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Costa Rica: Free Trade, the Arms Trade and DU Weapons

As ICBUW seeks to build support in Central and South America, Ria Verjauw takes a look at Costa Rica, where politicians have been championing a DU ban.
22 July 2008 - Ria Verjauw

Political Conditions

Costa Rica is a democratic republic with a very strong system of constitutional checks and balances. Executive responsibilities are vested in a president, who is the country’s centre of power.

Costa Rica has long emphasized the development of democracy and respect for human rights. The country’s political system has steadily developed, maintaining democratic institutions and an orderly, constitutional scheme for government succession. Several factors have contributed to this trend, including enlightened leadership, comparative prosperity, flexible class lines, educational opportunities that have created a stable middle class, and high social indicators

Costa Rica has no military and maintains only domestic police and security forces. A professional Coast Guard was established in 2000.

Foreign Relations

Costa Rica is an active member of the international community and, in 1993, proclaimed its permanent neutrality. Its record on the environment and human rights and advocacy of peaceful settlement of disputes give it a weight in world affairs far beyond its size. The country lobbied aggressively for the establishment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and became the first nation to recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Human Rights Court, based in San Jose. In 2007 Costa Rica was elected for the third time to serve as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (January 2008-December 2009).

U.S. - Costa Rican Relations

The United States is Costa Rica’s most important trading partner. The U.S. accounts for almost half of Costa Rica’s exports, imports, and tourism, and more than two-thirds of its foreign investment.

In 2007, the United States reduced Costa Rica’s debt in exchange for protection and conservation of Costa Rican forests through a debt for nature swap under the auspices of the Tropical Forest Conservation Act. This is the largest such agreement of its kind to date.

U.S.- CAFTA-DR Agreement
Signing the CAFTA agreement The Central America-Dominican Republic-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) includes seven signatories: the United States, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The U.S. Congress approved the CAFTA-DR in July 2005 and the President signed the implementation legislation on August 2, 2005.

The United States has implemented the CAFTA-DR on a rolling basis as countries make sufficient progress to complete their commitments under the Agreement.

Costa Rica, approved the agreement by a slender margin in a first national public referendum on October 7, 2007, (passed by a vote of 217-215). Although the vote was lost, the debate was won: it was striking that CAFTA was passed by a mere two votes, in spite of intense pressure from the White House. CAFTA entry into force is pending passage of necessary implementation legislation by the Costa Rican legislature. These days there is still lot of opposition on the CAFTA agreement and people and students often take to the street to protest against it.

The opposition declared that the only ones who will benefit from CAFTA are the rich. Over the past decade, El Salvador’s poor majority has already suffered as a result of increasing levels of “free trade.” As tariffs have steadily been lowered, poverty and inequality have been on the rise. The opposition says that CAFTA will accelerate this process throughout Central America. The treaty limits the governments’ power to protect the environment, contract local businesses, and protect basic services, including health care and communications.

Small Central American farmers, who account for more than half of the region’s population, are even more vulnerable to the impacts of free trade. With no governmental support and few resources of their own, Central American campesinos, who make up nearly half the population, will have no means of competing against subsidized American agri-business.

CAFTA gives companies the right to sue any government that obstructs their capacity for profit with environmental regulations. This allows corporations to trump local-lawmakers’ ability to protect the environment, both in the US and in Central America.

Arms Trade Treaty

Costa Rica has been a strong proponent of regional arms limitation agreements. In May 1997 in New York City, president Oscar Arias, in cooperation with a group of Peace Laureates, launched the Nobel Peace Price Laureates International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. A declaratory instrument intended as a challenge to the international community, the Code of Conduct laid down a stringent set of principles that ought to condition all arms export decisions: no arms for atrocities, genocide, or crimes against humanity, no arms for violations of human rights or humanitarian law, responsible transfers of weapons and respect for sustainable development and peaceful coexistence.

Based upon the Code of Conduct principles, today the initiative is knows as the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). It is a draft international agreement to establish a set of universal, core, binding standards to regulate the trade in arms and has been drafted by groups of human rights, development and public policy specialist organisations.

Today the initiative carries the endorsement of over twenty individuals and organizations honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize, has the public support from over 30 governments around the world and a vast and growing network of international civil society organizations.

What is important to note about the treaty is that it does not create a new set of norms, but rather reinforces existing principles of international law. It simply brings together into a single instrument those limitations on state’ power to transfer arms that already exist in international law, either expressly or implicitly.

Its goal is to ensure that states, companies and private citizens are aware of, and respect those norms when they engage in the trade of weapons.

Yet military budgets go up every year. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), which monitors military spending, 2006 was a record year with $1204 billion to beef up the arms trade and provide overloaded arsenals for the nations of the world. The biggest arms dealers of all are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Costa Rica as a new member on the UN Security Council wants to use its position to call for disarmament, or at least, more control over the buying and selling of arms. The Arias government, recognized for its peace position, will push for a Treaty on Arms Transfers that would oblige countries to monitor arms sales and prohibit sales to countries with gross human rights abuses. The adoption of such a treaty could be a start toward international disarmament and a saner way for the world to live.

Costa Rica and DU Weapons

Several NGOs are ready to work on the Ban Depleted Uranium Campaign. Although at present the Costa Rican government is focusing on the Arms Trade Treaty process, there is hope that Costa Rica will take up the DU issue as well, and play a central role within the Latin American region. Right now it is to late to implement the DU issue into the ATT.

Randolf Coto (Coordinator of External Politics, Ministry of Foreign Affairs) is working on a report to send to the UN Secretary General, as was requested in the UN resolution of Nov 1, 2007.

He stated during a meeting: “CR has a wide vision and DU is part of our obligations to work on. Other issues are the Non-Proliferation Treaty, landmines and cluster munitions. Most of our resources now go to UN Council on Security.”

Oscar Lopez (Member of Congress PASE, opposition party) introduced a domestic DU ban law in 2007. Nothing has happened with this proposal since then although he has promised to continue the DU fight from an ecological position.

Maureen Ballestero (Diputada Partido Liberación Nacional, ruling party) promised to introduce a new law to ban DU in Costa Rica, following the Belgian example; the testing of uranium weapons on CR territory is already forbidden by law.

Regarding the CAFTA agreement and the possible transport of uranium weapons through CR. There are already existing ecological laws and international agreements on the transport of dangerous substances that need to be respected. Nevertheless transparency of the transported goods is an essential part of the agreement and should be brought under the attention of the politicians.

Plans are underway to organise a depleted uranium conference in Costa Rica in the near future. Positive contacts were made last March with the Executive Director of the Arias Foundations, Luis Alberto Cordero, he said: “We fully support a conference on DU weapons. The Arms Trade Treaty is now our focus. For the first time in 10 years the US has agreed to negotiate on the arms trade, this is very important. This does not mean that we won’t support other events. We are ready to do what ever we can. We support your goal.”



Arms Trade Treaty – Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress
Wilpf Costa Rica info
Report Meeting San José March 2008