by Susie Shutts, Yes! Magazine

On Monday, September 14, the Costa Rican legislature passed a law changing the name of the country’s justice ministry to the Ministry of Justice and Peace, making the department the first of its kind in Latin America and only the third in the world.

Costa Rica’s justice ministry was created to oversee the country’s penitentiary systems and supervise research on criminal behavior, but had no responsibility for crime prevention. A 1998 executive decree addressed this lapse by creating the National Directorate for the Prevention of Crime. The recent legislation takes crime prevention in a new direction, replacing the old directorate with the newly formed Directorate for the Promotion of Peace and the Peaceful Coexistence of Citizens.

“While we talk about prevention of violence, we are experiencing its effects every day. Changing the language and speaking about ‘promotion of peace’ lead[s] us to the roots of the problem,” states the legislation.

The ministry will take on new responsibilities, including peace promotion, violence prevention (for example, by targeting a recent increase of juvenile offenders), and an emphasis on conflict resolution.

“With this change in name, the focus on prevention of violence has been shifted to promotion of peace,” says Kelly Isola of the Rasur Foundation, the Costa Rican nongovernmental organization that proposed the law in 2005. Having a department of peace, she said, will enable Costa Rica “to benefit from international experiences, which demonstrate that a culture of peace has positive effects in the reduction of violence and crime.”

Although campaigns for peace-oriented government departments are underway in 32 countries, including the United States, only Nepal and the Solomon Islands have similar ministries.

“This Ministry was not born out of war and conflict, but rather through the commitment to a culture of peace,” Isola says. “Costa Rica has a long history of being aligned with peace.”

The country’s tradition of peace-oriented firsts dates back to 1877, when President Tomás Guardia abolished the death penalty. In 1948, Costa Rica became the first country to formally abolish its armed forces; the Constitution still forbids a standing military. President Oscar Arias won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership on the Esquipulas II Peace Accords, which promoted regional reconciliation, democratization, free elections, and arms control in Central America. In 1997, Costa Rica passed a law requiring that peace education be offered in every school and created a place for peaceful conflict resolution in the legal system, which endorses mediation.

In 2004, the National Directorate of Alternative Conflict Resolution was created, and two years later the National Commission for the Prevention of Violence and Promotion of Social Peace was established. The newly overhauled Ministry of Justice and Peace will work with both.

Legislation for the new law was passed just in time for the fourth annual Global Alliance Summit for Ministries and Departments of Peace, held in Costa Rica September 17-21. The Global Alliance comprises organizations, citizens, and government officials from 35 countries, who work together to establish governmental structures that support a culture of peace.

Days after the official creation of its Ministry of Justice and Peace, Costa Rica hosted an international summit for others working to create similar ministries. The Dalai Lama wrote a letter endorsing the summit:
“Peace is not something which exists independently of us, any more than war does. Those who are responsible for creating and keeping the peace are members of our own human family, the society that we as individuals participate in and help to create. Peace in the world thus depends on there being peace in the hearts of individuals. Peace based merely on political considerations or prompted by other compulsions will only be temporary and superficial.”