Last April 28, 2011, a Costa Rican court nullified a Presidential Decree issued by former President Oscar Arias that granted police chiefs of police the power to authorize and use weapons of war. The ruling represents a victory, but measures that undermine the nation’s historical commitment to peace and rule of law continue, forming a disturbing pattern.
In November of 2008, then-President Oscar Arias granted the chiefs of police units the power to authorize the use of military weapons whenever they deemed it necessary. This has allowed police to use AK-47, Uzi, Mini Uzi and other war guns in arrests for common crimes.
These weapons were forbidden by law for use by police forces, except under in a state of emergency, siege, internal commotion or invasion–situations that must be declared by the President through an emergency decree. Even in these highly exceptional circumstances, only the President can authorize the use of these weapons.
The Arias decree, however, overstepped the law and the constitution to arm the police with military weapons. While recognizing the need to provide police squads with adequate equipment and better training, the court reasoned that it was illegal to utilize an instrument such as the emergency decree to fight common crime. The court brought up the need for structural reforms and legal reforms to improve the situation and noted that reforms should have been pursued during the Arias administration before attempting the extreme measure of a blanket presidential decree.
The decree is one in a series of actions that have threatened peace in Costa Rica since that nation’s bold decision to abolish its army. In 2006, President Arias issued another decree authorizing the extraction of thorium and uranium, the manufacture of nuclear reactors including for war purposes, and the elaboration of nuclear fuel.
I challenged the decree in the Supreme Court. The Supreme declared the decree unconstitutional in a historic judgment that called these activities contrary to the right to peace and a healthy environment. In its ruling, the Court established the prohibition for the country to engage in any activity involving items meant to be used in a war, again with the constitutional exception of emergency, siege or invasion.
Since his campaign for president in 2005 and until its approval in 2007, Oscar Arias also actively pushed for Costa Rica’s inclusion in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Among the numerous clauses of the agreement, an annex specifically on Costa Rica permits trade in nearly all kinds of weapons of war, guns and ammunition—despite the fact that the nation is at peace, and with the guilty silence of its Nobel Peace Prize Laureate president. The weapons clause of the Free Trade Agreement was sent up to the very pro-CAFTA Supreme Court, which refused to try the case, thus sending it to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, where it is currently still under study.
The Arias decree struck down by the recent court ruling authorized police officers to use weapons for war, meaning that during the time of validity of the decree, many received training on the use of military equipment.
Also during Arias’ second term, Costa Rican police officers were again sent for training to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in Fort Benning, Georgia, also known as the School of the Americas. At least eleven Latin American dictators have been trained there since its opening in 1948.
What kind of peaceful and democratic country sends its police for foreign military training at such schools?
The court ruling to suppress the Arias decree represents a victory. But efforts to advance the militarization of the country continue. Costa Rica’s peace is under attack from within.
Luis Roberto Zamora Bolaños is a trial lawyer in Heredia, Costa Rica. Parallel to his work as a trial lawyer, Zamora works pro-bono for peace related issues. He participates frequently in international forums as an expert on the right to peace and nuclear disarmament and is a regular contributor to the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org