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Last Updated: 03/02/2010
Peace needs Messengers
Oscar Arias Sanchez

In the weeks leading up to the 2010 Costa Rican election, outgoing President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez visited the students, staff, and faculty of the University for Peace, marking the official inauguration of UPEACE's 30th anniversary celebrations.

In his address, President Arias emphasizes the social and political progress of the past thirty years, and argues that a continued commitment to education for peace, through the development of the imagination, intellectual curiosity, and a willingness to engage in politics, will bring us further towards the goal of a peaceful world.

Mr John Maresca, Rector of the University for Peace,

Dear students and friends:

During the decade of the sixties, that era of defiance and protest, there was a motto that existed among students as we gathered together by thousands to express ourselves on university campuses around the world: “don’t trust anybody older than thirty”. As if thirty years were the age of Methuselah! As if thirty years were a full life!

But maybe we were a little bit right: for many things, thirty years is a long time. Thirty years changes the course of history. If you don’t believe it, we need only look to the landscape of the world as it was when the University for Peace first opened its doors, in 1980.

Thirty years ago, the Cold War had transformed the world into an immense game of global chess, in which two superpowers disputed over every inch of the earth, at the cost of enormous human, economic, and social sacrifice, and with the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. It was an era glorified in films of spies and submarines, but in reality, I can assure you, it was much more painful than James Bond, secret agent 007, ever let on.

Thirty years ago, the world lived in a state of constant insecurity. All over the world, a war had just finished, a war was going on, or a war was just about to occur. In Central America alone, hundreds of people lost their lives every day, as a consequence of the civil unrest that killed millions of young people, just like yourselves.

Thirty years ago, abominable systems of social segregation were tolerated by the international community. The most notable example, the Apartheid, divided the population of South Africa with impunity, while Nelson Mandela was locked in a prison cell.

Thirty years ago, the majority of countries were ruled by autocratic systems of government, which compromised human rights and dignity in a Dantesque fashion. Latin America was a factory of macabre history, quietly spreading across the continent. Torture and forced disappearances were the daily bread, the common feature of military regimes under the likes of Augusto Pinochet and Jorge Rafael Videla.

Thirty years ago, student protests were violently repressed in many parts of the Earth. This was the case in Poland, where Lech Walesa was trying to create the Solidarity union with the support of young people from his country and the world; in South Korea, where students demanded democratic reforms; and in Myanmar, where the military Junta spread terror at the university of Rangoon, becoming a banner for the struggle for liberty in that country.

Looking over these events from the vantage point of the present, we can do no less than to accept that humanity has changed for the better. Although immense challenges still persist in the struggle for peace, liberty, and democracy, this struggle has achieved indisputable victories over the past three decades. One of these victories was the establishment of this University for Peace.

This centre of studies is based on one simple but courageous conviction: that education for peace is possible, that it is possible to use education to fight against war, violence, and destruction.

I have believed in this idea throughout my political career. I don’t know how many times I have spoken about the important role that teachers and professors play in education for peace. Today I would like to look at the other side of the coin. Today I would like to speak about students and about the important role that the young people of the world can play in learning peace, young people like yourselves.

In the magisterial prologue to his book Obra Poética, the Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges writes: “el sabor de la manzana … está en el contacto de la fruta con el paladar, no en la fruta misma; análogamente … la poesia está en el comercio del poema con el lector, no en la serie de simbolos que registran las páginas de un libro." I too believe that the lesson resides not in the textbook itself, but in the moment that a student reads it. It is not in the content of the professor’s class lectures, but in the contact between the professor and the alumni. It is not simply in the values that an education system strives to promote, but in the internalization of those values by a human being. For education to be effective, much is needed beyond professors who are willing to teach – above all, what is needed are students who are willing to learn.

This morning I would like to mention three elements which I consider to be indispensible for anyone who wishes to learn for peace: imagination, research, and a willingness to engage in politics.

I speak of imagination because imagination is the basis for understanding among distinct persons. I cannot live other than as Oscar Arias. All that I think, all that I feel, I think and feel as Oscar Arias. The only way I can feel the pain of others, the only way that I can feel true empathy for experiences distinct from my own, is through imagination.

I am not a young African whose family has been murdered in a civil war, and for that reason has taken up arms in vengeance. My way of understanding the hatred of this young person is to imagine how it must have felt when he lost his loved ones. I am not an Arab who has heard about the confrontation between his people and the Jewish people since birth; I can only imagine how it must be to grow up in the middle of such a long standing conflict. I am not a Colombian woman who has spent years living in the woods at the hands of kidnappers; I must imagine the suffering that this woman experienced every one of those days.

When we try to put ourselves in the shoes of others, we cannot know with certainty how they feel, we can only imagine. For this reason, peace is creative; it is the product of a tolerance which emerges from the realization that there are nations, families, creeds, contexts, challenges, anguishes, and yearnings that are distinct from one’s own. We can live peacefully with each other only insofar as we can imagine these other worlds beyond our own. In the words of poet Percy Shelley: “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”

Today, I would like to ask: what cultivates this imagination? You have before you the best laboratory possible: people from more than 55 countries, with diverse histories and lived experiences. Accustom yourself to listening to them. Take the effort to imagine what it might feel like to be the man or woman sitting to your left or to your right. Test the capacity of your mind, not simply to memorize facts and repeat lessons, which are basic functions of the brain, but to reach beyond your familiar universe and circumstances. It is this ability that will make us ever more tolerant and peaceful.

The second element I wish to discuss is research, because the imagination, if it is to lead us to peace, must be an informed imagination. There is knowledge to be acquired if we are to understand other cultures and other value systems. We must look into the history of other peoples. We must travel to see other horizons. We must learn to speak other languages and learn new ways of doing things.

William Faulkner said: “the past is not dead. It’s not even past.” Understanding history is not about searching through the forgotten archives of an age that will never return. To understand history is to understand what is happening now, as the present is only the most recent chapter in history. Events which seem at first glance to be completely incomprehensible are, upon closer inspection, the result of past deeds. We must learn about these deeds, try to understand where a person or a people are coming from, and try to understand what people have gone through to get where they are today. In this way, we can try to make sense of the world.

Behind all human action is motive, although it may not be justified. There is a cause behind all behaviour, although it may not necessarily be a good cause. In order to achieve peace, we must familiarize ourselves with these causes, for in so doing, we better understand the positions of parties to a conflict. Therefore, go to Wikipedia, Google, or a library, and research history without rest; try to understand the present so that we can build a better future.

Travel as much as you can. Travel to other countries, and if this is too expensive, travel to other towns or other neighbourhoods. See with your own eyes how other people live; see how different their homes and their customs are. You may tell me “but the world will not change because I travel”. You may be right, but you will change yourselves, and little by little, the world will change too.

No one who has walked through the halls of a museum and witnessed exhibits of artefacts from ancient Mesopotamia would approve, off hand, of the invasion of Iraq. No one who has walked through the great forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo would be indifferent to the civil war which has taken the lives of millions of people in that African nation. No one that has seen the refugee camps of Darfur would be indifferent to the regime that currently governs Sudan. Believe me that the simple fact that you are here, in another country, is a step towards peace.

I am well aware that not everyone has the privilege of travelling to faraway lands, but there is a way to travel without leaving your home: learn another language. A language is a set of values. It is a set of rules that reach far beyond grammar and spelling. It is a set of norms guiding human interaction. Researching into other cultures is infinitely easier if you speak the language of that culture. Most of you are at least bilingual. That is why this morning I tell you: don’t stop. Keep learning other languages. Keep researching other nations. Keep learning because the more that you learn, the more tools you will have to defend the cause of peace.

The last element that I would like to mention to you is one that typically causes a curious allergic reaction among young people: political participation. By politics, I am not referring just to public service, although this is essential, I am referring more generally to the will to be a voice, an active force in the public debate in your countries and communities.

There is a lot that you can do for peace in your private lives. In fact, that it where peace must start: we must construct within our homes and businesses the kind of world we would like to see in the world outside. Still, the struggle for world peace is necessarily a collective struggle; it is a political struggle in the strictest definition of the term. It requires political actors and political opposition. It requires people who are willing to serve in the public sphere, people who are willing to take the criticisms and offences, and stand up for their convictions.

A youth that is indifferent to politics, or disruptive to politics, or renounces politics, is not doing any favour to the cause of peace. On the contrary, they cede power to those who believe in war as a legitimate way to resolve conflict. Peace needs allies in all places, but especially in centres of power. If the politics of your country have not made you proud, then now is the time for you to act, and be a force for improvement. Do not shy away from politics; do not let the knowledge that you have acquired here stay only in your minds and hearts.

I understand that many of you do not wish to work in government or international governmental organizations, but there are many other forms of political participation as well, including responsible protest and voting.

At the beginning of my discourse, I mentioned that I had participated in protests as a student. In those days, we marched the streets of London yelling out: “Hey, Hey, L.B.J., how many children did you kill today?”, a reference to ex President Lyndon B. Johnson and the illegal US occupation of Vietnam. As students, we realized that the time had come for us to walk out into the streets and demonstrate.

Today, I know well that there are two types of demonstrations: those that produce results and those that produce nothing more than noise. One must make an effort to be part of demonstrations that fall into the first category. To be effective, one must be conscious of both the cause and the method of protest. The power of student protest is immense. It was students who led the greatest social transformations of the Twentieth Century. But one must remember to protest with reason and with respect. Learning this skill is an essential lesson in peace education.

Finally, one must learn to vote for peace. The political options in a democratic election are always imperfect. The candidates are always human and fallible, but some will propose policies that are more in favour of peace, and others will propose policies that are more in favour of war. Twenty four years ago, in the electoral campaign that preceded my first Administration, I offered peace to Central America. I promised to conserve the neutrality of Costa Rica and negotiate an agreement among Central American Presidents. I won the election largely because of the youth vote, and it was the youth who supported me most during the long months we spent negotiating the Central American Peace Plan. It was the students of Costa Rica, of Central America, and of the world who gave me the strength to carry on in the struggle; for their political participation, they changed the course of history. Those students were as responsible for bringing peace to Central America as were the Presidents of the region.

All of this is to say that politics matter. In fact, it is of the upmost importance. If you wish to become a messenger for the noble aspirations professed by the United Nations and the international system of Human Rights, do not turn your back to politics. Embrace it. Cultivate it. Empower it. To do this, is to fight for peace.

Dear students and friends:

This university has a particular name. The students here are also particular. They must be among the most willing to imagine, research, and engage with politics. They must be among the most able to walk the path of peace.

Your presence here is itself a privilege. While others are training in the techniques of combat, you are learning the art of peace, an art which has changed the world in the last thirty years.

There are still hundreds of years of history ahead of us. You will write this history, in the same way that the history of the past half-Century was written by those of us who sat in university classrooms in the 1960s and said to each other “don’t trust anyone over thirty”.

I have confidence in this University, which today reaches the Malthusian age. I have confidence in this student body, from which a future president may rise. And I have confidence in the future of humanity which, by the force of hope, continues to advance through the passage of time.

I deeply appreciate the tile of Distinguished Leader of World Peace which this University has conferred upon my today, and I can tell you that this distinction, like any other I have received, is the product of my lifelong desire to educate and learn for peace.

Thank you.

Oscar Arias is President of the Republic of Costa Rica (1986 – 90; 2006 – 2010) He first became president at a time when much of Central America was torn by civil war. His 1987 Central American peace plan, signed by the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, included provisions for cease-fires, free elections, and amnesty for political prisoners. He was awarded the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. Speech translated by Ross Ryan.