Global Citizenship

Oscar Arias Outlines a New Ethics for the 21st Century

Dr. Arias offered these remarks when he received the Center’s Global Citizen Award in 1997. Dr. Arias served as President of Costa Rica twice, first from 1986 - 1990 and then from 2006 - 2010. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his work promoting peace among the war-torn countries of Central America.

Oscar Arias Remarks

It is a great honor to be here today to receive the Global Citizen Award. I speak before you today as a firm believer in peace and dialogue. When I became President of Costa Rica in 1986, three countries of my region were engulfed in violent conflict. I was determined to put an end to the gunfire that was killing not only combatants, but also hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, so I called upon the other Central American heads of state to come together in a spirit of open dialogue to resolve our problems. What I learned in those intense meetings, my friends, is that dialogue can work miracles.

That is why I established the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress with the proceeds of the Nobel Prize for Peace: to carry out concrete projects that will prevent the resurgence of armed conflict and to educate the world to respect the power of words.

I come from a country that abolished its army in 1948. Since then, Costa Rica has focused on building a democratic welfare state and has achieved levels of human development envied by the rest of Latin America. Following the return of democratic rule to Panama in 1989 and to Haiti in 1994, I encouraged those countries’ leaders to consider the benefits of complete demilitarization. Today, Costa Rica and Panama have the safest border in the world, as neither country has an army. Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, plagued historically by an oppressive military that has carried out 25 coup d’états since independence, is now an army-less nation. The abolition of national armed forces is a viable option for many countries.

The last ten years have witnessed the independence of many small nations. We must encourage them to build their democracies on the basis of disarmament. I recently visited Slovenia, which gained its independence in 1991 and has a population of under two million. During my visit, President Milan Kucan expressed to me his worries regarding the protection of his country’s national security. He is being pressured by the European nations to join NATO. If he chooses not to, he feels that his only other option would be to arm his country. His country has a third option — to declare peace with its neighbors, Italy, Austria, Croatia, and Hungary, with whom Slovenia has traditionally enjoyed good relations. Not only Slovenia but also the Baltic states should consider complete demilitarization in order to free resources for development.

Both individual nations and the international community must take concrete steps toward demilitarization. This May in New York, I joined seven other Nobel Peace laureates to present publicly an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. All arms-exporting nations must agree on certain criteria to guide weapons sales.

At the same time, I advocate preventive diplomacy among arms-purchasing nations through regional disarmament talks in order to gradually reduce defense spending. Earlier this year, I proposed that all Latin American and Caribbean governments agree to a two-year moratorium on the purchase of high-technology weapons, and the majority of them have agreed to the moratorium.

I firmly believe that demilitarization is a crucial step toward reducing poverty in many nations. Many developing countries continue to be burdened by high percentages of their population living in misery. Nearly one billion people are illiterate, more than one billion lack access to potable water, and 1.3 billion earn less than $1 a day. Who can deny that demilitarization is an investment in humanity?

Violence and war have been all too commonplace in this century, and the victims of this violence are mostly civilian. Who can forget the massacres of millions in the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, Japan, Cambodia, and Rwanda?

The leaders of the twenty-first century will have to understand that humanity cannot survive if it follows the ethics of the twentieth century. The twentieth century was marked by cynicism, hypocrisy, selfishness, greed, and the desire to please all without changing the status quo. Our lack of ethics has led to apathy, apathy to inaction, and our inaction is simply immoral.

Just last month, the Interaction Council presented a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities. It is hoped that in 1998, fifty years after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it will also adopt the complementary Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities.

The concept of human obligations also serves to balance the notions of freedom and responsibility.

Oscar Arias

A vision of human obligations is new only to some regions of the world. Many societies have traditionally conceived of human relations in terms of obligations rather than rights. This is generally true, for instance, in much of Eastern thought.

The concept of human obligations also serves to balance the notions of freedom and responsibility. The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear toward others as well as ourselves. The more talents we possess, the bigger the responsibility we have to develop them to their fullest capacity.

Unrestricted freedom is as dangerous as imposed social responsibility. Great social injustices have resulted from extreme economic freedom and capitalist greed, while at the same time cruel oppression of people’s basic liberties has been justified in the name of communist ideals and the common good.

Either extreme is undesirable. At present, with the disappearance of the East-West conflict and the end of the Cold War, with the failure of Marxist experiments and the gradual humanization of capitalism, humanity seems closer to the desired balance between freedom and responsibility.

The initiative to draft a Universal Declaration of Human Obligations is not only a way of balancing freedom with responsibility but also a means of reconciling ideologies and political views that were deemed antagonistic in the past.

Throughout the millennia, prophets, saints, and sages have implored us to take our responsibilities seriously. In our century, for example, Mahatma Gandhi preached on the seven social sins:

  1. Politics without principles
  2. Commerce without morality
  3. Wealth without work
  4. Education without character
  5. Science without humanity
  6. Pleasure without conscience
  7. Worship without sacrifice

The world cannot change without a transformation in human consciousness, and that transformation can only happen if we each assume certain obligations.

  • If we want to be at peace with our fellow humans, and if we seek peace among nations, then we must start by developing inner peace.
  • If we want to enjoy sustainable human development, we must be prepared to adapt our lifestyles to sustainable patterns of living.
  • If we want to enjoy emotional security, we must remember that people should be valued based on who they are, not what they have. Real emotional security depends on our ability to give and receive love.

We have an obligation to develop our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual capacities to their fullest.

There is a need for a new ethics. Politics makes no sense if it is not accompanied by responsibility and morality. The twenty-first century is going to be a peaceful one the day human beings become more important than arms.

Being global citizens means that no individual or nation can seek isolation from the plight of others. We must find the moral courage to work to overcome poverty, save the environment, and build a brighter future for the generations to come.