Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Egil Aarvik, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year’s Peace Prize, one of the six Nobel Prizes which are to be presented today, is primarily a homage and an expression of thanks to Oscar Arias Sánchez for the praiseworthy work he has done in the cause of attaining a lasting peace in Central America.

Few regions of the world have had worse experiences of civil war and conflict during recent years. Insecurity, repression, lack of freedom and poverty have long been a part of everyday life for the majority of the 25 million people who live in the area.

For these people there is now a hope. On the 7th of August this year the presidents of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica signed a peace plan for Central America. The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes that this plan opens the way for a development which can replace bloody conflict with an open, trusting society.

The main architect behind this plan is this year’s prizewinner, the President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias. He stands today as the strongest exponent of the longing for peace among the peoples of Central America. He is also an exponent of the democratic ideals which, if they can be realised, are a decisive precondition for a long-lasting peace. This is the reason that the plan is a signpost in the work for peace the whole world over.

Victor Hugo said that “nothing is stronger than an idea when the time is ripe”. We must believe that the time is now ripe for precisely the idea which has manifested itself in the Central American peace plan. Oscar Arias is one of those who had the vision to recognise this. The fact that the plan is the result of a cooperation between the five signatory states indicates that there is in fact a general recognition that the time is ripe. The Peace Prize to Oscar Arias is therefore to be interpreted as a recognition also of the work of the other heads of state and their work with the plan.

Oscar Arias is, at the age of 46, a relatively young Peace Prize laureate. It is probable that the bulk of his life’s work is still to be done. But what he has already achieved indicates that he is one of the most important leaders in Latin America. He has the personal and theoretical background as well as the necessary experience to continue the work for peace which has been started in the area.

He began his political career seriously in 1970 at the age of 29, when he became an assistant to former President José Figueres, who was seeking re-election. The election campaign was successful. Figueres won the election in 1970, and Oscar Arias became a member of the government – as minister for national planning and political economy. In 1978 Arias was elected to the national assembly as a representative for the National Liberty party. At that time he was the party’s international secretary, and from 1979 he was also its general secretary.

In 1985 he was nominated as his party’s candidate for the presidency, and at the election the year after he became president.

It is probably not a coincidence that it is the president of Costa Rica who has become the principal force behind the work for peace in Central America. The country is in many ways a haven of peace in an area which unfortunately has been anything but peaceful. Even during the period of Spanish colonialism there was something special about Costa Rica. The country was not, as the name would suggest, a rich country. There was nothing there which could make the place interesting for gold prospectors or other fortune seekers. The country was too small for the establishment of large, profitable land holdings – the settlers in the first colony took enough land to secure their daily bread, and they worked themselves on the land. Slavery was neither necessary nor affordable. Even the founder of the colony was an ordinary, hardworking farmer.

In this way Costa Rica avoided the formation of a rich upper class of landowners with power over a landless and poverty-stricken majority – a pattern which is often found in the Third World. The small population – in 1821 there were only 65,000 – was thus mainly composed of land-owning small farmers.

The population was also homogeneous – both culturally and economically – and since the country was also relatively isolated from the bureaucratic, centralized Spanish administration, it developed a strong and resilient attitude towards freedom and independence. In other words, the country was an ideal centre for democratic traditions.

When Costa Rica became an independent republic at the beginning of the 1830s, the transition was made without the use of weapons or the shedding of blood. Throughout its whole history the use of military power has been unnecessary, and the country can be proud of having had a stable democratic system which has lasted since the 1890s.

This has set its mark on the country until the present time. After a short armed uprising in 1948 a new constitution was decreed. It declared that Costa Rica would be a country without a military force. Whatever one might think of such a body, one has to accept that the willingness to abolish it shows an interest in peace which is relatively unusual in this world.

Even though the country has armed guards at its borders, it is still without military forces in the usual sense of the word. It has been said that Costa Rica has more school teachers than soldiers. Some have even claimed that the country’s artillery wouldn’t even be able to fire a twenty-one gun salute in the event of a state visit, though this particular detail might now have been corrected. It has also been said that the country’s two main products are good coffee and good and upright people. In truth a praiseworthy form of production.

The civil authorities in Costa Rica have traditionally given priority to investment in the education system, health and economic development. The result is that Costa Rica is exceptional in the area also with regard to economic growth and social equality. This is true even though Costa Rica has considerable economic problems as a result of the lower price of coffee and the rising price of oil in the decade from the mid-1970s.

Costa Rica’s central role in the peace process in Central America has its background in the country’s democratic traditions.

A positive turn in this work occurred in 1983 when the so-called Contadora group presented its 21-point preliminary agenda for a peace plan. The group was composed of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama, and the plan included Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica. It had also been approved by the leaders of these five countries before it was made public. For reasons too complicated to present here, the Contadora plan did not result in the planned peace treaty. But it did awaken interest and did receive support – especially from Western Europe and Canada. The Reagan administration announced that the plan was “the best foundation for a lasting solution of the problems in the area”.

But the Contadora plan became a political backwater, while the military activity in the area grew.

When Oscar Arias became President of Costa Rica, he immediately began working on the completion of the Contadora group’s intentions. Together with the presidents of Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras he worked on a new peace plan which was finally signed in August this year. In principle, this plan is based on the same ideas as the Contadora plan, but the proposals are more definite. They are based on, among other things, a concurrent ceasefire in the civil wars of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, an amnesty for all guerilla soldiers, the abolition of the state of emergency, the release of political prisoners and the establishment of freedom of the press and a democratic form of government.

There are two things about this plan which are particularlyworth commenting on. The first is that the plan is the five signatory states’ own plan – conceived and signed without involvement or pressure from outside. This is important, not least because it expresses a particular view of the situation in Central America – the view that the conflicts are an internal problem for the region, and that they are a result of the existing social and economic injustices.

As so often in the Third World, it is a question of injustice in the relationship between the big landowners and the poor landless. In addition it is a question of a brutal use of power against any form of opposition, and of a minority government which discriminates without mercy. This is once again the sad story of the privileged minorities who resist the demands of the poor for justice with armed resistance. And as always, this results in the release of revolutionary forces. When the authorities then react with repeated repression instead of political and social reforms, the result can never be anything other than conflict – perhaps it ought never to be anything else.

The Central American Peace Plan addresses itself to a different sort of problem. The intention is clear: since the conflict is the result of problems within the five states, it is the five states themselves who have to solve the problems. It is in accordance with this principle that the plan suggests that all outside help to the opposition forces has to cease. The peace plan’s message in this connection can only be interpreted in one way: outside powers must – if they will serve the cause of peace in the area, stop any actions which can contribute to keeping the never-ending civil war alive. The combatting groups need help – help to change the underlying circumstances which are the root cause of the conflict.

It has been suggested that peace and stability have to be established before any reforms can be made. The weakness of this argument, even if it can be regarded as correct, is that efforts to create stability can be a support for the power groups who oppose reform; the process would therefore strengthen the revolutionary situation.

The solution is obviously to be found in the doctrine that the imbalances which are at the root of the conflict have to be changed. If that is successful, it will be possible to establish peace and stability based on a foundation acceptable to the people themselves. This is the reality all outside parties have to accept.

This leads us to the other remarkable aspect of the peace plan: the principle of the intimate relationship between peace and democracy.

Already in the speech he held at his inauguration as Costa Rica’s president Oscar Arias made this principle a major point. Our experience, he said, has taught us that democracy is the form of government which gives the greatest possibilities for a future anchored on justice. Government through the decisions of correctly elected organs is the only way to a liberation from poverty and dependence.

What Oscar Arias is saying is that democracy is something more than a form of government. It is in reality an important tool in the work for peace.

We have to accept, however unwillingly – and independently of how old our own democratic traditions are – that the principle of majority rule is not perfect. In a number of areas we are only on the way towards the goals we have set ourselves. But democracy has the obvious advantage that it makes possible the further development of democracy. And because this is the case, we have also achieved goals which newly established democracies around the world can only dream of. It is important to have this historical perspective before us when we evaluate the quality of the young democracies. They have their difficult path to tread, just as we had.

The present situation in Central America gives us hope because democracy has been given a chance.

Democracy is, in contrast to totalitarian regimes, dependent on support from the people. This support is in its turn dependent on the experiences of the people. As long as democracy can be identified with free elections, freedom of expression, with honest measures for social justice and with a moderate improvement in economic status, the positive development can continue with the people’s support.

The future of democracy will be dependent on the realisation of a minimum of the people’s expectations. It can be difficult to accept the overturning of a dictatorship if the system which replaces it brings with it lack of freedom, corruption and injustice.

Government by the people makes demands – both on the individuals who govern and on the people who elect their leaders. There are demands for moral qualities, and there have to be ideals which nobody can reasonably deny.

With this as a background it is easy to see why the Central American peace plan is so strongly rooted in the connection between peace and democracy. Peace will be realised if democracy is realised. In this way the peace plan is something more than a dream and a hope. It is a powerful challenge – not only to the leaders of the five countries, but also to all of us. If we have anything to contribute which can affect the development of this area let it be a contribution to social and economic liberation and to the growth of a government by the people which is, in Central America as elsewhere, one of the keys to peace.

The award of the Peace Prize usually has two goals. This is particularly true this year. The prize to Oscar Arias is a recognition of an achieved result – the peace plan. It sets its sights also on the future and is a moral support in the work for peace which is based on that plan. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes, after much thought, to place the prestige of the Nobel Peace Prize in the scale to the advantage of those who struggle for democracy, for justice, for development and for the natural rights of the peoples in their countries.

Oscar Arias is one of the foremost of those who strive to achieve those goals. His name is today a focal point in the work for peace which is anchored in the will of the people and in respect for human rights. It is the Nobel Committee’s hope that the Peace Prize will contribute to his success in the symbolic building dedicated to peace which is now being raised for the war-weary people of Central America.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1987

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