By Barend ter Haar.
The 40th birthday of the University for Peace and the 15th place of Costa Rica on the World Happiness Report might seem unrelated but they are both the outcome of a bold decision that Costa Rica took in 1948.
In that year Costa Rica disbanded its army. Since that time, it has been a beacon of relative stability in a region still ravaged by violence. The money released by the abolition of the army was partly spent on improving education. The country’s population is now higher educated and more prosperous than that of neighbouring countries.
In the World Happiness Report, Costa Rica is in 15th place, not far below Canada (11th place), but above the United States (18) and France (23) and far above its neighbours Panama (36) and Nicaragua (46). Although this ranking is disputable, it does indicate that the shift in priorities from defence to education has worked out well for the population of Costa Rica.
The proposal of Costa Rica to establish a University for Peace (also referred to as UPEACE for short) should also be seen in this light. In 1980 the General Assembly of the United Nations agreed to this proposal by consensus, but left it to Costa Rica to find the necessary funds.
The mission of the University for Peace is “to provide humanity with an international institution of higher education for peace and with the aim of promoting among all human beings the spirit of understanding, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, to stimulate cooperation among peoples and to help lessen obstacles and threats to world peace and progress, in keeping with the noble aspirations proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations.”
The university is organised around three departments (Peace and Conflict Studies; Environment and Development; International Law) and a few specialized institutes, such as the UPEACE Center for Executive Education, the UPEACE Human Rights Center and the Earth Charter Center for Education for Sustainable Development.
The university works closely with other institutes, such as the IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft for its Water Cooperation and Diplomacy program and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) for its Master of Arts in Development Studies and Diplomacy.
What distinguishes UPEACE from other universities, is the diversity of the students. Its approximately 2,200 alumni came from 120 different countries. The students are therefore learning first hand that concepts like human rights and security can be looked upon differently depending on your circumstances, history and culture.
Like all universities, UPEACE is currently forced to shift the emphasis to distance learning. The challenge will be to retain online its character of a global forum for study and reflection.
 Full disclosure: the author is member of the Board van UPEACE Centre The Hague (https://www.upeace.nl/ )