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Óscar Arias Sánchez: The Peacemaker

By Huma Siddiqui | PUBLISHED: 08, May 2018, 15:25 pm IST | UPDATED: 11, May 2018, 9:51 am IST

Óscar Arias Sánchez: The Peacemaker "The road to peace can only be travelled by those who have faith in the greatness of humanity.” ~ Oscar Arias

It’s a pleasant day in Costa Rica. A light drizzle on a cloudy day, just what soothes ones travel tired nerves. We walk through the spacious home to the library. The table has small notebooks with neatly written notes that he often loves to refer to.

The man sitting opposite me in a half sleeved checkered shirt , Óscar Arias Sánchez, born on Sept. 13, 1941, in Heredia, C.Rica), president of Costa Rica (1986–90, 2006–10) and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his Central American peace plan is a rather humble man for his achievements.

Interestingly a documentary on him, screened at Monaco Film Festival in November 2016 showed the world, the enigma that this man is.

To meet Mr Arias, the man who is known to have "silenced the guns in Central America’’, was indeed a humbling experience. For I might be a defence correspondent (have been one for the past 25 years) and have seen fighter planes and big guns, military exercises and peace keeping operations but there is something rather alluring about Peace.

So when you meet a man who has not just spoken about peace but shown what it takes to practice it, it is a beautiful experience for sure.

As president, Mr Arias is known to have taken measures to cope with Costa Rica’s heavy foreign indebtedness and other economic problems, but his main interest was in trying to restore peace and political stability to the strife-torn countries of Central America.

That the gentleman sat on the prestigious chair in the middle of the Contra war only makes his role more admirable.

It was thus fascinating to meet the man. The meeting that was to last half an hour lasted for 100 minutes. He spoke of war but his vision is peace and his actions, the world saw, have spoken louder than words. “The issue of peace in Central America was my focus. I did not want my country to be used for any military activities, though the super powers were keen on military action in Nicaragua,” he says candidly. Little surprise then, that in 1986, he came up with a peace plan for the region which was opposed by the USA and Russia but got total support from Europe.

Despite immense pressure from the US on the militaries of Central America –five presidents of the region met in Guatemala City to discuss the 'Árias Peace Plan’--  the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua signed this plan in August 1987. It was beginning of the process, there were many steps to be taken and each side had to comply with the steps. Incidentally the then US President Ronald Regan wanted a military victory in Nicaragua.

It was in the second month of 1987 that this gentleman seated opposite me in the pleasant Costa Rican day, the drizzle outside as soothing as his words, proposed a regional peace plan for the Central American countries that helped set a date for cease-fires between government and rebel forces. Despite the plan being signed, it sadly never got fully implemented (thanks to opposition from USA). That said, it still laid the important foundation for the peace process in Central America.

In October 1987 Arias was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his efforts to achieve the beginnings of peace in the region. Any guesses on what the gentleman did with his Nobel Prize money? Well a year later, he established the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, which promoted peace and equality throughout the world!

Not surprisingly, he has been active in various global nongovernmental organizations that focused their efforts on promoting peace and rooting out corruption.

Arias Sanchez continues to work for peace in Central America, keeping the vision of the Arias Plan alive.

What about the arms in the region?

The landmark Arms Transfer Treaty (ATT), which became the first international agreement to regulate the world’s $85 billion arms trade, has its roots in the civil wars that scarred Central America in the 1980s.

Big gangs sprang up. They started using the arms left behind. To deal with this, he drafted the `Arms Transfer’ treaty. “In 1997, I convened a meeting of all the Noble Peace Laureates to talk about garnering support for this treaty.  In 2007 I sent ATT to the UNGA, and in 2013, the UNGA approved the ATT. The Treaty ratified by the UN covers tanks, armoured combat vehicles, and large-calibre artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, as well as the vast trade in small arms”, he says with a gentle smile.

Witness to the destructive impact that an influx of weapons had on the conflicts that raged in the isthmus, Óscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica (1986-1990 and 2006-2010) played a key role in building an international coalition to support an International Code of Conduct for arms sales that eventually became the ATT.

Ask him what the main purpose behind the ATT was and pat comes the reply. “Countries should not spend much on weapons. My country has no military, so does Panama—they have no army constitutionally” he shares.

“The lesson we have learned in this part of the world”, he goes on to says, “Is that one should not try to resolve conflicts through military. There is always the possibility of negotiations.”

Does he never get disappointed?

He smiles in response. “Look at Haiti, the poorest in the world. I have travelled round the world and tried to convince leaders to do away with the armies...in sub Saharan Africa, met with ten prime ministers, but was not able to persuade them” he says with a hint of disappointment on his face.

But there are other worries of course, like a parent has for his child. “I continue to worry about many things in the Latin American region – incidentally the 21st Century is not for the region,” he says matter of factly.

As we wind up the conversation, I notice the light of hope, the hope that any peace lover has, no matter how many wars he has seen.

He quotes John F Kennedy “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Amen to that!

#The writer is a senior Foreign and Defence Correspondent
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