Every experienced teacher knows that the line between the teacher and the taught can be a thin one. My students at the University for Peace’s main campus in Costa Rica come from Burma, Canada, Costa Rica, Fiji, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, the Philippine island of Mindanao, Pakistan, the United States, Vietnam and Zambia. Largely mid-career graduate students, they often bring experience in human rights and civil society organizations. One is a medical doctor who quit a postdoctoral program in healthcare administration because he decided that neither of these degrees would help him make a genuine difference in his country. The university—called UPEACE—may be the most multicultural institution of higher learning in the world, in terms of both faculty and students.
Why, one might ask, is it located in Costa Rica?
To make a long story short, Edgar Cardona, minister of security in the junta that ruled Costa Rica from May 8, 1948, to November 8, 1949, proposed the abolishment of the armed forces as a permanent institution. In December of 1948, the head of the junta, José Figueres Ferrer, later president of the country, declared that a nation that was not rich could not simultaneously afford good education, health care, and a military. The funds dedicated to the armed forces should instead be destined for education, Figueres said in a speech, and in a symbolic act handed the key for a military fortress to the minister of education. In November 1949, a new constitution recognized the ideal of “changing rifles into notebooks.” This perspective of valuing education over militarization has become part of the national memory and aspiration, to be materialized in UPEACE.
In 1976, a rancher named Cruz Rojas Bennett promised the aspiring president, Rodrigo Carazo, a donation of forested areas of his farm for a university dedicated to peace studies, on the condition that the institution would eternally protect what was the last virgin forest in Costa Rica’s central valley. It was approximately 15 miles southwest of the capital San José, in the coffee-growing highlands at El Rodeo, Cantón de Mora. Rojas Bennett was partly motivated by a fear that environmental degradation worldwide had become akin to a war against nature. After his untimely death, the Rojas Bennett family gave 303 hectares, and 100,000 additional trees were planted on what is now the main campus.
By September 27, 1978, under President Rodrigo Carazo Odio, Costa Rica proposed the creation of the University for Peace at the General Assembly of the United Nations. Finally, on December 5, 1980, the 35th General Assembly approved Resolution 35/55, formally creating UPEACE. Its charter, approved by the General Assembly’s founding resolution with no opposition, calls upon UPEACE to
provide humanity with an international institution of higher education for peace … to stimulate cooperation among peoples, and to help lessen obstacles and threats to world peace and progress in keeping with the noble aspirations proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations. To this end, the University shall contribute to the great universal task of educating for peace by engaging in teaching, research, post-graduate training and dissemination of knowledge, … through interdisciplinary study of all matters relating to peace.
The new university was to be a U.N. treaty organization, although receiving no funding from the world body, and it retains autonomy and academic freedom.
UPEACE took possession of the land donated by Rojas Bennett in 1981, placing it under protection as he had intended. Aided by the educator Robert Mueller, and with support from UNESCO in Paris and the U.N. University in Tokyo, the new university began with its first degree in media and peace. Its first donor was the industrialist Ryoichi Sasakawa of Japan.
The study of peace is inherently multidisciplinary, since no discipline can address its numerous components. Fifteen disciplines may need to be at the table for serious study. How then to help lessen the obstacles and overcome threats to world peace and progress?
Today, UPEACE offers 11 master’s degrees in fields ranging from environmental security and peace, to gender and peacebuilding, to international law and human rights. Each of these programs explores the trends and forces that give rise to violent upheaval and discord, all in an attempt to push through the limitations in existing theory and practice. Students come from 52 countries, and the faculty is similarly diverse. Teaching with me this month is Jan Pronk, for instance, who formerly held governmental ministerial portfolios for The Netherlands in defense, development, and environment, and was head of peace operations in Sudan. A new distance learning program is allowing people across the world to work toward master’s degrees online. This is one of many ways in which the university is a global institution, not limited to its Costa Rican base.
The UPEACE Africa Programme—based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—does not have students per se. It works with academicians from the continent’s 800 universities and some 26 institutes for peace studies. These are people who want to develop their capacity to respond to the clamor of the young who want to learn how to build more peaceable societies. With assistance from The Netherlands, in 2002–2003 consultative missions visited instructors in 50 universities in 15 African countries, and met with 500 nongovernmental institutions. (I was privileged to be part of the team.) As observers in my classroom this year I’ve had senior fellows in the Great Lakes Programme—instructors in Burundian and Ugandan universities. Junior fellows from Kenya and Zambia are taking my course, preparing to teach upon their return. In addition, Canada’s International Development Research Centre assists the Africa Peace and Conflict Journal, which gives voice to African practitioners and researchers while offering African perspectives on international issues.
On the other side of the planet, this year more than 1,800 young people under 30 years of age applied for 30 slots in the Asia-Pacific Leadership Programme, which is supported by the Nippon Foundation. The Bank of Brazil recently brought staff to the campus and then to New York City for a short course.
My own course at UPEACE in nonviolent transformation of conflict is always a two-way street for me, as we study the extensive history, theory and methods of nonviolent action. In class we’ve heard a firsthand account of the 2007–2009 Lawyers Movement in Pakistan, which succeeded in reinstatement of the chief justice through nonviolent action by barristers, students and human rights activists. Another student has been telling us about the continuing impact of the national nonviolent movement that deposed Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 in the Philippines. From Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square, we examine failures and vulnerabilities of nonviolent movements as well. Some students arrive with skepticism about civil resistance, which they have heard disparaged as a solely Western phenomenon, and they are intrigued to learn that both Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. formulated their thinking based on active study of nonviolent struggles occurring contemporaneously in Africa, and that if anything knowledge moved from East to West.
Regrettably, one country that pronounces itself indispensable for and committed to democracy and the pursuit of peace—the United States—has never given any funds to support this practical, global educational organization, which prepares specialists to build peace in their home countries around the world. Lessening the obstacles and overcoming threats to world peace and progress needs less lip-service and more concrete contribution to institutions like this, ones that are preparing world leaders to be principled as well as pragmatic.
A new generation of antiwar veterans is beginning to set itself apart in its opposition to America’s wars abroad and at home.
As K-pop fans and Black organizers and artists are demonstrating, joyful, powerful movements draw more people in and reflect the kind of world we want to live in.
If soldiers train for armed combat, why wouldn’t activists train for toppling the political-economic structure that’s killing our chance for a just future? The stakes are just as high.