By Dennis Gruending
Óscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, was recently awarded an honourary degree by Carleton University in Ottawa. Arias used his 30-minute acceptance speech to deliver an impassioned message about the urgency of shifting out-of-control military spending into investments for peace and human development. He made his appeal on behalf of the world’s children, many of whom have “lives defined by landmarks such as tanks and missiles, mass graves and refugee shelters.” While most children in wealthy countries do not experience the realities of war first hand, they, too, are affected, Arias said. “For even the children of wealthy nations are learning lessons of violence from their parents and grandparents. Even they are being taught, by their governments and newspapers and schools, that violent conflict is an inevitable part of their nations’ existence.”
“Insane” military spending
Arias then provided details about what he described as the “insane escalation” of military spending:
· Global military expenditure reached $1.63 trillion dollars in 2010, representing 2.6% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product.
· Canada’s military spending this year is projected to be $22.3 billion and is 26% higher than spending in the final year of the Cold War.
· Military spending in the United States increased by 70% between 2001 and 2009 and represents almost half of the military spending on the planet.
Arias said these military expenditures exist in a world where 925 million people go to bed hungry every night, and 16,000 children die every day of hunger-related causes. “The widespread refusal to see any connection between this kind of human desperation, and our security problems themselves, is a kind of wilful blindness,” he added.
“Confronting this wall of numbers can make one feel powerless,” Arias said. “It is easy to feel that the sheer size of these defense budgets gives them an unstoppable force. But nothing is inevitable if we are willing to contemplate what is happening. Just think of what we could achieve with a fraction of those funds.” The Nobel Peace Prize recipient then provided details all of that money could be invested in the real needs of people.
Investing in people
· If the world reduced its military spending by 25%, we could buy 1.9 billion computers – one for every child in the developing world.
· If military spending were reduced by 10%, the money could be used for monthly scholarships to keep 153 million high-risk young people in school for an entire year. Canada alone, with a similar reduction, could ensure the education of two million such students.
· A 5% reduction in military spending could buy enough mosquito nets to protect the entire population of the developing world from malaria – three times over.
Arias said there is no shortage of people who deride such hopes. “They tell us that arms regulation is unrealistic. They tell us that military spending cuts are impossible in the current global climate. They tell us that now is not the time. But history tells us otherwise. We have always plucked hope from the jaws of despair. Our best movements towards peace have always been born during times of uncertainty and fear.”
Arias talked, for example, of how Costa Rica, after enduring a brutal civil war that ended in 1948, decided to abolish its army. “My country promised to dismantle the institutions of violence, and invest in the progress that makes violence unnecessary.” It is a promise, he said, that has been kept. “Even a small country, subject to the whims of global politics and the winds of global change,” he said, “can silence the guns and use the dividends of peace to feed, educate, and care for its people. Even a small country can change the landscape of war into the landscape of peace.”
Nothing is inevitable
In talking about his desire for peace in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, Arias gave a nod to his Canadian hosts by referring to both Lester B. Pearson (another Nobel Peace Prize recipient) and the Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan. He quoted McLuhan as saying: “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”
“Join me,” Arias concluded, “in contemplating the possibility that an alternative exists … that we can put an end, not to all acts of violence, but to the foolish decisions that cause violence to dominate our lives.”
As Arias indicated, not everyone wants to turn swords into ploughshares – or applauds those who promote that message. Carleton University’s student newspaper, The Charlatan, carried a story early in September describing how there was “opposition” to the university providing an honourary degree to Arias. The complaint was ascribed to someone named Gary Christensen, who the newspaper described as a “media personality currently working in Costa Rica.” Predictably, Christensen – who looks and sounds like he just stepped off of a golf course in Arizona – has posted to You tube his allegations about Arias having abused human rights during his time as president in Costa Rica.
The university countered in a statement describing Arias as ” respected around the world for his leadership, his commitment to humanitarian causes and peace.” Arias, who has received over 65 honorary awards, was unfazed by the personal attack, saying that in politics everywhere you have both friends and adversaries.