Speech by Dr. Oscar Arias
National Civil Rights Museum--Public Forum (for school children)
Memphis, Tennessee
October 10, 2001

The Struggle for Peace and Justice

Good morning. Although many of those gathered here are adults, I want to direct my comments today to the young people that are here. I want to begin by thanking you for inviting me here today, to the historic city of Memphis, to talk with you about the struggle for peace and justice in the world today. I am sure that you all are very familiar with the struggles that have taken place here in your own country, and that continue to take place, for equal rights for Black Americans, for women, for Latinos and other ethnic groups, for the empowerment of young people like yourselves, and for economic justice. Indeed, your country has a long history of struggle against oppression, and you are fortunate to have a great many heroes to look up to in this regard. We could name Martin Luther King, of course, Robert F. Kennedy, Cesar Chavez, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, and many, many more. Your history, and your present, are filled with examples of the courage it takes to fight for peace and justice.

But I was invited here not to speak about the United States of America, but rather about what goes on outside the borders of this great country. Your country is so large that many people never leave the U.S., never learn a foreign language, and never get very interested in what is happening in the rest of the world. I believe that part of my duty here today is to encourage you to do these things. The world is a wide and wonderful place, and you should get to know it. It can be discouraging, of course, to learn about the negative things that are happening around the world, but it is also important for you to know that you can do something about it.

You can make a difference in the world. The power of your energy and determination is only limited by your own choices. I am sure that you receive this message from many adults in your lives, from teachers, principals, parents, and neighbors, and I would also like to add my voice to theirs and tell you this: reach for the stars. You are talented, you are special, and you have a gift to bring to the world. You are unique, and if you choose not to offer your gifts to the world, no one else will do it for you. The world will simply miss out on the greatness of your talents. So, do not be shy, do not be discouraged, and never let yourself say, "I can't." With determination, effort, and support from others, you can and will change the world for the better in some way.

I want to tell you a story today, about the small country that I come from. How many of you know where Costa Rica is? It is a country about the size of the state of West Virginia, with a population of four million people, about as many as live in the city of Los Angeles. Costa Ricans, like you, call ourselves Americans, because we know that America includes North, Central and South, and that people living anywhere from Alaska to the tip of Argentina are Americans.

Costa Rica is in Central America, and most of you are probably too young to remember that during the 1980s, Central America was at war. There were civil wars going on in our neighbor countries of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and the countries that were not at war, which were Honduras and Costa Rica, were under great pressure to join in the fighting. When I became president of Costa Rica in 1986, the situation was very serious.

For the past fifty-three years, Costa Rica has not had any wars, for one major reason: we do not have an army. The Costa Rican army was abolished in 1948, so that our country could concentrate on building schools and hospitals instead of barracks and forts. We were a small country without a lot of resources, and our leaders knew that those resources would be much better spent on educating our children and keeping them healthy than on teaching them how to shoot, and training them for battle. So, for the past half-century, Costa Rica has been a country at peace.

The wars in Central America in the 1980s threatened to change our peaceful country into one that took sides in our neighbors' wars and provided support to the fighting forces. I knew that this was not what the majority of Costa Ricans wanted, and so I was determined to do something about it. I decided to sit down and write a plan for peace in the region.

The process of bringing peace to Central America was long and filled with obstacles, and I certainly did not do it alone. We had many meetings and visits with the presidents of all the Central American countries. We had to convince them, their armies, their people, and the press, that peace was better than war. This seems very logical, but there were many people, including the government of the United States under President Reagan, who wanted to see the wars continue until somebody won. What I kept trying to tell them is that wars do not have winners, only losers. Every day that war continues, more people lose their lives, people lose their sense of security and their freedom, and violence becomes more deeply rooted in people's hearts. None of this is victory; it is only a diminishing of the human soul.

In August of 1987, the five presidents of Central America signed my peace plan. But the process did not end there. That was really only the beginning. Each country needed to make its own peace and begin to comply with the requirements of the plan. They had to implement cease-fires, grant amnesties, appoint commissions to investigate human rights abuses, and hold free, democratic elections. It was not until 1996 that Guatemala signed its peace accords, putting a formal end to wars in Central America. We are still struggling to strengthen our democracies, to bring human rights abusers to justice, to bring some peace to the families that lost sons and daughters, uncles and fathers, brothers and sisters. Decades of war brought us only destruction and misery. We are now working to leave the past behind us and build our future in peace.

I believe that most everyone in Central America now understands the value of peace and non-violence, because of the experience we have lived through. Unfortunately, the world is once again at war, and seems not to have learned from experience that war doesn't solve problems, it only creates more problems.

I know that many of the people of the United States have difficult questions in their hearts today. How do we stop terrorism? How can we prevent another attack from happening? How will we know when we are safe again? How do we achieve justice for the horrible thing that was done to us?

I'm afraid that there are no easy answers to these questions. The government, and the people, of the United States are in an extremely delicate position at this time. You are struggling to find a response that will stop the evil of terrorism, but without repeating that same evil: without killing even more innocents. Everyone knows that the answer to the more than five thousand lives lost in New York and Washington is not to take another five thousand innocent lives in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world. Whatever the response is, the greatest danger I see is this: that people will begin to welcome violence into their hearts, which only harms themselves. While I believe that actions such as those carried out by terrorists on September 11 must be responded to, I believe it is vital that Americans not allow themselves to be overtaken with a thirst for revenge. The dangers of this type of thinking were pointed out more than thirty years ago by Dr. Martin Luther King, when he wrote the following:

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate...Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that."

This quote comes from Dr. King's book, "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?" I encourage you to study this and others of his works and examine whether, why, and how his insights can by applied today. I believe that his voice is one that should continue to be heard around the world.

If we don't use violence, how do we achieve justice? This question is perhaps at the heart of every struggle for justice around the world. In the case of the recent terrorist attacks against the United States, I believe that there are several different types of justice at stake. The main focus is on holding the people behind the attacks accountable for their actions. This is an effort that needs to involve the international law enforcement and court systems, must include dialogue with various governments, and above all must be a process that puts the best values of this country on display: the belief in democracy and the faith in a system of fair and open trials.

That is one part of the justice, and I sincerely hope that whoever was behind these awful acts is quickly found and punished. The other part of the justice to be carried out will take much longer and perhaps be more difficult. The justice I am talking about is social justice for the poor, not only in the Arab world, but around the globe. We know that violent extremists take advantage of people who are poor and hungry, and use the anger and resentment of the downtrodden for their own twisted purposes. Therefore, partly to curb this danger, but mostly to respect the dignity of all human beings, the world must work to be sure that all people have food to eat, and homes in which to live; that children have schools to attend for their education, and hospitals and clinics to go to for their health. These things are basic human rights, and yet millions of people in the world do not have them.

More than eighty percent of the world's population lives in developing countries. These are countries where poverty is common, where people often die young and suffer from preventable diseases because there is no money for medicine. These are places where large proportions of the population do not know how to read and write, because instead of going to school, children work to help support their families. Both the poor countries themselves and the wealthy countries of the world have a responsibility to change this situation.

Many of the governments of poor countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America claim that they do not have the resources they need to fill their people's basic needs. And yet somehow, many of these same leaders sleep in mansions and drive Mercedes Benzes. Many leaders of poor nations also spend large amounts of money on weapons and soldiers. I believe that their priorities are in the wrong place. If you ask a crying child who has not had a meal in two days whether she wants an army tank to defend her or a bowl of rice, I am sure that everyone here knows what her choice would be. Poor countries need to stop building up their armies and instead build up their people.

Even when they do put their people's needs first, many nations will still be lacking the resources they need to create better opportunities for the future of their children. The industrialized countries of Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia have a job to do here. They must expand their foreign aid and forgive some of the debt that keeps poor countries down. There are some countries that spend half of their gross domestic product in servicing their debts. Imagine what would happen in a household where half or more of every month's paycheck went straight to the bank to pay loans. If the household is poor to begin with, it is left with extremely little to live on. Many, many poor countries of the world are in this situation, and will only be able to get out of it when a significant portion of their debt is excused.

Wealthy countries must give a large part of their assistance as grants, not loans. Many people in the United States and elsewhere imagine that giving foreign aid to poor countries is just throwing away money, when in truth, it is making an investment. We hear a lot of talk about globalization today, and what that basically means is that all parts of the world are more connected today than they ever were before. Building schools in Latin America and hospitals in Africa is not a waste of U.S. or European money, but rather an investment in a smarter, healthier world. I believe that this is the kind of world we all want to live in, and we can all do something to help achieve it.

My dear young friends, I began today by saying that each of you has a gift to share with the world. As you can see, the world has many needs, but the gifts I am talking about have nothing to do with money. The gifts that I am speaking of are hope, knowledge, compassion, respect, tolerance, and solidarity. These are the things that I ask you to share with the world. How do you share them with the world? You begin by sharing them with your brothers and sisters, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles. You share them with your schoolmates and teachers, with teammates and friends. Your impact on the world starts with the people around you. As you grow into adults, your circle will get larger, including college students and professors, co-workers, community leaders. You will have the right to vote and make your voice heard that way. You already have the power to write letters to the editor of your local newspapers. You have the ability to organize projects with your friends and neighbors to work on causes that are important to you.

When you put your talents to work for the good of your community, you are helping the world. You are letting your light shine. There is a lot of ignorance in the world, a lot of injustice, violence, and harm--a lot of darkness. Make it your personal mission to light a candle. Any positive action you take brings more light and dispels some of the darkness. The world needs all the illumination it can get, and you, my friends, are the sparks that will light our way to a better future.

Thank you.