This speech was delivered to the United Nations Security Council on November 19, 2008

A curious tale from Scandinavian mythology tells of two kings condemned to fight one another for eternity. If one succeeded in killing the other, the victim would rise again to continue their struggle until the last day of the world. The story has several versions, but, in all of them, the kings and their armies are revived each morning with new weapons, ready to take to the field of battle once more. This fantasy, product of a warrior culture, became a painful premonition of the events that would mark, with blood, the history of the twentieth century: an escalation of weapons, enemies, threats and war that ended the lives of hundreds of millions of people and forced us into the trenches of international insecurity.

There lies the reason for the creation of this Security Council: in the search for solutions to the endless battle within the human species, fed by the frenzy of the arms race. It is unlikely that any organization has ever been set a more ambitious task than that. And it is unlikely that any organization has faced more difficult choices. Many of those dilemmas remain to be resolved but their answer can be found, without a doubt, in the content of the Charter of the United Nations. In 1945, with the smoke still clearing after the worst war in human memory, the founders of this Organization wrote in Article 26 of the Charter of the United Nations:

“In order to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources, the Security Council shall be responsible for formulating, with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee referred to in Article 47, plans to be submitted to the Members of the United Nations for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments.”

The wording of that Article is no accident. It makes a statement of which this Council must take note, to the fullest extent of its meaning: spending on arms is a diversion of human and economic resources; that is to say, a use that is not correct. As a minimum, the Charter asks us to accept that excessive military spending exacts an infinite cost in opportunity.

These are not the delusions of a citizen of the first country in history to abolish its army and declare peace on the world. They are not the dreams of a Nobel Peace laureate. This is the text that holds up this building. It is the text that justifies any action of this Security Council. Article 26 has been, until now, a dead letter in the vast cemetery of intentions for world peace. But in that place there also rests the possibility of reviving that intention; of giving it the meaning intended by those who precede us in this struggle.

“The least diversion of resources” means, first and foremost, finding alternatives to excessive military spending that do not damage security. One of those alternatives is to strengthen multilateralism. As long as nations do not feel protected by strong regional organizations with real powers to act, they will continue to arm themselves at the expense of their peoples’ development — of the poorest, in particular — and at the expense of international security. The Security Council must support, as a guarantor of collective security, multilateral accords adopted in our various regional organisms. Costa Rica will work along these lines during the coming year as a way to generate an environment that allows for the gradual reduction of military spending.

Ours is an unarmed nation but it is not a naïve nation. We have not come here to lobby for the abolition of all armies. We have not even come to urge the drastic reduction of world military spending, which has now reached $3.3 billion a day — which is shameful. But a gradual reduction is not only possible, but also imperative, in particular for developing nations.

I am well aware that neither this Organization nor this Council nor any of its Members can decide how much other countries spend on arms and soldiers. But we can decide how much international aid they receive and on which principles such aid is based. With the money that some developing nations spend on a single combat plane, they could buy 200,000 MIT Media Lab computers for students with limited resources. With the money they spend on a single helicopter, they could pay $100 monthly grants for a whole year to 5,000 students at risk of dropping out of school. The perverse logic that impels a poor nation to spend excessive sums on its armies and not on meeting the needs of its people is exactly the antithesis of human security and is ultimately a serious threat to international security.

That is why my Government has presented the Costa Rica Consensus, an initiative to create mechanisms to forgive debts and support with international financial resources those developing countries which increase spending on environmental protection, education, healthcare and housing for their people and decrease spending on weapons and soldiers.

In other words, this initiative seeks to reward developing countries, whether poor or middle-income, that divert increasingly fewer of their economic and human resources to the purchase of arms, just as stipulated in Article 26 of the Charter of the United Nations. Today, I ask members for their support in making the Consensus of Costa Rica a reality.

I also ask members for their support for the arms trade treaty that Costa Rica, along with other nations, presented to the United Nations in 2006. This treaty seeks to prohibit the sale of arms to States, groups or individuals, when there is sufficient reason to believe that they will be used to violate human rights or international law. I do not know how much longer we can survive unless we realize that it is just as terrible to kill many people, little by little, every day, as it is to kill many people in a single day. The destructive power of the 640 million small arms and light weapons that exist in the world, 74 per cent of which are in the hands of civilians, has proven to be more lethal than that of nuclear weapons and constitutes one of the principal motors of national and international insecurity.

Costa Rica knows that the members of this Council include some of the countries that top the list for the sale and purchase of small arms and light weapons in the world. But my country also knows that those nations have recognized terrorism and drug trafficking as serious threats to international security.

International organized crime depends on arms trafficking, which until now has flowed with terrifying freedom across our borders, with the result that these same powerful nations suffer the consequences. Although the treaty would not eliminate the existence of such criminal groups, it would certainly limit their operations.

If we do not succeed with these measures, if the Costa Rica Consensus does not win the support of developed nations and if the arms trade treaty sinks in the waters of this organization, our pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals will become nothing more than the impossible dream of a world that, like Sisyphus, labors without rest towards an unattainable goal.

We are working to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger and, yet, armed conflicts constitute the principal cause of hunger in our world. We are working to improve health care, particularly maternal health and the fight against AIDS and malaria. Yet, military spending drains millions of dollars from the health-care budgets of poor countries. The Millennium Development Goals were brave words, but they will never be more than words if we do not regulate arms or devise incentives to reduce global military spending.

Humanity can break the chain that, until now, has forced us to spend our centuries in an incessant and fratricidal struggle. That was the belief of those who founded this Organization. The enormous mission entrusted to this Council is not a failed expectation, but it is a rocky path. Maintaining peace will never be a simple task, nor will it ever be completed. But, I assure you that strengthening multilateralism, reducing military spending in favor of human development and regulating the international arms trade are steps in the right direction, the same as that marked out 63 years ago by those who, having survived atrocities, were nonetheless able to hope.

Oscar Arias is a Nobel Peace laureate and President of Costa Rica.