Costa Rica’s Constitutional Abolition of the Army and Subsequent Divestment of Funds into Environment, Education and Health
Following the 1948 civil war, the National Army of Costa Rica was formally abolished – a policy enshrined in the Constitution. Involving a redirection of military spending into social programmes and social investment in the areas of education, health and the environment, the policy also promotes conflict resolution by non-military means and has allowed Costa Rica to achieve some of the highest living standards in the region.
In 2013, Costa Rica’s historic constitutional abolition of its army received an honourable mention by the World Future Council’s annual Future Policy Award, held on the theme of disarmament, in partnership with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. On 23 October 2013, at a ceremony held at the UN Headquarters in New York, Costa Rica was recognised as one of few states to have constitutionally abolished its armed forces and to have diverted the money into improving the environment, education and health.
This is not the first time that a policy of Costa Rica has been recognised by a Future Policy Award! In 2010, the Award looked at the theme of Biodiversity where Costa Rica was recognised for its exemplary 1998 law. No military spending has allowed a greater investment in environment, education and health services leading to one of the highest standards of living in the region and the happiest people!
- Costa Rica accepts peace as a fundamental constitutional value. It does not adhere to the limited notion that peace only exists in the absence of war.
- A diversion of military spending has funded advances in environment, education and health.
- Costa Rica now has some of the highest living standards in the region, the happiest people and one of the “world’s safest borders” with demilitarised Panama.
Article 12, Constitution of Costa Rica, 1949. [English]
The Army as a permanent institution is abolished. There shall be the necessary police forces for surveillance and the preservation of public order.
Military forces may only be organized under a continental agreement or for the national defence; in either case, they shall always be subordinate to the civil power: they may not deliberate or make statements or representations individually or collectively.
Law No.7128, 18 August 1989 granting the right to individual constitutional complaint before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Costa Rica.
Article 12 of the Costa Rican Constitution focuses solely on the abolition of the army. Interviewees in research agreed that taking this action has allowed Costa Rica to divert resources which would otherwise have been spent on the military into education, healthcare and environmental conservation but also emphasised that such an achievement can be overstated given the relative weakness of the armed forces at the time.
The Article has helped Costa Rica to achieve some of the highest living standards in Latin America and to promote peaceful means of conflict resolution. However, in the absence of an army, Costa Rica possesses a police force of considerable size and power whilst entrusting its overall defence to the United States, either directly or indirectly. In addition, it has recently been reported that 30 Costa Ricans apply for firearms permits a day citing crime concerns and a lack of public security within the State.
Our “Best Policies” are those which meet the Future-Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise that interrelated challenges require interconnected solutions. The World Future Council’s unique research and analysis ensures that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and respect for the environment are coherently considered by policy-makers.
Sustainable use of natural resources
- In 2010, Costa Rica was awarded the Future Policy Award for its Biodiversity Law of 1998.
- According to the United Nation’s Human Development Index, over 55% of the energy supply in Costa Rica is from renewable sources, whilst over 50% of its land area consists of forests.
- Resources which would otherwise have been spent on the military have been diverted into environmental conservation for initiatives such as The Costa Rica Payment for Environmental Services programme and compensation under the Forestry Law of 1996.
Equity and poverty eradication
- The speech of José Figueres on 1st December 1948 explicitly mentions a transfers of the funds spent on the military into education. This diversion of resources has also permitted investment in a universal healthcare system.
- It said by Ryoichi Sasakawa “blessed is the Costa Rica mother who knows at the time of birth that her child will never be a soldier.”
- Costa Rica accepts peace as a fundamental constitutional value. It does not adhere to the limited notion that peace only exists in the absence of war. According to Judgment 14193-08, from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, in September 2008, any decision or action that could facilitate or lead to war is rejected under the precautionary principle.
- The Costa Rican people participated in the election of the Constitutive Assembly that then formulated the 1949 Constitution.
- Law No.7128, 18 August 1989, grants a right to individual Constitutional Complaint before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.
- Any military force is subject to civilian power.
- A relatively stable modern history and absence of a military has led to strong democratic growth. Researched revealed that Costa Ricans do not conceive the military as something associated to the country’s social or institutional development.
- The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court is able to review the constitutionality of proposed laws. Individual appeal is possible and since May 2012, the jurisprudence of this Chamber is available online for free.
- Peace is described as a guiding value of Costa Rican society by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.
- The process of disarmament has been thoroughly incorporated into the national narrative and is genuinely recognised and celebrated. The promotion of peace remains a fundamental part of the foreign policy agenda.
- In a 2010 border dispute with Nicaragua, the conflict was resolved by diplomatic means and the use of the ICJ as part of a fundamental defence strategy. All political disputes are solved by constitutional rules.
- Indicators for socio-economic development in Costa Rica are comparatively high for the region. Similar levels are seen in Panama, another demilitarised country.
- Costa Rica is aiming to become the first carbon neutral country in the world by 2021 requiring a coordinated and collective approach across government.
- Costa Rica follows the principle that the State must be accountable to all social sectors and is of a civilian nature.
- Rather than imposing a cost of those least equipped to bear it, the diversion of spending has funded free education and universal health care.
Following the heavily contested results of the 1948 Presidential election, where an Independent Election Tribunal ruled in favour of the opposition candidate, a five-week civil war broke out from March to April. José Figueres, leader of the paramilitary group the National Liberation Army (NLA), was victorious and consequently confirmed on the 1st December 1948 that “The Regular Army of Costa Rica today gives the key to its military base to the schools… The Government hereby declares the National Army officially abolished.”
This speech reinforced an ideological decision to transfer funds spent on the military to more noble causes such as education; a trend already indicated by President Ricardo Jimenez Oreamuno in 1922 who had declared “We are a country with more teachers than soldiers … and a country that turns military headquarters into schools.”
In its role as the founding provisional Junta, the NLA spent 18 months preparing a new Constitution where the abolition of the State Army was confirmed. Upon the agreement of this Constitution, and its coming into effect on the 7 November 1949, Figueres then stepped down and handed power to the original opposition candidate Otilio Ulate. Afterwards, Figueres established the National Liberation Party and was himself democratically elected president in 1953.
More recently, former President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, has continued to encourage demilitarisation on a global scale on the basis of two ideas – the Arms Trade Treaty and the Costa Rica Consensus (a speech which proposed demilitarisation as an incentive for increased cooperation for development).
- To redirect military spending into social programmes and social investment.
- To reduce poverty.
- To ensure a transition towards a peaceful and stable social democracy.
- To promote conflict resolution by diplomatic and non-military means.
The abolition of the army was formally announced on the 1st December 1948 and then confirmed by the new Constitution in November 1949. The nation’s resources have been diverted into its infrastructure and in particular, education, health and environmental conservation.
Costa Ricans have considered education as crucial to development in Costa Rica since the 1880s whilst healthcare is available to all, regardless of legal status, and as an active promoter of sustainable development, eco-tourism, renewable energy and biodiversity, Costa Rica considers itself to have “waged peace on nature.”
Costa Rica has some of the highest living standards in Central and South America with much funding available for social investment. According to the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2013, “In 2009, it invested 6.3% of GDP in education and 7% in health. Such choices contributed to its progress on the HDI from 0.621 in 1980 to 0.773 in 2012.”
Costa Rica has therefore been able to afford a universal healthcare system as well as compulsory primary and secondary education. In addition, showing its environmental trailblazing, Costa Rica aims to be the first carbon neutral country by 2021.
In addition, Costa Rica holds the top spot in the Happy Planet Index which is based on measures of environmental protection and the happiness and health of a country’s citizens. The abolition of the military has helped Costa Rica to avoid political strife prevalent in other Latin and South American countries and a situation of “deepening poverty, brutal military repression, guerrilla movements and foreign military intervention.” With neither Costa Rica nor Panama possessing a military force, it can be suggested that this border is now one of the safest in the world.
One further example of how the Constitutional Abolition has gone beyond its traditional scope, is its invocation by a Costa Rican lawyer in challenging the government’s decision to support the Invasion of Iraq in 2013. Mr. Louie Roberto Zamora Bolanos argued that the Constitutional provision had evolved into meaning Costa Rica could not support any unsanctioned use of force by a thrid State. The Constitutional Court ruled in his favour, stating that the government’s decision was “against the Constitution, Costa Rica’s neutrality declaration, International Law and the UN System,” and ordered the government to request the US Administration to remove Costa Rica from the Coalition of the Willing.
Costa Rica was the first country to constitutionally abolish its military. Since then, “Fourteen countries have now followed Costa Rica’s example and demilitarized through Constitutional amendments. Twenty-eight nations now have no armies.” This has caused some to say that “Costa Rica has waged peace on the world.” Panama, a neighbour of Costa Rica, followed suit in 1990 after the removal of President Noriega – an abolition which was also constitutionally enshrined.
However, as pointed out by the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Japan, H.E. Mr. Alvaro Cedeño-Molinari, “This was a weak, poorly armed military body. Abolishing it did not imply a particularly large political cost. There was not going to be much opposition to the decision, especially after being defeated by a group of poorly trained and unarmed men.”
In addition, the historian Iván Molina has said:
“Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Costa Rican army had begun to lose importance. This was primarily due to a redistribution of the national budget for spending on education, health and pensions. And throughout the twentieth century, peace had been a key content of the Costa Rican national identity. The abolition of the army was more the culmination of a long process, rather than a sudden transformation. The abolition of the army avoided the military forces that won the 1948 civil war becoming a key political player.”
Not all countries may therefore be able to replicate such facilitative circumstances.
A Bold Peace
This is a story of Costa Rica's 65-year long experiment in living without a military, told through the lives of formers presidents, current leaders, scholars, activists, and ordinary Costa Ricans.