The idea of building a peace museum is not new in Costa Rica. I am not going to explore these ideas. The objective of this posting is rather twofold. First, to describe briefly the historical facts that have led to the relationship between peace and national identity, and second, to make another call for the construction of a peace museum.
Fortunately, Costa Rica, unlike other countries, lacks narratives of the scourge of war. True, there have been moments of internal rifts in history. However, we cannot categorically argue that sacrifices made by soldiers defending the country during terrible past wars have played a substantial role in ensuring peace today. Nor is there the discourse that the country has been the perpetrator of horrors inflicted on others during armed hostilities. Costa Rica therefore has no need to enter into reconciliations with victims of war, as other countries often do, because there are none.
The commemoration of war is not a possibility in Costa Rica due to its history of peace. In contrast, the commemoration of peace makes perfect sense. An excellent strategy to celebrate this peaceful history, achieved over several generations, is through the construction of a peace museum.
However, as yet, nothing concrete has materialised regarding this aspiration. In order to move things forward, I am sketching the plans for a Peace Museum at the University of Costa Rica. This planning is part of the activities of the recently established Chair for Peace Education and Human Rights within the Institute for Research in Education (INIE) of the university. The chair’s colleagues are collaborating in this endeavor.
Peace as part of the national identity
The logic of peacebuilding follows specific historical, political, legal, and cultural processes in Costa Rica. These processes explain Costa Rica's pacifist tradition. Based on evidence, the following processes must be singled out, amongst others:
- Costa Rica gained independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. However, news of independence reached the newly independent state on October 13, a month after the historic event. Costa Rica was the only country that did not elect a military man as its first head of state. Tensions and armed violence emerged soon after independence in the rest of Central America; Costa Rica remains peaceful.
Several factors have established the foundations of today’s pacifist and civil identity in Costa Rican society. These include, the geographical isolation, the sociological composition of the scarce population of the time, formed by simple people, the lack of armed violence, and a new sense of responsibility in reference to political power and governance. Faced with the new task of self-governance, Costa Ricans freely formed the first democratic government, called the Board of Delegates of the Towns (Junta de Delegados de los Pueblos). This Board appointed a special commission responsible for drafting the first political constitution, the Pacto de Concordia (the Pact of Concord). This constitutional arrangement established Costa Rica's absolute right to freely form its own form of government. Slavery was abolished, and many of the rights of the inhabitants were recognized. The Pact of Concord sought to establish an atmosphere of tranquility and stability.
In 1841, ex-president Braulio Carrillo established a constitution that he called the Decree of Bases and Guarantees. This constitution enshrined a list of fundamental rights, which were advanced for the time. It was so advanced that it resembled the substantive content of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
During the Tomás Guardia Gutiérrez Administration (1870–1876), the constitution underwent reforms. The participation of the military in politics was outlawed and subordinated to civil power. Also, the 1871 constitution incorporated the abolition of the death penalty, and Costa Rica became the third country in the world to eliminate capital punishment.
On November 7, 1889, there was electoral fraud. Costa Ricans demonstrated on the streets with sticks and machetes and demanded that the decision made by the majority, expressed at the ballot box, be decisively respected. There was repudiation towards the decision of the ex-president, Bernardo Soto, to leave power in order to impose a candidate who had lost the elections. A categorical rejection of authoritarianism was clear. These developments lay the irreversible foundations for safeguarding the security of a republican and representative democracy against dictatorships. In other words, these actions were decisive in consolidating Costa Rica's democratic political institutions and peace. Accordingly, the Day of Costa Rican Democracy was established by official decree in 1942 and must be celebrated every November 7.
After the 1948 Civil War, Costa Rica became the first country in the world to abolish the army as a permanent institution. The prohibition was enshrined in Article 12 of the 1949 Constitution. The abolition of the army and the development of a democratic tradition have advanced respect for human life, the defense of human rights, and uninterrupted free and fair elections since 1948. These factors allowed Costa Ricans, early in their political-social evolution, to have a very entrenched pacifist culture. At the international level, the abolition of the army highlights that the protection of territorial sovereignty from external threats does not need to rely on an organised army. In the past, Costa Rica has encountered challenges to its external security and aggressions against its national territory. However, the responses to these threats have been based on international law and the use of pacifist methods of dispute settlement.
Besides, the country’s external security has relied on multilateralism and the support of other states. This faith on multilateralism has represented an act of confidence in the international cooperation instruments of collective security. The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio Treaty) was approved by the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1948. Costa Rica acceded to the treaty in the same year of approval. This treaty is possibly dead since the 1982 Falklands War, and multilateralism and collective security mechanisms have many problems affecting external security. However, these are not the points highlighted here.
A culture of peace has strengthened the civilist regime of Costa Rica’s political life over the years. On November 17, 1983, the ex-President Luis Alberto Monge proclaimed and launched to the world the “Declaration of Perpetual, Active, and Unarmed Neutrality”. Costa Rica’s neutrality has become a hallmark of its international relations policy.
The Costa Rican Constitutional Tribunal stated in a 2004 ruling that the proclamation of 1983 is a unilateral act of public international law. As such, this act obliges the Costa Rican state to comply with the law of neutrality in good faith. The Tribunal affirmed that such a declaration came to develop and deepen the constitutional value of peace.
Costa Rica's President, Oscar Arias Sánchez, was awarded the Peace prize within the same decade. Arias designed a peace plan to end the civil wars that were devastating the rest of Central America in 1987. The plan aimed at free elections, the protection of human rights, and the end of foreign interference in the countries' internal affairs. The peace plan was approved by Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in the same year.
The Ministry of Justice was renamed the Ministry of Justice and Peace in 2009. The ministry seeks the prevention of violence and the promotion of peace and conflict resolution as ways to foster a culture of peace. It also encourages the participation of a civil society dedicated to promoting peace and non-violence. In alignment with these developments, Costa Rica has a very high ranking on the 2023 Global Positive Peace Index (rank 38 amongst 163 countries in the world). As we can see, democracy, the absence of an army, and the centrality of peace, understood as the absence of war, have been fundamental parts of Costa Rican national identity. Peace was a structural pillar of state-building right from the beginning of independence.
Undoubtedly, there have been periods of internal rifts, such as the 1948 Civil War. Nevertheless, the prioritization of dialogue, the capacity for negotiation, and the adherence to institutional channels as instruments of conflict resolution became the relevant features built during those periods of turmoil. This type of decision-making marked the future of the country, as Vicente Gómez Murillo, historian at the University of Costa Rica, argues.
To reiterate, Costa Rica has a history of peace, democracy, human security founded on human rights, and, lately, sustainable development. Specifically, the right to peace has been the subject of the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Tribunal.
Peace and the constitutional tribunal
The jurisprudence of the Constitutional Tribunal of Costa Rica has clarified in several rulings that:
- Peace is a fundamental value of the Costa Rican identity, as it is with democracy, the essential dignity of the human being, and the system of freedom and justice.
- Peace is a supreme constitutional value; it is a fundamental human right.
- The constituents of 1949 drew the master lines of Costa Rican civilism enshrined in the Political constitution. One of those master lines is the repudiation of the army as a permanent institution. It also stated that there is a legal and moral rejection of Costa Rican society to all remnants of a military nature.
- The abolition of the army means that the state and the Costa Rican people fully trust the legal instruments of international law for the preservation of the sovereignty, independence, security, and territorial integrity of the state. It also means having faith in the peaceful settlement of disputes with other nations, avoiding the use of force, and not participating in internal and external armed conflicts.
- Article 7 of the constitution confers supra-legal status to the treaties and conventions of public international law, in particular, those instruments that deal with bilateral or multilateral relations between states and international organizations. This constitutional precept makes clear the trust placed by the state and the Costa Rican people in such instruments.
- Peace has an international dimension; therefore, public authorities must guarantee and ensure that there is no direct or indirect participation in armed conflicts. They must not participate in any demonstration of a military type that assumes the possibility of the use of force. They must refrain from any form of military, political, or economic intervention that affects the right to peace.
- There is an absolute incompatibility between the fundamental right and the constitutional value of peace, and the manufacture of heavy weapons and the production of certain minerals or chemical substances. They are directly linked to situations of violence, even in circumstances of legitimate defense. There are certain types of weapons that are made specifically for fighting in wars.
Consequently, a state that aspires to the promotion of peace, both internally and internationally, must take special care when authorizing the manufacture and/or importation of weapons and chemical substances into its territory. A state must categorically reject those weapons that, by their nature, have been designed and created to support the anti-value of war.
- The search for peace in a state is not only circumscribed within the internal sphere but also extended to the external sphere, so that peace is respected by all states. Therefore, we all have a responsibility for the construction and achievement of peace.
- People have the faculty to oppose any type of armed conflict and promote dialogue and knowledge between cultures and religions to achieve tolerance and mutual understanding. They must promote sustainable development and harmony with the environment or nature; promote peace education, tolerance, and respect for human rights; and oppose the arms race and industry.
Thus, it is clear that peace is a human right. The right to peace has normative recognition derived from the text of the Political Constitution. It is also evident that peace and democracy have the same constitutional ranking and that these binomial nurtures the protection of human rights.
The binomial and supreme values of peace and democracy mean that Costa Rica will never have an army or get involved in armed conflicts. On the contrary, it will support disarmament and the abolition of the arms trade. The right to peace has normative recognition derived from international treaties and conventions ratified by the country as well.
Amongst numerous other examples, Costa Rica was a major proponent of the Arms Trade Treaty and played an essential part in its materialization and negotiation. This instrument entered into force on December 24, 2014.
Furthermore, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states, the five permanent strategic axes of Costa Rica’s foreign policy form the political and legal bases of the construction of its civil, pacifist, and environmentalist society in the concert of nations. These five axes are:
- The defense of democracy.
- The promotion, protection, and respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
- The promotion of peace, disarmament, and national, regional, and world security.
- The strengthening of international law and the development of effective multilateralism.
- The promotion of sustainable development and political coordination and representation in international environmental negotiations.
These axes have defined the place of Costa Rica in the world as a pacifist society.
Naturally, there are no perfect states. Negative peace is paramount. However, Costa Rica has many problems. For example, Costa Rica has serious economic inequalities that need solving; 20% of the population lives in poverty. Citizen security has become a central concern for Costa Ricans of both genders (UNDP, National Human Development Report 2005). According to the 2022 National Citizen Security Survey of Costa Rica, 65.5% of people consider the country not very safe or not at all safe. Women perceive the likelihood of becoming victims of crime more intensely. Yet, paradoxically, it has been one of the happiest countries in the world.
Fabiola Gretzinger, an academic at the University of Minnesota, has stated accurately that "compared to the rest of Latin America, Costa Rica stands relatively well in statistics for violence against women." However, she has described Costa Rica as "a progressive country with regressive gender policies" when it comes to sexual violence (Sexual Violence in Costa Rica: A Progressive Country with Regressive Gender Policies, 2022). Structural violence must be the focus of attention now in order to avoid the erosion of peace. Nevertheless, Costa Rica does offer an example of a nation promoting opportunities for trust, cooperation, and a culture of peace. Thus, a peace museum would promote a national and global culture of peace through peace and human rights education. Also, it would help to celebrate and preserve graphically those great processes and achievements for future generations. I can only conclude that the conditions are ripe for the construction of a peace museum.
A peace museum is a historical and moral imperative. The construction does not depend on who likes or dislikes the idea of a peace museum; this is incidental. It rests on the compelling evidence provided by Costa Rica’s history of peace and democracy, human rights, the rule of law, the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Tribunal, and adherence to the instruments of international law. The nation deserves a peace museum.
Critics may argue that this is wishful thinking due to the lack of resources. However, by working together, we can translate ideas into reality.
1 Ginesta, Alberto, El Derecho Fundamental a la Paz en la Jurisprudencia de la Sala Constitucional de Costa Rica, 2015.
2 Gómez Murillo, Vicente, La Paz como Concepto en la Independencia y la Construcción Temprana del Estado en Costa Rica (1821-1848),2018-2019.
3 Miranda Bonilla, Haideer, Constitution and Right to Peace, Revista da Faculdade de Direito da FMP, Porto Alegre, Vol. 14, N. 2, 2019.