President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Oscar Arias

By: Maria Luna Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias Leaders have stories; it’s what makes history.

"In any Costa Rican town, you will find a school built, equipped or staffed with money we spent on students rather than soldiers. In any Costa Rican city, you will find clinics and hospitals of the universal health care system created on money we spent on doctors and medicines instead of guns and bombs. Walking along any Costa Rican street you will find happy school children who have never seen a tank or machine gun. And in our forests, and skies, and seas you will see not troops, or armed helicopters, or submarines but rather centennial trees, colorful toucans, and unique underwater ecosystems that are the legacy of Costa Rica; that is the story we’ve chosen," said Óscar Arias at a recent speech.

President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Óscar Arias’ continued progress for the promotion of peace and environmental conservation spans from the beginning of his first presidency in 1986 to the present. Originating from a country that abolished its standing army in 1948, Arias has extensive knowledge of creating security without a military. Former President Arias describes his country’s path to de-militarization as a, "story of a people who choose to make their destiny a different one."

He went on, "It is a story that is not yet finished and needs all of your help to give it a fitting end. This story began in 1948—the year Costa Rica was gripped by civil war. That year the clash between armies yielded a winner, and the war came to an end. Most importantly of all however, it was the year when our soldiers finally laid down their weapons. It was the year that my country decided that they would never pick up those weapons again. My country decided that its fathers and cousins, brothers and friends, would never again transform themselves into agents of violence. My country became the first in history to abolish its army and declare peace to the world."

In 1948, Arias was only eight years old and knew little of the impacts of his country’s decision, except that as he grew up, so too did Costa Rica’s commitment to peace. Today, Costa Rica is a bio-diverse rainforest of blooming almond trees and Coprinus mushrooms. There are over 10,000 types of vascular plants, bromelaids, epiphytes and vines, 1,500 species of orchids, great green macaws, red-eyed leaf frogs, green basilisks, orange-chinned parakeets, two-toed sloths, crimson-collared tanagers, and the northern tamandua. What’s more, Costa Rica’s rainforests are the foundation for security in three ways—education, jobs, and health. Costa Rica’s focus on the preservation of its world renowned rainforests is only part of the solution to being ecologically responsible. The rainforest creates jobs and promotes a healthy society.

When asked how companies or individuals could positively engage in environmental conservation and humanitarian efforts, Arias gave several examples like The Peace with Nature Initiative. He commented that Costa Rica has a tradition of being very ecologically minded—with more than 25 percent of its territory environmentally protected and more than half of its territory covered with trees. The Initiative proposes to make Costa Rica carbon neutral by the year 2021, the 100 year celebration of independence. "It will be quite a challenge. I don’t know if we can accomplish that. Certainly, individuals as well as companies can help us to achieve these goals," he said.

Instituting carbon neutrality is difficult in industrialized countries like China and the U.S. because of growth and industry. Arias said, "They are not really committed to cut CO2 emissions as the world deserves. It seems to me that, what we need is to change the prevailing value system, because the values that have prevailed in the past century and in this one are greed and selfishness. People have put profits before principles. With those values it is going to be very difficult to really live in a more peaceful world."

Arias argued that the arms trade is the best example of putting profit before principle—and he used the example of selling the arms to poor countries that do not need them simply because countries want to make a profit. "The U.S. is about to sell $60 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia, in the Middle East. Eventually Israel is going to purchase more weapons or produce more weapons because the U.S. is selling arms to other countries, modern and friendly countries, but still fueling more conflict in the Middle East. This is a very good example of putting profits before principles," he said.

Currently, Arias’ organization is working on an arms trade treaty that was introduced to the U.N. during his presidency, which would inhibit the sale of weapons around the world. "The world is spending $1.5 trillion on arms and soldiers. Latin America is spending $60 billion on arms and soldiers. I come from a country without an army for 60 years. I think that it’s the worst perversion to spend on arms—to keep purchasing weapons that are not needed—instead of educating our kids. Latin America has never been more democratic than now, yet we still continue purchasing sophisticated weapons that we do not need." He went on, "There is a different mindset in children who have never seen a tank, an armed helicopter, or a missile. Their values are different. In Costa Rica, we spend 70 percent of gross domestic product on education and 8.5 percent of GDP on healthcare. It’s a very peaceful country and a very democratic country," articulated Arias.

As I talked to President Arias, his passion for this subject grew. He went on to discuss the eight nuclear weapons states—the U.S., Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel—who combined, possess more than 7,500 nuclear weapons ready to be deployed at any time. He reiterated that military expenditures reached $1.5 trillion last year, representing 2.7 percent of the world’s GDP. "This is nothing less than an outrage, an immoral failure. Just think of what we could have achieved with a fraction of those funds. If the world reduced its military spending by just 25 percent, we could buy 1.9 billion computers, or one laptop per child. That means not just every child in Costa Rica or every child in Latin America, but every child in the developing world would walk into her classroom tomorrow and find her own laptop waiting for her," he proclaimed.

Arias went on, "Let us say that reduction seems too extreme—if the world reduces its military spending by just 10 percent we could provide scholarships like those I instituted in Costa Rica to keep kids in school, 153 million high risk young people for an entire year. If 10 percent is still too much, with a reduction of just five percent, we could buy enough mosquito nets to protect the entire population of the developing world from malaria three times over. With a reduction of just one armed helicopter, we could provide school lunches for thousands of children throughout our schools. With a reduction of just one combat plane, we could protect dozens of square miles of primary forest. With a reduction of just one soldier’s salary, we could pay for at least one English teacher. Or with a small change, we could equip all homes with electricity, or achieve universal literacy, or eradicate preventable diseases. That is what we would gain if we put an end to our Russian Roulette of military spending. Our countries would never then be the same!"

The recent disaster in Haiti provides additional fodder for Arias’ position. While there was no way to prevent the earthquake and hurricanes in Haiti in 2010, Arias argues that the world could have prevented what followed. "With just one-fifth of one percent of world military spending—that’s 0.2 percent—we could have built a safe home for every single family in Haiti left homeless by the earthquake and provided clean drinking water for every single Haitian, thus preventing the cholera epidemic. We could have built a brand new hospital, provided a hot meal for all of Haiti’s children every single day, and put all of those children through a year of school. Their suffering only continues because of the world’s priorities."

Of course, there are those who would argue that cutting military spending would be risky and dangerous. But President Arias purports that the global village indeed risks more by staying the same; that the world is more dangerous when it values profits over peace. He says choices are not out of a matter of necessity but that they are a matter of will. "The greatest reason for the failure of the international community to become part of this story of peace is the fact that around the world too many people do not believe that the story is possible—they just don’t buy it," Arias said.

To help world leaders gain buy-in to the "story of peace," Costa Rica is pursuing three projects that are aimed at changing perceptions and attitudes. The Costa Rican consensus, an initiative of Arias’ recent administration, creates mechanisms to forgive debts and use international financial resources to support developing nations that spend more on environmental protection, education, healthcare, and housing for the people and less on arms and soldiers. Arias is convinced that this approach will bring greater development, greater security, and greater peace than all the money that is now set aside for militaries.

Another pursuit is an Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) which prohibits the transfer of arms to states, troops or individuals if sufficient reason exists to believe that the arms will be used to violate human rights or international law. During his last administration and after more than a decade of hard work, the Treaty was taken under consideration by presidents and prime ministers, before congresses and parliaments, as well as the United Nations.

In his closing statements, Arias said, "I make this call to you today with every bit as much passion and conviction because every voice raised in favor of these efforts will help make them a reality. My hope for the future is that if we want to be a more peaceful world, we need to change our value system."

As a Noble Peace Prize laureate, President Arias motivates individuals to take part in creating a future of peace and sustainability, of course leading by example and making history. He wants people to contemplate creating their own "story."


Óscar Arias was elected President of Costa Rica: 1986-1990, 2006-2010.

President Arias was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for his promotion of peace in Central America.

On August 7, 1987, President Óscar Arias’ Peace Plan was signed by five countries—Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica—which called for a cease-fire, the granting of amnesty to political prisoners, and the holding of free and democratic elections.

According to the latest Gallop World Poll, Costa Rica is the happiest nation on the planet (2010).

The Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress is a Costa Rican nonprofit, civil society organization. It was created in 1988 with the endowment from the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to its founder and then-President of the Republic of Costa Rica, Dr. Óscar Arias Sánchez, in recognition of the efforts that led to the achievement of a "firm and everlasting peace" in Central America. The Foundation is dedicated to the consolidation of peace and the building of safer, fairer, and more democratic societies.

To participate or donate in President Arias’ efforts, visit or visit the Arias Foundation at