For a small country like Costa Rica, multilateralism is the answer, it is the only way.
Hello everyone and happy New Year. I am Tiffany Verga and this is The Next Page, the podcast of the UN Library and Archives Geneva designed to advance the conversation on multilateralism. Today's episode continues our conversation with ambassadors to the UN in Geneva. Our director Francesco Pisano is joined by the Permanent Representative of Costa Rica to the UN Geneva Catalina Devadas-Aguilar, who arrived in Geneva in late 2020. She takes us on a fascinating exploration of the history of Costa Rica, its role in the region and some of its main priorities today that can be examples for the rest of the world, from migration solutions to social protection, green policies and biodiversity, women’s participation, human rights and peace, Catalina shares her learnings across her career. As one of a small number of countries without a standing army she shares her assessment of Costa Rica’s experience at the UN today, and how the country's commitment to peace influences its view on multilateralism and collective security. Let's take a listen.
Welcome everyone to this new episode of the podcast, The Next Page. We're here in library and archives again, in the studio and I have in front of me, Ambassador Catalina Devadas-Aguilar of Costa Rica. She's the primary representative of Costa Rica to the UN in Geneva, she's been appointed ambassador in October 2020 when she came here to Geneva and since 2014 she's also being the special rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities to the United Nations Human Rights Council. So, a warm welcome to you Ambassador and please tell our audience a little bit about yourself before we start and how you came to diplomacy and to be the permanent Representative Costa Rica to UN.
Well thank you very much, it's a pleasure to be here. Well, in short I came from the disability rights movement. I am indeed a Costa Rican, I’am a person with a disability myself and I've been always very active with regards to human rights, social justice, in general. I've been an advocate, if I may say that, but an advocate that is also very technical, and I think that this is because of my Costa Rican side. We tend to be quite diplomatic and one thing led to the other. I think that the experience I had worked in the World Bank, I worked also in the UN. I've been with organizations from grassroots to very sophisticated international organizations and then after the exposure of the mandate as special rapporteur Ithink first it strengthened my interaction with the UN with the high-level authorities of UN and with national authorities, so it gave me the exposure and I think that because of that, my country considered that I could be a good option to lead the work here in Geneva.
And thank you for that. Then we will have time during this podcast to talk about your job as ambassador and Permanent Representative and how Costa Rica views its working multilaterals in the UN. But before we get there, for those few who do not know where your country, which is a worldwide star biodiversity tourism. I have been there so many times and I absolutely loved it. So Costa Rica is this wonderful territory and a fascinating history. And so how would you briefly present Costa Rica and what are the key moments of its history?
Well, that is when the questions get tricky because I I really like to talk about my country, I think Costa Rica is quite an interesting country. It's very small, we have of course, 2 coasts. We have the Atlantic or the Caribbean and then we have the Pacific in 52,000 square kilometers, about 5,000,000 people, but always a country of tradition of peace a country that has abolished its army since 1984, a country that has and I think this is quite important for precent, decided very early around the 1970s to invest in biodiversity, and keeping our biodiversity and investing in renewable energies, with an economic view actually, interesting in the 70s and that has rendered so much fruit that we now have 26% of our territory that is protected. We have 6% of the global biodiversity. Costa Rica runs our electricity, 100% of our electricity comes from renewable sources, so clean energy. For 365 days a year we have clean energy. We're struggling to transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen and electric electricity for transportation, which is still a challenge for us, but we have a very ambitious plan on decarbonization, which we hope is going to take us. I mean, it's not only about Costa Rica and you know the challenges that we are facing, I think that it's nice to say that Costa Rica transition from a traditional army to a green army right? Now we have an army of peace, an army of biodiversity that is combating climate change and hopefully trying to make an impact in the rest of the world. This is our biggest crisis and globally and hopefully we are putting a little grain of sand.
Geographically speaking, Costa Rica sits basically right at the center of the Americas, and so I wanted to ask you 2 quick questions, one is, what is the regional role that your country has in the area? And maybe what are the main challenges and your hopes as a country, as a Central American country in general in the world?
Yeah, well it takes me back a little bit of what Costa Rica is and one thing that I didn't mention before it's our Trust in in the rule of law. We are firmly committed to human rights, Costa Rica has abolished the death penalty in 1882 and the foundation of the country is basically the respect to the rule of law, to institutions, to division of power, and we have been luckily quite based peaceful since 1948. There was little lapses I would say, that we had our internal civil war, but it is true that Costa Rica is quite an exceptional place in the Central American region, and we had in the 80s a quite difficult situation in Central America with the wars, with the instability. Now we don't have armed conflict in the region, but we do have quite a dramatic crisis when it comes to mobility of people, so internally displaced people due to climate change, due to economic reasons, due to different political situations all around. You know different countries from the Caribbean to South America to Central America and we are a country of transit, Costa Rica is a country of transit. I mean we have always being a country of transit so we have movement of people coming from the South going up north, we have people coming from the North to migrate to Costa Rica, people that don't want to stay that just want to transit, people that wants to stay. We have observed an enormous amount of migration, which is also good, and I think that Costa Rica has found a way to absorb the migration and in terms that are hopefully respectful of human rights and this is our aim to be always committed with putting the person in the center and making sure that we respect people, that we treat people with dignity, that we give people opportunities, allocation, health. We have a very strong national Health system that has universal coverage and then we try to expand that to all the people that is transiting or staying in our country. But of course it comes with a lot of challenges, it comes with challenges in costs, social costs, economic costs, political costs as well. So how we balance that is important, but we think that our contribution to the region is to say it is possible. We need to invest one thing that I think is fundamental. What makes a difference in Costa Rica with social investment, social protection, having a strong social protection floor for our population is something that needs to be looked at in the region and elsewhere as a basis for stability. Then I think again our green policies that also could help, not only because it is good for the environment, which is fundamental, but also because it could be the economically wise decision, the investment that you're doing in the environment is going to result in better economic development and growth in your country. We have a lot of eco-tourism, we discussed and decided in the 90s to recognize the right to a healthy environment, something that we recently promoted here in the Human Rights Council and luckily it was adopted and now globally universally we have the recognition of the right to a healthy to right to clean, healthy and sustainable environment. So I think that those are the contributions of Costa Rica thing that could be useful for the region and outside the region, perhaps to contribute to a better world if I may be a little bit ambitious.
And indeed, as we speek COP 26 is coming to a close in Glasgow, UK, and the words you're saying actually resonate a lot during this week in which so many of the things that you touched upon were discussed at COP. But I would like to go to something you said before. Of course, one of the things make Costa Rica known, popular and famous around the world is the fact that you gave up your standing army. You don't have an army now, you're in part of a small minority, but you're not alone. I think there are some 20 countries in the world that do not have a standing army and Costa Rica took this decision. You mentioned it in 1948 after this short but quite violent civil war and your country is very often mentioned as an example of enduring peace and respectful democracy. But my question is not so much how you came to give up the army, but more like how does this fact impact your foreign policy and your standing in the world, how is it to be out there in global diplomacy without hard power?
Well, that is a very good question, and indeed the answer has two sides. One side, of course is the impact that it has at national level, not how we got there, but how we redirect the resources to social investment allocation even our diplomacy or foreign service, understanding the role that we have, it became more and more important because we don't have strong powers. Sometimes people ask me how, why, what happens if You have a national security emergency. And I remember that when we were growing up and the school, the answer was well because we are a small country and because we are very committed to peace and to human rights, other countries will come to support us if something would happen. So we don't need to be the one. I think that's a very basic response for a child, but beyond that Costa Rica then invested in multilateralism. What we needed to do was to come out and say we want peace, we promote peace, we believe in peace, we want disarmament and a small voice that you know the beauty of multilateralism and you hear that probably all the time. The beauty is that in the global community, even a small voice like Costa Rica has something to say and we can make a lot of noise, if I may say Costa Rica has been quite active in sharing leading the process towards the adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We have been of course present in most of the assignment discussions, but now currently with discussions on artificial intelligence and how we are witnessing moments that are really breathtaking when you think about lethal autonomous weapons that we have no regulations and that currently are being used, how are we going to let artificial intelligence be able to determine the life or death of human beings by an algorithm right? So these discussions for us are quite important, and how to make sure that we regulate them that we always have human control on anything that has lethal capacity or any weapon whatsoever, because we also have weapons that are not necessarily lethal, but our aim is of course hopefully to get to disarmament, hopefully to work in a world that is free of nuclear capacity or weapons, and of course, making sure that whatever little capacity is always going to be used in a proportionate way and led by humans and not by artificial intelligence.
So thank you for that. I wanted to add a question, right now you'd be mentioning giving up the army this enduring peace, this peaceful society, the intentional choices of prioritizing social protection over other things, are prioritizing biodiversity, even making it an economic development drive. My question is very simple: where does this wisdom come from in the Costa Rican people?
Well, that's a difficult question, I don't think I have a correct or an answer, even if there is a correct answer to that. There are a lot of elements that are part of the Costa Rican culture we say in Spanish I don't know how to say it In English, I think part of it was to be the smallest and the poorest column in the Central American region, so all the habitants that were there, even the Spanish or the descendants of the Spanish, had to work very hard because despite our name Costa Rica, the “Rich Coast” , there were not plenty of natural resources. We didn't have gold, we didn't even have high numbers of indigenous populations that were used as workforce, so we really had to work hand by hand. Everybody in the country I think that one important factor was also the investment in education from early ages and investment in the occasional women. Recently in the mission, we unveiled a room full of pictures of Costa Rican women, we are celebrating in 2021 the vice centenary of our independence and in that context, we decided because we were tired. In my mission. I have only women and we were a little bit tired of always going to rooms full of portraits of men, so we decided why don't we put forward an idea of highlighting the contributions of Costa Rican women and it was quite an interesting exercise because we thought that it was going to be difficult to fill the room and now we have a list that is endless and indeed women that have made great contributions to the country, and I think that is also due to the occasion, as I was saying, but it was real participation of women. Although we got the female vote in 1948 as well so not very late, but not very early we have invested in human rights and I think that is central. Our Constitution recognizes not only human rights, but that human rights are above anything else. So, for instance, human rights instruments, international instruments are above the Constitution. So if there is a conflict between our Constitution and an international treaty that is more protective of human rights, the highest protection will apply, and our courts have played also a fundamental role. We have a very strong division of power. Every country has a problem of course. I'm not saying that everything is perfect, but we do have a system of strong division of powers and our courts have played a fundamental role in making sure that human rights are respected in the country. So we've grown with that. I sometimes laugh because in my international work when you come to learn from different realities and from really difficult challenges that people face. You know, like I mean from health coverage to registration at birth, sometimes it's very difficult for a Costa Rican to understand because we have always had that for us. Sometimes people take it for granted because no child will be unregistered in Costa Rica. We have now the discussions like confidentiality of use of data. In Costa Rica we have one identity number that is your identity number for everything, your ID, your passport, your driver's license, your Social Security number. You are I am XXXX since I am born until I die and we trust that the system is not going to misuse our information and actually we're quite comfortable. I'm like, yeah, I know my number, I don't need to find the document or. But this is the kind of trust that we have and I know that this is challenging in many societies, right? People is very reluctant to share information or to do the state monitoring what you do for us is like, “please do it.” It's very easy we have a very strong, and this is also something that helps us in Costa Rica. We have a very strong supreme electoral body that oversize all the process of national elections and that also gave us. But I don't know, I mean I frankly, this is a very difficult question I don't know how or where Costa Rica got this. But it's true that even for me that I've lived outside Costa Rica for more than 20 years now, when I go back I feel this “OK, this is coming home.” This is other kind of spirit, it's not only the pace, but is how nice people can be, how peaceful, how kind and we do that. It's natural, right? It's a kind of a code. My husband is from Spain and he normally says when you get into Costa Rica you switch your code and you enter into Costa Rican mood and I hope that people can come and enjoy our mood.
Indeed, thank you so much. Let's move to the third part of our conversation, which is about Costa Rica in the UN. We look at Costa Rica in the region, Costa Rica in the world, the wisdom of Costa Rica. Costa Rica in the UN As many more countries in the UN as a voice, as an impact, and perhaps you may tell us a little bit more on that kind of impact and also the assessment that you make as a nation of being a member of the UN. You joined the UN in November 45 right at the beginning and served on the Security Council three times since then, which is quite remarkable. It is important and remarkable. And you're a country of high commitment to multilateral. You said it yourself, but there are facts to prove that, for example, you went on to establish and host the university for peace since 1980 if I'm not mistaken. You're home to the Inter American Court of Human Rights. And on top of this Costa Rica has been a longstanding promoter of dialogue, mediation, peacebuilding, and, you know, sort of harmony and dialogue among people you've known for that. So, going back to the questions I wanted To ask you what is your assessment today of disputants of Costa Rica in the UN?
Well, a very very very positive one. As I said at the beginning, for a small country like Costa Rica, multilateralism is the answer, is the only way. We cannot solve all the global problems that affect us. We will have no voice, no platform, no space for discussion if it wasn't for multilateralism, for the UN, and the regional spaces that we have. We are truly committed and we truly believe in the advantages we have benefited from the technical assistance, from the responses that are emanating from the multilateral system in any area, in the Sustainable Development Goals, in human rights, all the human rights machinery that has been adopted by the UN in disarmament. So frankly speaking, Costa Rica, as you mentioned, has also been able to play a leadership role in many of the processes which is also a fantastic opportunity for our country to try to export our experience. Perhaps this wisdom that you have, I don't know that you have named wisdom, but I don't know, but our Costa Rican approach, our vision and our experiences, it is the way in which we can share that with the world and say “look” to other small nations you know, we love to discuss about triangular cooperation, South-South cooperation “Look, this is a way that we have been doing it.” It's very interesting because of course one thing of the big processes. But there are also many small processes in which we need support. We have a very beautiful experience. Costa Rica had a great scientist. And that is the thing that I didn't mention. We have invested a lot in science and research. But we had a fantastic science Clodomiro Picado and he started to develop antivenoms for snakes because at the time when he was leading a Research Center in Costa Rica he started to receive quite a lot of number of patients that were bite, by snakes, and it was quite a challenge because of course not only they died, but they also acquired different conditions and they were hurt etc, etc. So he started to develop and he became the Costa Rica has one of the major centers of research and development of antivenoms and we made a great effort to have snake bites recognized as one of the tropical neglected diseases at WTO. But that also meant not only increasing visibility to this worldwide, but also strengthening our potential to cooperate with other developing countries that are facing this. Because for big Industry it is not attractive to produce this kind of therapeutics. There's not enough market for it, but yet there is a lot of people suffering the consequences of snake bites, so we produce. We even have people all around the world sending us samples of venoms to the center so that we can develop them the antivenom. But this is all part of or our presence. Now we have in WTO as well. We let and this is important because we face this pandemic, the COVID pandemic. But we you know we are going to continue to face pandemics and we know that we were not exactly prepared for COVID and that we need to be better prepared. So Costa Rica has an app initiative that is a repository in which all countries can share knowledge, know-how and intellectual property on vaccines, therapeutics, medicine treatments, so that anyone can use it. It's open source. It's voluntary licensing, but is to say, OK, we have to operate under the principles of equity, solidarity, non-exclusiveness so that all of us, all the world can benefit from what we have discovered will help us to combat the health crisis. And that is part of what we do. And of course we can only do that because we are part of the system, because we are part of a multilateral discussion and that happens with peace, and you have the examples that are more, I mentioned the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, but it’s in the beak and is also in the small and so for us is the greatest opportunity of taking our ideas out of Costa Rica, but also bringing the best of the ideas of the world into Costa Rica.
Which could be Just another definition of multilateral. That's precisely what multilateral does for small countries especially for Costa Rica, but small countries that seem to be more aware and more conscious of that, and thank you for bringing that up. And actually, if we stay for a moment on this dimension of being a small country in global diplomacy. It is said very often the small states benefit from membership in international organizations but they need to make efforts to maintain a strict focus on some objectives just because there's more. And you are actually mentioning a wide variety of matters in issues in which Costa Rica is either leading or really part of global efforts to come to solutions. So how does this relate to your diplomatic work? Not only is the PR you are but diplomatic. the Foreign Service of Costa Rica, how basically, can you distribute your resources across so many places being a small country?
Yeah, that's a fantastic question and yes, we do have to prioritize. I have colleagues that asked me how do you do? I mean I see Costa Rica all around and frankly speaking I think it's not that we are all around that we are quite strategic on the priorities we choose. We try to really find those spaces in which we can contribute the most, where we have something to contribute, or those that are quite important for us in general, right? Because they are important to move an agenda, an international agenda that we are committed to. The process of making the priorities is not an easy one, because here just in Geneva to receive thousands of invitations and I'm not of course exaggerating. Every day my inbox is full of consultations, processes, dialogues. And all of it is really interesting and really important, And it's really sad that I don't have the power of cloning, and have you know, five or ten attending the different activities. But then you really need to make an effort to say, well, I need to concentrate and I need to know, you know, for us all the work on climate change, climate action is fundamental, the work on disarmament is fundamental, the work on human rights is fundamental, mobility of people is fundamental. And then This is our basis. If we have a little bit more of time or this happens often, there are lots of issues that of course are interlinked. Then we try to find also those places where the issues cross and there we can contribute right? We can discuss about the impact of climate change and human rights. We can discuss about disarmament and development. It's there also where we can contribute. But it's a difficult exercise. We are very little foreign service, and we struggle. We struggle with human resources, with financial resources. We are not that kind of a mission that has an expert for each organization in Geneva, which is sometimes this kind of luxury. And then sometimes I see my experts say “No but the expert of these and these are saying all of these”, and I cannot, we cannot cope, we cannot accompany that. But then I said, well, we are not here to provide that detailed level of content. We are here to strategically see and seize the opportunity to make a difference for countries like ours. That is the wisdom and that is not always evident or easy and sometimes you miss opportunities, of course.
Before we start wrapping up the episode, I wanted to dig a little bit deeper in the area of peace and disarmament. Now we know of course, you renounced your army back in the 40s, but we also know that you are a strong example of enduring peace as a society, as a nation, as a multilateral actor in your region and in the world. Peace is also considered a human right protected by your constitution. So there is a constitutional right to live in peace in your country, which is very important and sort of interlocked with this culture, of not having a standing army, this culture of ensuring the well-being of society as a whole. So my question to you is given this stance on peace as a pillar. How does this influence you view of multilateral and collective security in the multilateral sphere?
Well, that is a difficult question. If I have to be very honest, sometimes in Costa Rica we just don't understand conflict. We don't understand the increased investment In nuclear weapons. We don't understand how is it that we don't have enough money in the world to combat climate change, but we are building, buying and strengthening our military industry. So that for us is perhaps what we put into the table. It really doesn't make sense that an autonomous lateral weapon can just kill 5,10 kids and then says that is collateral damage. It really cannot happen anymore. So this is for us, we don't have a political agenda on this. It’s a human rights agenda, I will say right? So we come upfront with nothing too high to say “this has to stop” and it's interesting because you mentioned we had this very short but cruel civil war that we lost more than 2000 people in a month basically. And I mean that has created a foundation of saying “this cannot happen again, not ever again.” We didn't fight in the big World wars, but we have that and it's just, it's that I mean for us it's like “This has to stop. This doesn't make sense.” We have resources to end poverty, to support people, girls, boys, to strive to make sure that people with disabilities have the support that they need to lead fulfilling lives, to avoid discrimination against African descendants, to really advance and making a world in which each human being can strive. So why are we spending our resources and making sure that we can kill each other and we can control each other? I think that that is and this is a personal note in my comment. I think that we need to see more women in power as well because women leadership is transforming, and will the final transformation. I think that the transformative change that we are awaiting will come with more participatory governance, hopefully led by women, and by those that have been traditionally being marginalized.
And this is a fantastic way to go to the final part of this podcast, where I like to ask our guests if they have final thoughts. This sounded a lot like a perfect final thought so I would like to thank you so much for having been with us today and for having enlightened us and our audience on the values that keep your country leading in so many areas that are so important on the global scene and in multilaterals in general. Dear Ambassador, thank you so much.
No, thank you, my pleasure. Thank you.
We hope you enjoyed this conversation with Ambassador Catalina Devadas-Aguilar, in conversation with Francesco Pisano. You'll find links to resources in the show notes for this episode if you'd like to learn more about Costa Rica and follow the mission on social media. If you like this conversation, we'd love it if you could take a moment subscribe, rate, and review us over an Apple, Spotify or Podbean, and don't hesitate to share with us your ideas for future episodes. Until next time, take care.