A Working Ministry for Peace

Having abolished its army, Costa Rica is now addressing social violence.

By Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan

Proposals for a Ministry of Peace are often met with confusion by the general public over their role. How can a Department of Peace contribute meaningfully to governance? Proposals for governmental departments should be results-oriented, focusing on clearly defined peace deficits in a given society. With this in mind, I seized the opportunity to visit the Costa Rican Ministry of Peace in September 2014. I am grateful for the time given me by three of the Ministry’s key staff—Ana Cristina Araya Amador; the Vice-Minister of Peace, Victor Barrantes Marín; and his adviser Gustavo Adolfo Machado Loria.

Justice and Grace

The Ministry of Justice and Peace was previously the Ministry for Justice and Grace. In 2009, Rita Marie Johnson of the Rasur Foundation persuaded the then-president to change Costa Rica’s crime prevention methods. This new approach was named the Vice-Ministry of Peace, which was given specific functions under Costa Rican law. In addition, a National System of Peace was created—a coordinating body through which other ministries and local institutions are required to work.

One project of the vice-ministry is the General Directorate for the Promotion of Peace and Civic Coexistence (DIGIPAZ), which aims to strengthen people’s capacity for mutual respect and alternative dispute resolution.

Ana Cristina Araya Amador directs the Local Management Office of the Deputy Minister of Peace. The LMO co-creates, with municipal governments and communities, processes which positively affect public safety. It takes a preventive approach aimed at reducing risk factors and expanding opportunities for human development.

Costa Ricans have a strong tradition of taking their disputes to court. Araya Amador noted, “The least problem that you can imagine, people take to court. We prefer that they resolve their problems through dialogue. We have studies which show that problems that are very small can reach to a point where there is violence, and we want to avoid getting to that point. So our program focuses on alternative ways of resolving conflicts.”

The Violence Observatory

“We understand peace as a way of civil coexistence,” explains Araya Amador. “What this means in practice is a form of living together that gives opportunities to the most vulnerable and builds the capacity for resolving problems through dialogue and without crime. We try to do this in a scientific way by identifying the risk factors and the local partners with whom we must work. We seek to empower participation in this process.

“Local participation allows us to identify the risk factors. We also do statistical analysis through our Violence Observatory, which is within the Vice-Ministry of Peace. The Violence Observatory collects data available from other institutions of government such as the Courts, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of Education and other entities. This gives us an idea of what is occurring. However, even with that picture we have to approach each community and see if that is actually happening there. It’s a reality check. Currently we have only one person working in this department so there are limits to what we can do. There is some interest in what we are doing, and the Inter-American Development Bank is offering to help on the technical level. But we need more staff.”

About 30 people work in the vice-ministry itself in San José. Another 10-15 people work out of small centres, called called Houses of Justice, in different parts of the country. These provide mediation and alternative dispute settlement in those communities.

“We are a small institution. It has been difficult to convince some people, mostly bureaucrats, that we have to grow and reach more communities,” says Araya Amador. “There is skepticism about the ministry among people who don’t have a very clear idea about what is prevention and what is the promotion of peace. The police think that they do it. There is another ministry which works with communities giving some kinds of social support—they think they do it too.”

Changing how people look at the police … and vice Versa

“We are trying to change the way the people look at the police, and this also involves a new training program for the police. This includes attitude and bias awareness training and human rights training, within the National School of Police in Costa Rica.

“They are also changing to a community policing model to increase trust in the community toward the police. So we are now entering communities where they know the local police officer and they see him as a point of help to mobilize resources to benefit the community. The bottom line is that we are trying to change the way police look at people and people look at the police. However, the police also help us work in communities, and our staff need to be safe too. Of course, just having a person wearing a uniform is a form of control, which may have its own problems.”

The Ministry of Education also has a seat in the council of the National Peace System. The Vice-Ministry of Peace works together with them on prevention through the schools. Araya Amador noted, “We have developed some protocols for the schools such as what should the administration do if it finds a gun or drugs at school. The Vice-Ministry of Peace took the lead in this so the school administrators can determine what to do in these situations to lower the risks.

“We also have a key program, “Living Together.” which developed a curriculum for the schools to help students resolve problems through dialogue. This curriculum is part of the educational program at least once a week at all levels within the schools. We created this together with UNICEF and managed to construct and distribute some kits for use by teachers.”

Civic Centres for Peace

Another core program of the Vice-Ministry of Peace is the Civic Centres for Peace. These are designed to promote peace among vulnerable youth and in communities threatened with violence.

“Our Ministry coordinates the Casas de Justicia (local alternative dispute resolution centres). We intend to have one in each province, and we want young people to get this done by themselves. The centres will also have art, music, and cultural elements. We are coordinating with the National Institute for Learning to bring technical education to these centres in vulnerable communities. The centres will each have a crèche for working single mothers.

“The other level of communication is with the municipalities, primarily through the mayors. The interaction between central government and local government is not all that easy, especially with greater demands for the devolution of powers where power is highly centralized within the country. This work is difficult due to the political environment, but it is a good opportunity for us to set a precedent that establishes that such cooperation is possible.”

Building peace without coercion

The Costa Rican Ministry of Peace and Justice (CRMPJ) is one of only five Ministries of Peace in the world, and the only one which developed outside the context of a comprehensive peace accord, which makes it a key model for development elsewhere. Within the North American political context, some people may be uncomfortable with the criminal justice elements in the CRMPJ. However, Costa Rica has identified this as a key peace deficit within their society, and decided to create a non-coercive ministry of government to remedy them. Their approach is experimental and evaluative, aiming to achieve measurable results. An aspect of their work, which perhaps goes unidentified by them, is the state-changing nature of their work.

Hard states base their sovereignty on coercive violence. CRMPJ’s work calls that concept into question, since the goal of a peaceful society is the priority. Costa Rica is unique among states in that it has already demilitarized.

However, moving to a softer form of sovereignty is still difficult even with the lack of a military. When I asked the staff at the CRMPJ about difficulties between their ministry and others, they were extremely diplomatic and framed their replies as personal observations. Resistance to experiments in governance range between a responsible demand to prove a proposal will work before ceding authority, to job protection obstructionism.

The CRMPJ are proposing that governance be less about ruling and more about co-creation. In short, they are proposing revolutionary change.

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is a researcher for humanitarian disarmament at Mines Action Canada. He is also a co-director of Nonviolence International Canada and a consultant with the International Peace Bureau,

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2015

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2015, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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