Skip to main content

Sanchez Address

Commencement Address

May 20, 1996

by Oscar Arias Sanchez

Oscar Arias Sanchez

I am very grateful to all of you at Colorado College for inviting me to participate in your graduation ceremony. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the College for granting me this honorary doctoral degree.

For all of you who are graduating, this is a day of celebration. Today marks the end of many years of hard work. Many of you will now become a part of the cultural and economic forces that thrive in this great country. Others will seek further knowledge through pursuit of graduate studies. All of you, I hope, will generously repay society for the privilege of a higher education.

Those who obtain academic training and a college degree, whether here or in any other academic institution, acquire a special responsibility. Those of us who have a college education have developed the ability to examine the world with a critical eye, and discover the nature and sources of the injustice that still prevails throughout our planet.

Your college years signify a period in which you were somewhat removed from the world, enveloped in the rich environment of Colorado College. Upon leaving the intellectual and theoretical sanctuary we call the University, you will encounter a world with new hopes for progress and change, but also with greater problems and inequities to overcome.

Perhaps you are already aware that the world of military and economic powers is full of cynicism and hypocrisy. The discrepancy between what is said and what is done becomes greater by the minute. As we speak of conservation, we create more smoke, noise and disease. As we speak of economic growth and social justice, hunger spreads throughout the world.

This is one dilemma that I would like you to contemplate. It is a dilemma that faces every system or society. We must constantly ask ourselves if what we do helps contribute to the happiness of our fellow humans or to their suffering. We must always examine whether our actions favor the cause of peace or promote war. Sometimes the narrow pursuit of our own comforts or needs can mean pain, poverty or death for other human beings. At all times, our knowledge can be employed to do good or to facilitate evil. Because of this, an enormous responsibility rests on our shoulders. As representatives of the generation that will next govern this country, you are faced with great responsibilities to your communities, your nation and the world.

In this small world, we must realize that our neighbor's troubles are our own. We must acknowledge that two-thirds of the world's population lives in poverty. We must help open doors for those with fewer opportunities, because if we do not, their problems will reach our doorstep. The world is crying out for new leadership. It is time for the people of your generation to face the challenge of an interdependent world. You must take the lead as individuals, as members of corporations, communities and organizations, and as citizens of this country.

Unfortunately, some wealthy countries do not seem to acknowledge the realities of interdependence. In their dealings with the developing world, they continue to favor their geostrategic interests over the basic needs of the majority of the members of our human family.

It is in the interest of wealthy nations to support development efforts in poorer nations. We must all respond to the threat of global poverty that travels across borders in the form of drugs, terrorism, and illegal immigration.

In developing countries, the urgent need for governments to dedicate their scarce resources to human development rather than military personnel and the instruments of war, makes itself heard in the forgotten voices of deprived populations. While the governments of developing countries buy over twenty-five billion dollars a year in arms, their people remain subject to the chilling reality of poverty. These people cannot participate in the development of society because they do not know how to read or write. Their health worsens because they have never had contact with a qualified doctor. They continue to tolerate squalid living conditions because they lack access to potable water. And their children -- our children -- suffer from malnutrition and die daily from contagious diseases that could have been prevented. The time has come to make people more important than arms.

Developing countries must be responsible for reorienting their priorities from national security to human security: that is, security of education, security of health, security of food, security of employment, and security of the environment. Human security is a matter of human dignity. It is a child who does not die, a disease that did not spread, an ethnic tension that did not explode, a dissident who was not silenced, a human spirit that was not crushed.

When human security needs are not met, we foster a cycle of violence. When we allow militaries to grow in power in order to control increasingly desperate populations, we have failed to address the root causes of conflict. Too many poor countries spend their limited resources on militaries that serve only to oppress their own people. Too many industrialized countries continue to export death to the developing world. Unless we put an end to the arms trade, we will never put an end to violence.

This is why several of my fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates have joined me to draft an International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers. The Code of Conduct will stress that any decision to export arms should take into account several factors pertaining to the country of final destination. The recipient country must endorse democracy in terms of free and fair elections, the rule of law, and civilian control over the military and security forces. Its government must not engage in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. Such violations include extrajudicial or arbitrary executions, disappearances, torture, prolonged arbitrary imprisonment, and systematic discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, gender or national origin. The International Code of Conduct on Arms Transfers will not permit arms sales to any country engaged in armed aggression in violation of international law. And finally, the Code will require the purchasing country to participate fully in the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms. I sincerely hope that, once it is presented, most nations of the world will have the courage, strength and vision to adopt the Code.

It will take time to negotiate such a Code. But humanity cannot wait. Poor people in poor countries cannot wait. Our future cannot wait.

The responsibility of the United States -- and of you, its citizens -- should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, there are many people in your government who would deny and shirk this responsibility, people who believe that the U.S. should care only for itself. But their arguments are self-defeating. In an interdependent world, you cannot afford to look inward only. The United States -- and the world -- cannot afford isolationism. In this powerful democracy, your obligation is not only to yourselves, but to all the world's citizens.

You can fulfill this obligation in many ways. One of the most effective is this: urge your leaders to adopt and follow a Code of Conduct to govern their arms transfer practices, and urge them to push for a worldwide adoption of this code. The cause for human security would be profoundly advanced if the nations of the world, led by the United States, agree to subject their arms sales to a uniform set of guidelines. As we approach the next millennium, is it not finally time to harvest the dividends of peace?


The United States is a military and economic superpower. We would like to see this country use its potential to be a moral superpower. By coddling the arms merchants, this country is not a moral superpower. By putting profits in front of principles, this country is not a moral superpower. Instead of doing what is profitable, the United States should strive to do what is right. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, struggling against the fate of a nation on the brink of its most devastating war, only right makes might. It is up to your generation to provide the necessary moral force for your country to become a true leader in the global community.

The millennium that awaits us will demand strength, dedication and sacrifice from our leaders. We must do more than voice disagreement or dissatisfaction; we must actively challenge the status quo. There will be powerful interests threatened by the eradication of poverty, the preservation of the environment, and the construction of a true culture of peace and democracy. To confront these interests, we need leaders of vision and courage to steer us toward a hopeful future with their creativity, sincerity and resourcefulness. We need leaders concerned with the greater good -- who can look beyond personal good, national good and regional good -- we need leaders who can guide us toward a shared responsibility for our collective well-being.

We as a global community have not yet reached consensus on how to address our challenges together. At such an important time in human history, when the world wavers between democracy and dictatorship, prosperity and poverty, we lack direction at both the national and international levels. In order to confront the many challenges we face, we must foster and build stronger partnership among nations.

In order to achieve these goals, we must fight against many powerful interests. Among the most powerful of those are ignorance and indifference. We must change our way of thinking about security, prosperity, and military prowess. No nation should be secure but in liberty, rich but in compassion, nor strong but in the sense that other nations share equal fortitude. If we make these ideas our guiding principles, they will ultimately be our saving grace.

I invite those of you who are graduating today to responsibly assume the role which corresponds to you as the future of this country's leadership. I invite you to liberate the compassion, the creativity and solidarity that lives inside each of us, so that we, together, can work to change this world. Human destiny must be changed, not by chance, but by choice.

My friends, you belong to an elite group of individuals who have had the opportunity to pursue higher levels of education. The majority of women and men throughout the world are not so fortunate. Hence, that privilege obliges you to share the fruits of your education with all of humankind by working to overcome the challenges that we all face. As you emerge from Colorado College, I am confident that you will re-enter the world with a new perspective and an enlightened sense of responsibility toward all human beings.

Thank you very much.

Report an issue - Last updated: 12/17/2020