Wooden bridge of peace across troubled waters

May 17, 1996

Five centuries ago, legend has it, a mystic stood on a sacred mountain in Central America and predicted an academic centre for peace would be built there one day.

In December 1980, this dream was realised when the first students began classes at the Universidad Para la Paz (University for Peace) on the same hillside overlooking Costa Rica's Central Valley.

Now, celebrating its 15th anniversary, the university is conscious the world still has much to learn, and is expanding its course curriculums on campus and its influence abroad.

Like peace itself, the university has recently been hard to reach. The only good road off the highway from Costa Rica's capital, San Jose, has been out of service since a bridge collapsed. Visitors must tip-toe across the remaining wooden slats to meet the university's jeep on the other side for the final few kilometres.

Passing the gates, you leave Costa Rica and enter United Nations' territory. The university was created hy the UN's General Assembly in December 1980 at the behest of Costa Rica's former president, Rodrigo Carazo. It is advised by a special council made up of some of the world's most experienced peace brokers; UN secretary general Boutros Boutros Ghali and former United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance among them.

The campus lies on the fringes of the last remaining pockets of humid forest in the Central Valley and during vacations it has the serene aura of a Buddhist temple. Staff pad softly along its open-air corridors between buildings. Fountains play in grassy atriums. A monument to peace stands in a clearing in the trees. The view across the valley to the coffee plantations on the eastern mountains is breathtaking.

Roughly 3,000 students have taken courses at the university during the past five years. Most of them (2,500 from 36 different countries) have been attracted by specialised courses on the peaceful settlement of disputes and on human rights and sustainable development.

The main two masters programmes, in international relations and cooperation and in ecology and peace, drew 46 students from 23 countries.

Since its opening, university facilities have grown substantially. A media production suite (the Gandhi Television Center) was built to make films for education, training and research; the Center for Documentation and Information for Peace was set up to monitor peace worldwide; and Radio for Peace International, a 24-hour shortwave station broadcasting programmes on peace issues in several languages, went on air. In the past three years, the university has also begun training indigenous leaders from all over the Americas, teaching how to protect their land and people.

Now it is beginning studies on drug trafficking, corruption and poverty, initiating new courses at universities in California and New York and planning to establish aligned centres for peace in Moscow and Bogota and a regional council for peace in Senegal.

It all looks impressive but with the recent breakdown in peace processes in Northern Ireland and the Middle East and with continued tension in the Balkans and parts of the former Soviet Union and Central America itself, it all seems too little, too late.

Francisco Barahonia, the university's rector, thinks not. "This is the first UN University for Peace in the world and is dedicated to turning out students who will become future ambassadors for peace," he says. "There is a lot of money invested in war but not much invested in peace. We have to change that. We have to teach people and countries to stop thinking in a war-like way."

Dr Barahonia is both pacifist and optimist and sees the university as a key player in peace processes. "I am confident we can help to achieve world peace by the prevention of conflicts through social, economic, political and cultural change," he says.

"We need to develop a new ideology for peace conflict resolution, one with a non-violent approach. That is why the university is there, to help people understand how to make peace successfully." His students learn the mechanisms of war and peace, the causes and effects of conflict and the possible solutions. Many of them come from countries torn apart by revolution and strife and have first-hand experience of the horrors of bloodshed.

Should they need more inspiration, they can look out from their classrooms over the landscaped gardens of the campus and find it in the busts of some of the world's most notable human rights campaigners - Mahatma Gandhi, Leo Tolstoy, Sim"n Bol!var.

They could not be studying these topics in a more appropriate country. Costa Rica made peace its watchword almost 50 years ago by abolishing its army and channelling the money it saved on tanks and guns into education and healthcare. It now has the highest literacy rate in Latin America (almost 95 per cent) and was recently placed 28th out of 174 countries in a UN poll measuring life expectancy, educational attainment and income.

Costa Rica's decision to abolish its army was braver still considering its position in one of the world's most politically unstable regions. In fact, one of the university's key roles at present is to steer forward a peace plan for Central America. This year Costa Rica is the host nation of the Grupo de R!o, a consultation body working for peace in the region.

Recently, the presidents of both Nicaragua and El Salvador have spoken here. Dr Barahonia hopes its university has better luck than the European University for Peace which was established in the then Yugoslavia seven years ago, little knowing what would befall that country in the coming years.

However, he is confident that renewed backing from the General Assembly at its 50th session last December and new financial grants, including one from the United Kingdom, will allow the university to prosper and its expansion to continue.

For him, education is an essential catalyst in the peace process. "Peace is difficult. You heed a definite commitiment and you need education."

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