arms race and war, stimulate the development of a culture of peace and trust, promote academic studies and comparative research on security and defence in countries without a standing army, offer their experience to other nations that might consider taking the same peaceful path, and recognise with an annual award those who stand out in the fight for a world without arms and wars. Classical Greece and the Helvetic Federation once led the course of humanity, as in the future these nations located in the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, and the Indian and the Pacific oceans could do.
A Mediterranean philosopher foresaw: "If humanity writes the future, not with blood, but with spirit, Costa Rica, I predict, will contribute in a valuable way to the rational and reasonable reunion of men." Our conviction is that in the space of ideas and the scope of constructive initiatives, there are no small, medium or large nations: all states are equal. War and peace affect us all. Blessed be the peacemakers.
- Armando Vargas-Araya is Costa Rica's ambassador to Australia.