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Global good Samaritans? Human rights foreign policy in Costa Rica.

When and why do certain states help to promote and enforce human rights at the global level? As the constructivist approach suggests, for global citizen states the principled pursuit of human rights is not exceptional altruism, but rather a consciously constructed alternative pathway of national interest. Costa Rica's record of human rights influence in multilateral institutions and processes is enduring, multifaceted, and contributes to globally significant initiatives. Yet Costa Rica did not require wealth or power to afford the luxury of pursuing a principled foreign policy. National identity and international society--interpreted and developed by policymakers--produced a meaningful and surprising contribution to global human security by a country at the periphery of global governance. KEYWORDS: human rights, foreign policy, constructivism, norms, international society.

Human rights is our national interest.
--Costa Rican Foreign Ministry official

When and why do certain states help to promote and enforce human rights at the global level? Although states are more often the targets than the advocates of human rights criticism, some states do support human rights in global institutions and project human rights in their foreign policies. Their influence can be critical for framing and ratifying treaties, creating and staffing multilateral institutions, monitoring and sanctioning offenders, assisting victims, directing resources, implementing peace processes, catalyzing transnational initiatives on emerging issues, and introducing new understandings of rights to the global agenda. (1) How can we explain this positive form of global citizenship?

Are "global good Samaritans" unique altruists or proponents of a more enlightened and collective form of national interest? A long-standing tradition of foreign policy analysis explores the influence of political culture and national identity on state behavior, but in this approach altruistic norms generally compete with more structural national interests. (2) At the regional level, hegemonic powers promote democratization and human rights in the Americas with an uneasy blend of power and principle that aspiring peripheral promoters of human rights must navigate. (3) The constructivist approach to international relations can help to reconcile the seeming contradiction of the rules of realism in the political culture approach and to situate regional dynamics in a broader framework of the interactive constitution of principled politics. In a constructivist perspective, global citizen states consciously construct an alternative pathway of national interest. State identities are constructed in relationship to international society, in a path-dependent process of historical branch points and investments. These identities then shape foreign policies as they filter perceptions, construct foreign policy roles, build constraining international and domestic institutions, and provide principled rationales and domestic constituencies for political leaders. (4)

Although a more detailed argument for this construction of principled national interest is presented below, it is immediately reflected in the self-understanding of policymakers. Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry officials spoke of human rights promotion pragmatically as a source of "moral power," "comparative advantage," and "long-term security" in the international system. As one official put it, "The promotion of peace in Central America, environmental conservation, human rights, and democracy all make the world a better place--and that makes the world better for Costa Rica." (5) Officials do not make the more straightforward and externally rewarded claim that they are altruists--or the domestically legitimate claim that they are nationalists--but rather consciously adopt a synthetic alternative.

In this study, I analyze the record, sources, and rationale of Costa Rica's human rights foreign policy. Although assessing the motives for policy is inherently difficult, a combination of primary and secondary documents with "process tracing" through interviews can help chart the cognitive map that guides policymakers. Participants' claims regarding incentives and influence must be examined critically--but multiple perspectives, consistency of accounts with behavior and over time, and consideration of available alternatives can help to bolster the reliability of self-reporting. (6)

First, I examine Costa Rica's international human rights record. Then, I assess the blend of structural and constructed sources of a positive policy of human rights promotion: from small power status or small-sized states, to domestic democracy, to social democratic ideology, to regional niche. Finally, I consider the lessons the experience of this principled peripheral state may offer for good global citizenship in other beleaguered regions. The ability of global good Samaritans to reconstruct rather than contradict national interest means that state promotion of global human rights may be an option for many more members of the international community. It also implies that the international human rights regime can be strengthened further at the interstate level, alongside the struggle for the democratization of global governance.

Costa Rica: "The Little Country That Could"
 Our foreign policy is like the bumblebee--it's really too heavy to
 fly, but the bee doesn't know this, so it just keeps moving its wings
 and stays in the air anyway.
 --Ambassador Rodrigo Carreras, former vice-minister of foreign

Costa Rica qualifies as a "global good Samaritan" because its record of human rights promotion is enduring and multifaceted, and it makes a meaningful contribution to globally significant initiatives. A recent foreign minister underlined the centrality of this role: "The policy of promotion and respect for human rights and democracy is not only internal but has become the active, constant, and priority goal of Costa Rica's foreign policy in the major international organizations." (7) Among other initiatives heavily influenced by one small country, Costa Rica played an important role in the establishment and activities of the UN Human Rights Commission--and two generations later, campaigned successfully for the establishment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Costa Rica was a key sponsor of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (which greatly strengthens monitoring capabilities) and of the path-breaking Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities. At a regional level, Costa Rica crafted a peace process to resolve three civil wars and promoted and continues to host the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS). As the comparative study of human rights and foreign policy cited above suggests, Costa Rica's influence in multilateral institutions follows the pathways outlined for other human rights promoters; such states help to create institutions, frame treaties, implement human rights policies, and introduce new understandings of rights to the global agenda.


Costa Rica was an early and active advocate of global institutions, serving as the cochair of the London preparatory conference for the San Francisco meeting that founded the United Nations itself. Costa Rica's first ambassador to the UN, Fernando Soto Harrison, was vice-president of the founding Human Rights Commission (Soto Harrison often presided--since the official chair was also the prime minister of New Zealand, who was distracted by national responsibilities). Soto Harrison, who had been involved in the establishment of Costa Rica's Supreme Electoral Tribunal--a path-breaking domestic democratic institution--worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt to draft core procedures and documents of the human rights regime. Costa Rica's Soto Harrison recalls that small countries were assigned to the seemingly insignificant Third Committee but were determined to use the emerging institution as a platform for a broader global vision of promoting principles. (8)

Costa Rica was a founder of the UN Children's Fund and the first country to sign the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. In the same year, Costa Rica's long-standing diplomatic advocate for human rights, Fernando Volio Jimenez, became president of the UN Human Rights Commission. Costa Rica consistently sought election to this body and held a seat in 1964-1967, 1975-1977, 1980-1988, 1992-1994, and 2001--an unusual span for a single small country. Costa Rica used this position actively. In 2001, for example, Costa Rica proposed three important initiatives in the commission: a global campaign of human rights education, an Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and an improved system of information gathering by UN bodies for country reports on human rights (more studies, interagency collaboration, and wider coverage). (9) During one of the "lulls" in commission membership, 1988-1990, two Costa Ricans headed the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (Luis Varela and Jorge Rhenan Segura), and they remain active in this priority policy area.

Costa Rica helped create the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (established in 1995), which was based on an initial proposal introduced by the indefatigable Fernando Volio Jimenez in 1965 and renewed at periodic intervals. Costa Rica's campaign for the new institution resumed in 1980 but gained critical mass in 1993, when Costa Rica hosted the Latin American regional preparatory conference for the Vienna World Human Rights Conference. Then foreign minister Bernd Niehaus, UN veteran and minister of justice Elizabeth Odio, and former Human Rights Commission representative Jorge Rhenan Segura exercised multiple levels of diplomacy--and Costa Rica's influence was magnified when it was designated vice-president of the Latin American regional caucus at the Vienna conference itself. (10)

In parallel fashion, Costa Rica has helped to construct the Inter-American Human Rights System, which is among the strongest regional regimes, and has served as an advocate for human rights treaties, institutions, and enforcement within that system. Costa Rica played a key role in establishing both the Inter-American Court of the OAS and the independent Inter-American Institute of Human Rights and now hosts both institutions. Costa Rican president Trejos Fernandez initiated the 1969 San Jose (Costa Rica) conference that drafted the hemispheric keystone--the American Convention on Human Rights--and Costa Rica's foreign minister chaired the historic conference. Costa Rica was the first country to ratify the convention and the first to accept the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the subsequent Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Costa Rica was one of the founding members of the (Washington-based) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1960, and Costa Rican Angela Acuna Braun was one of the seven original commissioners. Fernando Volio Jimenez also served on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in between his human rights work at the UN and domestic posts in Costa Rica. (11)

In his 1978 inaugural address, Costa Rican president Rodrigo Carazo Odio offered Costa Rica as the site for a regional human rights court. Costa Rica's foreign minister then initiated a resolution in the OAS to host the court, which was approved at a meeting chaired by Costa Rica's ambassador to the OAS. The following year, Costa Rica's OAS delegation helped to draft and lobby for a budget for the new court. Costa Rica secured a special session of the OAS to designate judges and proposed two of the initial seven jurists (Rodolfo Piza, Costa Rica's former UN ambassador, and U.S. legal scholar Thomas Buergenthal--who had worked in and with Costa Rica for many years). Costa Rica was the first state party to submit a case to the court (1981). In 1988-1995, Costa Rican law professor Sonia Picado became the first female judge on the court and was a particularly active presence in inter-American jurisprudence. Picado took on contentious cases and increased the enforcement power of the court. (12)

Although the Inter-American Commission provided monitoring and the Inter-American Court provided enforcement, hemispheric activists and scholars envisaged a third pillar for the emerging human rights architecture: an inter-American institute for human rights research, education, and promotion. OAS judge Thomas Buergenthal discussed his vision, modeled on the Rene Cassin Institute in Strasbourg, with Costa Rican colleagues Sonia Picado, Rodolfo Piza, Fernando Volio Jimenez (then at the University of Costa Rica School of Law), and Elizabeth Odio (at that point, minister of justice and acting foreign minister). This network crafted a new institution, and in 1980, Costa Rica signed an agreement with the OAS to host the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights. Since 1987, Sonia Picado has directed the institute, expanding its mission to include election monitoring and substantial technical assistance to emerging democracies. (13)

In 2000, Costa Rica introduced a set of ambitious proposals to strengthen the inter-American human rights institutions. The Ad Hoc Working Group on Human Rights met in San Jose, with Costa Rica as its secretary. This group recommended a bigger budget and permanent sessions for the court, independent standing before the court for victims (via an Optional Protocol), and enhanced enforcement of court decisions through linking sanctions by the OAS political institutions. When Costa Rica served as president of the OAS Permanent Council, the small state used its influence to get the Judicial and Political Affairs Commission to set aside a week for the Costa Rican institutional reform proposals and arranged a technical coordination and planning summit between the Inter-American Court and Commission with the OAS Administration and Budget Committee. (14) The Inter-American Court and Commission have begun to hold periodic joint sessions, including a special session on human rights and terrorism, in Costa Rica in August 2002, as discussion of structural reform continues.


Costa Rica's campaign for the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which was adopted by the UN in December 2002, attests to the significance of the country's multilateral initiatives. As Costa Rica's minister of justice, Elizabeth Odio pushed for the establishment of a working group to draft an optional protocol--a body she was designated to head once it was established a decade later. After consultations with the International Commission of Jurists and sympathetic European ambassadors in Geneva, Costa Rica presented the proposal--mandating periodic inspection visits to detention facilities--to the UN Human Rights Commission. Costa Rica then lobbied its hemispheric neighbors through the regional UN grouping of Latin American and Caribbean states (GRULAC) and sent diplomatic notes to the embassies of its fellow members of the Human Rights Commission. Costa Rica maintained leadership of the working group for most of the 1990s: Jorge Rhenan Segura chaired in 1992-1994, Carlos Vargas Pizarro chaired in 1995-1998, and in 1999, leadership returned to Elizabeth Odio. Costa Rica is widely recognized as the leading state in this successful campaign to implement a key measure that enhances the protection of fundamental human dignity. (15)

At the same time, Costa Rica has also advanced numerous human rights initiatives in the OAS. When Fernando Volio Jimenez served as Costa Rica's foreign minister (1982-1986), Costa Rica presented resolutions for an additional protocol on social and economic rights to be added to the American Convention. Costa Rica also helped sponsor an inter-American declaration on the rights of prisoners, a resolution on the rights of migrants, and the 1999 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As president of the OAS Permanent Council, Costa Rica sponsored meetings with Costa Rica's Ministry of Justice and the UN Crime Prevention Unit to contribute to the prisoners' rights declaration. (16)

A notable Costa Rican initiative that demonstrates the role of small states in catalyzing new issues is the inter-American disability rights convention. In 1994, Costa Rican OAS official Hermes Navarro del Valle presented the convention. Navarro worked closely with his former law professor Rodrigo Jimenez Sandoval, who was president of Costa Rica's Federation of the Disabled and an officer of Disabled Peoples' International. Sonia Picado supported the proposal through the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, and by 1995, the OAS had created a working group to study the measure. In 1998, Costa Rican Jorge Rhenan Segura (formerly of the UN's human rights subcommission) became president of the working group. By 1999, the disability rights convention had passed. And of course, Costa Rica was the first member state to sign it. (17)


Costa Rica has a long-standing tradition of support for human rights enforcement and the promotion of democracy and peace in the hemisphere and beyond. As a measure of general human rights promotion at the global level, in the year 2000 alone, Costa Rica cosponsored thirty-four thematic and country-specific human rights resolutions in the General Assembly and voted for seventy, while cosponsoring an additional forty-five measures in the UN Human Rights Commission. (18) The culmination of Costa Rican diplomacy for democratization came in 2001, when Costa Rica hosted the thirty-first meeting of the OAS General Assembly, whose special theme was human rights. Costa Rica used this occasion to help sponsor the Carta Democratica, a regionwide system of reciprocal support for democracy and sanctions for its abrogation (such as a cut-off of Inter-American Development Bank loans). In the same year, 2001, President Rodriguez of Costa Rica proposed a similar democratic guarantee clause at the Summit of the Americas. Costa Rica also joined the subregional Rio Group in 1999 and became president of that institution in 2002. Through this group, Costa Rica coordinated efforts with Chile and Peru to promote the Carta Democratica and the Colombian peace process. (19)

Costa Rica's advocacy for the interlinked themes of human rights, democratization, and peace bridges the global, hemispheric, and Central American regional levels. Costa Rica's leadership in the 1980s Central American peace process garnered the Nobel Peace Prize for then president Oscar Arias. Costa Rica convened and brokered the only successful negotiations of the regionwide crisis, resulting in the Esquipulas accords that resolved civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. The Costa Rican peace plan provided for mutual disarmament of government and guerrilla forces; withdrawal of external combatants and UN peacekeeping; civil society commissions coordinated by the Catholic Church to guarantee peace and address underlying conflicts; and human rights accountability to the extent possible in each country.

The transition from the Monge administration (1982-1986) policy of "neutrality" and passive support for U.S. proxy wars to Arias's peace plan shows a conscious change to a risky policy of defiance of the hegemon and was based on a transformed vision of national interest. Arias had campaigned on a peace platform against an unpopular interventionist opponent, citing the impact of regional conflict on Costa Rica through loss of investment and a refugee crisis as the basis for a necessary new vision. He predicted a painful loss of U.S. aid but successfully rallied the Costa Rican public to absorb this sacrifice in the name of national values of peace, democracy, and regional self-determination. (20)

Since Oscar Arias left office, the Arias Foundation--a policy-oriented think tank similar in stature and orientation to the U.S. Carter Center--has followed up the peace plan with ongoing programs for demilitarization and democratization in the region. The foundation coordinates a network of dozens of peace, human rights, and development groups in each country. In 1997, for example, the Dialogo Centroamericano sponsored a study and workshops in El Salvador on reintegration of ex-combatants (who in many cases have continued to threaten public order). The Arias Foundation has commissioned and disseminated courageous studies of Guatemalan military spending and the military's business connections throughout Central America. (21)

The foundation has also spearheaded broader multilateral efforts for ongoing disarmament in Central America. The foundation's study, "The Invisible Arsenal," helped to frame regional arms trafficking as a concern of national police and foreign ministries--and to secure international aid. The Arias group then held training seminars with Central American police forces and conducted a study to compare UN and OAS standards to Central American national laws and mechanisms. As this brought state-level attention to bear, the network of experts, aid officials, police, and ministries approached the militaries in each country. (22)

In a few cases, Costa Rican influence has actually led to full-fledged demilitarization--following the model of Costa Rica's own definitive democratization concurrent with the elimination of its army in 1948. In the waning years of the Central American crisis and Arias's presidency, after the United States invaded Panama and defeated Manuel Noriega, Arias initially approached the new president of Panama as a neighboring leader and suggested eliminating its military, then returned as a private individual with international funding for a referendum in 1992 (not approved but influential via civil society). Two years later, Panama eliminated its army, assisted strongly by its peace-promoting neighbor. In Haiti, Arias persuaded the new reform leader Bertrand Aristide to demilitarize and hired a Costa Rican polling firm to gauge social support for the measure. The elimination of the Haitian army was announced at a joint press conference with Aristide and Nobel Laureate Arias. However, the structure of the Haitian constitution has required repeated ratification of this policy, and the prevalence of police and paramilitary violence in Haiti has limited the impact of demilitarization. (23)


During the 1990s, Costa Rica was also active on emerging human rights concerns and agenda expansion at the UN. In 1994, Segura proposed a Decade for Human Rights Education in the UN Human Rights Commission (1995-2004), which was inaugurated with a San Jose workshop. (24) In 1995, Costa Rica proposed expanding the membership of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. Costa Rica played a particularly active role in the UN Durban Conference Against Racism, partially inspired by the leadership of Vice-Minister Elayne Whyte--Costa Rica's first Afro-Latina foreign ministry official. (25) Costa Rica has been an active proponent of new multilateral mechanisms linked to broad understandings of human rights, including the International Criminal Court, the land mine treaty, attempts to limit small arms, and campaigns against child soldiers. (26)

Contradictions and Limitations

Although Costa Rica's policies have been positive on balance, it is important to acknowledge the contradictions and limitations of even this best-case human rights advocacy. Even principled proponents of Costa Rica's human rights policies acknowledge that their small agile statecraft has sometimes foundered on the shoals of realism. During the mid-1990s, Costa Rica aspired to greater levels of multilateral leadership--and traded off some human rights policies to achieve it. Between 1994 and 1998, Costa Rica campaigned for the vice-presidency of the UN General Assembly, the presidency of the G-77, and a seat on the UN Security Council and on the UN Human Rights Commission. During these campaigns, Costa Rica abstained on some human rights resolutions at the UN and specifically improved relations with the Philippines, Zambia, and Indonesia--ignoring generally acknowledged human rights concerns within those countries. While seeking a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission, Costa Rica voted for the chair of this body to go to the archviolator of human rights, Libya. Nevertheless, Costa Rica continued to regularly condemn Cuba despite skepticism regarding the U.S. promotion of such castigation from fellow nonaligned nations. And Costa Rica has never wavered in its idiosyncratic, historically based commitment to Israel, which is framed by Costa Rican policymakers as a principled defense of self-determination for the victims of the Holocaust, even though this stance has cost Costa Rica support in the G-77 and Non-Aligned Movement. More recently, and even more connected to power relations, Costa Rican president Abel Pacheco, in light of a pending trade agreement with the Northern hegemon, offered the United States support for the war in Iraq, despite widespread opposition among Costa Rica's traditional allies and general population. (27)

Lack of resources can also limit human rights policy. The human rights team of Costa Rica's Foreign Ministry consists of three or four individuals--only one specifically designated exclusively to human rights, therefore making it impossible to track all relevant developments, attend all relevant meetings and conferences, or even hold their own internally with the trade and regional integration offices. Government officials frequently hold simultaneous academic or even private posts, diffusing attention to policymaking. Costa Rica's foreign service--only recently professionalized--has held back policy learning and continuity until now, but the expectation is that future coordination and consistency will improve. (28)

Finally, Costa Rica's human rights policy is ironically clouded by one of its sources--the dedication of a small circle of key individuals. When human rights promotion is a source of domestic and international prestige in a small country with limited opportunities, internecine rivalries sometimes undercut the potential for international leadership. Multiple informants point out that in the 1990s, President Figueres Olsen failed to back Oscar Arias's proposed presidency of the OAS, in part because of a general downgrading of human rights diplomacy during his 1994-1998 term, but also in part from fear that the rival politico would use the international post as a launching pad to return to national power. (29) Similarly, anonymous sources describe how President Pacheco refused to support human rights superstar Elizabeth Odio's candidacy for the International Criminal Court because of personal motives--a decision so potentially injurious to Costa Rica's international prestige that elements in the foreign service broke ranks with the president to quietly secure her appointment as the first female jurist on the court.

These contradictions and limitations are real. But Costa Rica's overall record as a "global good Samaritan" is substantial and persistent. The sources of this positive role thus merit further analysis.

Human Rights as National Interest

Costa Rica's human rights policies result from a blend of structural opportunity, historical national identity, and continuing policy choice. Although Costa Rica has been blessed with a location and demography conducive to democracy, the decision to project democracy outward has been a strategy of a small, consensual political elite influenced by social democratic ideology, a fluid relationship with civil society, and a strong presence of women in foreign policy. Costa Rican policymakers constructed Costa Rica as a "global good Samaritan," an advocate and beneficiary of collective security, and a regional "island of peace." Furthermore, international promotion has in turn enhanced human rights at home.

Costa Rican Democracy: From Structure to Identity

The structural parameters permitting the development of democracy were Costa Rica's inconvenient location for colonization, sparse indigenous population, and lack of mineral or plantation wealth, which produced light colonial settlement and the development of agricultural production by independent smallholders rather than large labor-exploitive plantations. The relative dispersion of agricultural wealth meant that slowly emerging elites had to negotiate political arrangements more widely among themselves, while Costa Rica's colonial-era backwardness reduced conservative church and military presence. Furthermore, Costa Rica fell to the fringes of U.S. attention during its formative years. (30)

Within this broad latitude for political development, Costa Rican leaders made a series of democratizing and internationalist policy choices. Early presidents, who were often teachers or jurists with European education and aspirations, established the region's first universal primary education (1869), abolished the death penalty (1882), allowed legitimate political competition (1889), and established the first international court (1907-1918). Labor rights and universal social services were introduced early in the twentieth century as a conscious strategy to modernize the country and later to cope with the Depression. Even before its midcentury regime change, Costa Rica had securely institutionalized basic human rights and civil liberties in its constitution. (31)

The resolution of Costa Rica's brief but bloody 1948 civil war enshrined democracy as a national identity, much like in postwar Germany. The war ended with a pact declaring Jose Maria Figueres founding president of the second republic, who in turn abolished the military. A national constitutional assembly established an electoral tribunal as an independent fourth branch of government, reformed Costa Rica's judiciary to separate legal investigations from law enforcement, and granted several state and civic institutions autonomy--including the University of Costa Rica. (32)

Value Promoters: From Structure to Agency

The agents of reconstruction of national interest were charismatic leaders with big ideas and a committed cadre of diplomats, all of whom were anchored by a highly sympathetic, attentive public. Costa Rica's small political elite increases the scope for policy choice and leadership and ensures an extensive circulation of like-minded policymakers across relevant posts. "Small is beautiful" for principled foreign policy because it creates tight networks, easy access, and a bipartisan consensus. Thus, Soto Harrison, reflecting on his half-century of foreign policy service, concluded that this has knit together Costa Rica's policy choices: "There has always been a consensus among the political factions in Costa Rica over human rights ... the differences between administrations were not over human rights or democracy." (33)

Foreign policy in Costa Rica is initially framed by presidential prerogative; men of vision disposed Costa Rican internationalism at critical junctures. By 1943, Jose Maria Figueres had published a republican manifesto, Ideario costarricense (Costa Rican plan), and urged the creation of a "Caribbean legion" to spread democracy throughout the region. Former foreign policy vice-minister Rodrigo Carreras recalls that Figueres, his childhood "uncle," was inspired by the utopian vision of H. G. Wells of a society without an army. (34) Soto Harrison knew and admired Eleanor Roosevelt, before arriving at the nascent UN with unusual latitude from his president in the founding period of the organization. (35) Oscar Arias is the scion of highly influential and unexpectedly progressive wealthy coffee planters, who reportedly became enamored of the British Labour Party during his European education.

Between trailblazers, within the broadly supportive parameters set by more routine presidents, career diplomats like Facio Gonzalez, Fernando Volio, Sonia Picado, and Elizabeth Odio pushed the human rights agenda and leveraged their domestic political capital to promote progressive internationalism. The outstanding contemporary example, Elizabeth Odio, began her UN career on the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (1980-1983), then moved into a concurrent post as Special Rapporteur on religious discrimination (1982-1987). She had served as minister of justice of Costa Rica (1980) and was later elected vice-president. Odio then became a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and currently serves as a jurist on the new International Criminal Court. In between these posts, she was president of the United Nations Working Group for an Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (1990-1991).

Ideas gained further purchase, and civil society greater input, through the strong influence of academics on Costa Rica's foreign policy. The democratizing program Figueres followed in 1948 was largely crafted at the Center for the Study of National Problems. Once the University of Costa Rica (UCR) was established, it became the country's talent pool and source of expertise--particularly on legal matters. Assessing this relationship, a UCR law professor who served in several governments--including a term as minister of justice--asserted, "The [Costa Rican] legal system was formed by the UCR." (36) By the 1970s, the more professional-technical National University (UNA) had also developed an interest in human rights and later established a master's program in international relations with close ties to the foreign service. Many countries of Costa Rica's size and level of development are fortunate to have one university, yet Costa Rica has two high-level institutions that grant graduate degrees, including a law school at UCR that draws students from throughout the region. Sonia Picado met OAS judge Thomas Buergenthal when he was dean of American University and she was dean of UCR's law school. There is a strong affinity between Costa Rican academics and the dominant Partido Liberacion Nacional (PLN), a social-democratic party. This linkage is exemplified by leading academics, such as Sonia Picado and Luis Guillermo Solis, serving terms as party leaders and by the PLN hosting a concentration of international lawyers well suited for foreign policy posts.

Although foreign policy is usually the policy area most insulated from social influence, Costa Rica's foreign policy makers work closely with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The Arias Foundation is "first among equals" in this regard: setting regional security agendas; jointly administering programs with state and foreign agencies; and harnessing state representatives to lobby for particular initiatives in multilateral settings. Former Arias program officer Carlos Walker recounts that he had "incredible access--we could call the Foreign Ministry and be sitting talking with someone two or three days later." (37) The Foreign Ministry consulted other NGOs for information on local human rights conditions to prepare reports mandated by international treaties and for briefings on global human rights problems and proposals that generally correspond closely with Costa Rica's eventual positions on these issues. Costa Rica's participation in the UN Optional Protocol to the torture convention, the OAS disability rights convention, and the Durban conference on racism showed particularly strong NGO influence. One indication that this is a principled rather than interest group relationship is the Foreign Ministry's fluid interaction with transnational and domestic human rights organizations. (38)

Costa Rica has gone even further to foster NGO participation and to promote democracy in global governance. Several days before the OAS 2001 meeting in Costa Rica, the Foreign Ministry met with a coalition of national and international NGOs and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights to prepare proposals. As the host, Costa Rica ensured that a broader group of NGOs were invited to OAS events, beyond the officially accredited list--a practice that has carried over into subsequent OAS meetings elsewhere. Within the interstate forum, Costa Rica made a commitment to present NGO human rights proposals, as it has continued to do in the OAS and other international institutions. (39)

Another aspect of Costa Rica's democracy that strengthens its human rights role is the strong presence of women as foreign policy makers. Women's education, social status, and political participation are generally higher in Costa Rica than in most developing countries and in neighboring countries. Women are particularly visible in academics and in the PLN, two notable sources of government officials. Costa Rica's electoral code mandates a gender representation quota of 40 percent for both political party posts and parliamentary tickets. Costa Rica has had female deputies, ministers, and even vice-presidents. (40) Within the Costa Rican government, women seem to be concentrated in rights-relevant posts. The Foreign Ministry's human rights director is a woman, the director of the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights was the first female dean of UCR's law school, and Costa Rica provided the first female judge on the International Criminal Court. Costa Rican women who are active in human rights policy attribute their focus on rights partially to their own experience of gender inequities. As Sonia Picado said, "Remember, my experience with human rights started with the fight for women's rights." (41)

Reconstructing National Interest

National interest is reconstructed as global interest through the introduction of norms that provide explanations, prescriptions, and bridges between power and principle. Internalized alternative national interest follows a constructivist logic of norms, in which actors seek guidance from roles and values in dialogue with calculation of material gains. (42) For example, when asked to explain recent decisions to promote new human rights agenda items and to invite NGOs to interstate bodies, a Foreign Ministry official replied, "Because we knew it was the correct thing to do." (43) Human rights norms are intertwined with national democracy through social democracy. Collective security and Costa Rica's regional niche allow a small, vulnerable state to "do well by doing good." These norms constructed in relation to international society serve to filter perceptions, construct foreign policy roles, and provide rationales for domestic constituencies.

On this basis, Costa Rica has made a continuous series of choices to use its scarce foreign policy resources to project democracy and human rights. As Soto Harrison put it, "I own some stock, and even if I am a minority shareholder, I always go to the meetings. Because even if you don't own much, if you are at the table they may listen to your ideas, and you may change the agenda. This is the same idea behind Costa Rica's international vision." (44)

Although political parties do not play any formal role in shaping Costa Rican foreign policy, the dominance of the PLN in most post-1948 administrations has provided a permeating ideology conducive to human rights promotion that shapes a sympathetic domestic constituency. The emphasis of social democracy on internationalism, universal human rights, and the peaceful resolution of political conflict reinforce historical Costa Rican values, and several generations of social-democratic governments have imbued these norms in the general public through civic education and political rhetoric. Grassroots Costa Ricans proudly claim democracy as "a question of [our national] culture" and a hallmark of national identity, and the term human rights is widely understood and supported as a national value--and even a self-proclaimed distinguishing feature from neighboring nations. Furthermore, PLN membership in the Social Democracy International has facilitated networks with European policymakers, who have consciously sought to balance U.S. influence and have provided aid in the region from the Arias era onward. (45)

On the external front, Costa Rica has made collective security work, so that multilateralism is seen as a source of security rather than a sacrifice of national self-determination. The small state appealed successfully to the OAS regarding border disputes with Nicaragua (including resolving a 1949 Nicaraguan invasion). Costa Rica has balanced military protection and independent principle in its relationship with the United States. And along with multilateral promotion efforts, Costa Rica has modestly diversified its security relationships and defense assistance away from the regional default mode of complete dependence on the United States--from UN aid for refugee resettlement, to OAS assistance for mine removals, to Spanish funds for community policing.

Costa Rica's resulting national identity as a global good Samaritan has been constructed in relation to other states, and reinforced by its regional niche (46)--as an "island of peace" in Central America. One reason Costa Rica hosts the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights is that it is safe, stable, and can even shelter participants from more troubled nations. In similar fashion, Costa Rica also hosts the regional offices of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, and the International Court of Arbitration. The presence of these institutions brings personnel, conference and tourist income, and reinforcement of internationalist and humanitarian values to Costa Rica. Peace pays--tourism is Costa Rica's leading source of income, and the safe, educated country has recently garnered significant high-tech investment. By the 1990s, some policymakers consciously sought to expand this role in response to chronic economic decline; they proposed making Costa Rica "the Geneva of Central America." (47)

Costa Rica's international legitimacy as a global good Samaritan has also given that country occasional autonomy from the U.S. pressures that unremittingly dominate its Central American neighbors. An experienced diplomat explains, "Although in fact Costa Rica almost always supports the U.S., it would be unpopular to say this. So we avoid it and label this as 'support for Western democracy and values.' But sometimes that makes a difference" (48)--especially at moments when U.S. policies contradict the democratic principles of the United States, international law, or U.S. domestic factions. Oscar Arias was "allowed" to pursue his peace plan and resist U.S. militarization because he had impeccable humanitarian credentials, good contacts with congressional Democrats skeptical of Ronald Reagan's policies in the wake of the Iran-contra scandal, and European support. (49) Costa Rica has criticized U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba in the UN and OAS--but Costa Rica has also maintained credibility and balance by criticizing Cuba's human rights record on numerous occasions. Costa Rica follows an independent line at the UN and has broken with the United States over principled issues such as support for the International Criminal Court.

Finally, human rights foreign policy deepens democracy in Costa Rica, as it brings international standards back home to bear on domestic behavior, which creates a "virtuous circle" for the external projection of domestic democracy and which reinforces the position of human rights promoters. Costa Rica has signed every major international human rights instrument, and (after initial delays due to understaffing) continual self-monitoring through the provision of mandated reports has resulted in some strengthening of human rights offices, domestic reform initiatives, and the identification of underserved populations. (50) The 1993 establishment of an ombudsman's office is described as an "internalization of international politics and domestic conscience," with an emphasis on fostering access to the legal system by two groups Costa Rica has advocated internationally--migrants and minors. (51) Similarly, after the self-scrutiny required for participation in the Durban racism conference in 2001, Costa Rica's president issued a formal apology for historical racism, and activism in UN and OAS indigenous rights declarations encouraged Costa Rica to include indigenous groups in its census and national registration process. (52) Following a UN resolution on religious discrimination, then foreign policy director Luis Guillermo Solis commissioned a study on religious discrimination in Costa Rica. (53) Responding to both global efforts for gender equity and its ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Costa Rica passed sweeping and regionally unprecedented equal rights legislation in 1990--which in turn strengthened the presence and potential of women as foreign policymakers. (54)

Globalizing Good Samaritans?

In this article, I have demonstrated that Costa Rica's human rights policy is a principled projection of norms through a reconstruction of national interest and international roles. Such activity as a global good Samaritan is unexpected and unusual, but it is neither inexplicable nor unique. Fixed legacies of small scale, dispersed wealth, visionary leaders, and generations of democratic institutions all contributed to Costa Rica's democracy and foreign policy--and they are not choices available to any country. However, systematizing these elements may permit us to identify nations that possess enough of these preconditions to exercise more positive policy choices. Furthermore, comparative research on other cases may identify additional structural elements or alternative historical pathways to global good citizenship, which can be generalized to stimulate underperforming members of the international community.

The other side of the story--Costa Rica's reconstruction of national interest--offers even more potential to improve global governance. The consciously chosen influences on good global citizenship--persuasion by ideas, openness to civil society, socializing participation in international institutions, dedicated diplomats, and alternative regional niches--are available in some combination to many states. All of these factors can be assisted externally, and all help to strengthen democracy at home and abroad. Above all, international advocates for human rights must encourage alternative constructions of national interest, rather than demanding unnecessary altruistic trade-offs.

The overarching theoretical message of this study is that constructed national identity is a real and powerful--but not immutable--influence on foreign policy. Costa Rica did not require wealth or power to afford the luxury of pursuing a principled foreign policy. National identity and international society produced a significant and surprising contribution to global human welfare by a country at the periphery of global governance. Costa Rica's democratic, internationalist political culture was made, not born. This means that other societies can be reconstructed in positive directions--but it also means that cultures of peace must be continually renewed.


Alison Brysk is professor of political science and international studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of The Politics of Human Rights in Argentina (1994); From Tribal Village to Global Village (2000); and Human Rights and Private Wrongs (2005). She is also the editor of Globalization and Human Rights (2002), and the coeditor of People Out of Place (2004). Her current project, "Global Good Samaritans," compares human rights promotion in Costa Rica, Sweden, and Canada.

1. David P. Forsythe, ed., Human Rights and Comparative Foreign Policy (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2000).

2. Thomas Berger, Cultures of Anti-Militarism: National Security in Germany and Japan (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); John Duffield, "Political Culture and State Behavior: Why Germany Confounds Neo-Realism," International Organization 53, no. 4 (1999): 765-803; Roland Ebel, Raymond Taras, and James Cochran, Political Culture and Foreign Policy in Latin America (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991); Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

3. Thomas Carothers, Aiding Democracy Abroad: The Learning Curve (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999); Michael G. Cox, John Ikenberry, and Takashi Inoguchi, eds., American Democracy Promotion: Impulses, Strategies and Impacts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Abraham F. Lowenthal, ed., Exporting Democracy: The United States and Latin America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); Mark Peceny, Democracy at the Point of Bayonets (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).

4. Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Friedrich Kratochwil and Youssef Lapid, eds., The Return of Culture and Identity in International Relations Theory (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1996); Paul A. Kowert, "Toward a Constructivist Theory of Foreign Policy," in Vendulka Kubalkova, ed., Foreign Policy in a Constructed World (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2001), pp. 266-287; Stephen Saideman, "Conclusion: Thinking Theoretically About Identity and Foreign Policy," in Shibley Telhami and Michael Barnett, eds., Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 169-200.

5. Interviews with Arnoldo Brenes, ministerial adviser, Ministry of Foreign Relations, San Jose, 2 June 2003; Carlos Cordero, director of multilateral affairs, Ministry of Foreign Relations, San Jose, 2 June 2003.

6. Alexander George, "Case Studies and Theory Development: The Method of Structured, Focused Comparison," in P. G. Lauren, ed., Diplomacy: New Approaches in History, Theory, and Policy (New York: Free Press, 1979), pp. 43-68; Jeffrey T. Checkel, "The Constructivist Turn in International Relations Theory," World Politics 50, no. 2 (1998): 324-348.

7. Ricardo Rojas, foreign minister, 1998-2002, quoted in Foreign Ministry Annual Report, Ministry of Foreign Relations, Memoria Anual, 2001-2002, p. 6.

8. Interview with Fernando Soto Harrison--ambassador to the UN, 1945-1946; U.S. ambassador, 1982-1985; OAS ambassador, 1982-1985--San Jose, 5 June 2003.

9. Roberto Rojas, "Los derechos humanos en la politica exterior costarricense," Revista Costarricense de Politica Exterior 1, no. 1 (May 2001); Bernadina Vargas Garcia, "La gestion del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto en materia de derechos humanos: Alcances y limitaciones (1987-1998)" (master's thesis, Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, Heredia, 2001).

10. Interview with Adriana Murrillo, Human Rights Department, Ministry of Foreign Relations, San Jose, 2 June 2003.

11. Jo M. Pasqualucci, "Sonia Picado, First Woman Judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights," Human Rights Quarterly 17, no. 4 (1995): 794-806; Manuel Ventura, "Costa Rica and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights," Human Rights Law Journal 4, no. 3 (1983): 273-281.

12. Ibid.

13. Interview with Sonia Picado, judge on the Inter-American Human Rights Court, (1988-1994), director of Inter-American Human Rights Institute (1984-1994), and U.S. ambassador (1994-1998), San Jose, 3 June 2003.

14. Leandro Despouy, "El papel de Costa Rica en el fortalecimiento del sistema interamericano de proteccion de los derechos humanos," Revista Costarricense de Politica Exterior 1, no. 1 (May 2001); Vargas Garcia, "La gestion del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto en materia de derechos humanos."

15. Vargas Garcia, "La gestion del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto en materia de derechos humanos."

16. Rojas, "Los derechos humanos en la politica exterior costarricense."

17. Vargas Garcia, "La gestion del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto en materia de derechos humanos."

18. Ministry of Foreign Relations, Memoria Anual, 1999-2000.

19. Ministry of Foreign Relations, Memoria Anual, 2001-2002; interviews with Carlos Cordero and Adriana Murillo.

20. Jeanne Hey and Lynn Kuzma, "Anti-U.S. Foreign Policy of Dependent States: Mexican and Costa Rican Participation in Central American Peace Plans," Comparative Political Studies 26 (April 1993): 30-63; Francisco Rojas Aravena, Politica exterior de la administracion Arias (San Jose: Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, 1992).

21. Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, Report on Activities, 1997-1999, Costa Rica, 2000; Arnoldo Brenes and Kevin Casas, eds., Soldiers as Businessmen: The Economic Activities of Central America's Militaries (San Jose: Fundacion Arias/COSUDE [Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation], 1998).

22. Interview with Luis Alberto Cordero, director, Arias Foundation, San Jose, 5 June 2003.

23. Interviews with Luis Guillermo Solis, Arias Foundation (1991-1994), San Jose, director of foreign relations (1996-1998) and chair of Partido Liberacion Nacional (2000-2003), San Jose, 6 June 2003; Carlos Walker Uribe, Arias Foundation (1995-2002), San Jose, 3 June 2003.

24. Ministry of Foreign Relations, Memoria Anual, 1999-2000; Vargas Garcia, "La gestion del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto en materia de derechos humanos."

25. Her appointment in itself signified the growing awareness of racism in Costa Rica, as blacks constitute a socially marginalized but numerically small and electorally insignificant population in the country.

26. Ministry of Foreign Relations, Memoria Anual, 2001-2002, passim; Elayne Whyte, "El valor de la diversidad: Antecendentes y reflexiones con ocasion de la Conferencia Mundial contra el racismo, la discriminacion racial, la xenofobia y las formas conexas de intolerancia," Revista Costarricense de Politica Exterior 2, no. 1 (May 2002); proceedings of the conference "Armas pequenas y livianas en Centroamerica: Dimensiones del control y la regulacion del trafico de armas para implementar el Programa de Accion de las Naciones Unidas," San Jose, Costa Rica, 3-5 December 2001.

27. Interview with Rodrigo Carreras, former vice-minister of foreign relations (1986-1990), director of Instituto Manuel Maria Peralta (Costa Rica's foreign service academy), and current ambassador to Nicaragua, San Jose, 9 June 2003; interview with Luis Guillermo Solis; Vargas Garcia, "La gestion del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto en materia de derechos humanos." Since Costa Rica has no army and limited economic resources, support for the U.S. campaign in Iraq was largely rhetorical.

28. Vargas Garcia, "La gestion del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto en materia de derechos humanos;" Jorge Rhenan Segura, "Costa Rica y su contexto internacional," in Juan Rafael Quesada Camacho et al., Costa Rica contemporanea: Raices del estado de la nacion (San Jose: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 1999).

29. President Jose Figueres Olsen was the son of founding father President Jose Figueres Ferrer but pursued a different agenda in several areas, including human rights promotion. In terms of potential rivalries with former president Arias, although Costa Rica's constitution historically specified no reelection, a recent reform permits former presidents to run again, and Arias is widely considered an active candidate.

30. John Booth, Costa Rica: The Quest for Democracy (Boulder: Westview, 1998); Bruce Wilson, Costa Rica: Politics, Economics, and Democracy (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1998). Although recent national scholarship suggests that Costa Rica was more socially stratified, more militaristic, and less educated than previously believed, revisionist accounts affirm that scarce labor and the relative weakness of entrenched oligarchies allowed an unusual latitude and incentive for gradual democratization. See Juan Rafael Quesada Camacho, "Evolucion a la Tica," in Quesada Camacho et al., Costa Rica contemporanea.

31. Daniel Masis Iverson, "Poder politico y sociedad," in Quesada Camacho et al., Costa Rica contemporanea.

32. Wilson, Costa Rica; Masis Iverson, ibid.; Cristina Eguizabal, "Latin American Foreign Policies and Human Rights," in David Forsythe, ed., Human Rights and Comparative Foreign Policy (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2000).

33. Interview with Soto Harrison.

34. Interview with Rodrigo Carreras.

35. Interview with Soto Harrison.

36. Interview with Hugo Alfonso Munoz, law professor, University of Costa Rica, and former minister of justice, San Jose, 4 June 2003.

37. Interview with Carlos Walker Uribe.

38. Interviews with Adriana Murillo, Arnoldo Brenes, and Carlos Cordero.

39. Interview with Brenes.

40. Manuel Barahona Montero, "El desarrollo social," in Quesada Camacho et al., Costa Rica contemporanea; Masis Iverson, "Poder politico y sociedad."

41. Interview with Sonia Picado; Pasqualucci, "Sonia Picado, First Woman Judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights."

42. Ronald Jepperson, Alexander Wendt, and Peter J. Katzenstein, "Norms, Identity, and Culture in National Security," in Peter J. Katzenstein, ed., The Culture of National Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), pp. 33-75.

43. Interview with Brenes (emphasis in original).

44. Interview with Soto Harrison.

45. Interview with Luis Guillermo Solis; Rhenan Segura, "Costa Rica y su contexto internacional"; Florisabel Rodriguez, Silvia Castro, and Rowland Espinosa, "El sentir democratico: Estudios sobre la cultura politica centroamericana (San Jose: Editorial Fundacion UNA, 1998).

46. Michael Barnett, Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

47. Interview with Luis Guillermo Solis, 6 June 2003.

48. Interview with Rodrigo Carreras.

49. Rhenan Segura, "Costa Rica y su contexto internacional"; Adam Isacson, Altered States: Security and Demilitarization in Central America (San Jose: Center for International Policy--Arias Foundation, 1997).

50. Vargas Garcia, "La gestion del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores y Culto en materia de derechos humanos."

51. Interview with Kathya Rodriguez, director of the Ombudsman's Special Protection Office, San Jose, 4 June 2003.

52. Whyte, "El valor de la diversidad."

53. Interview with Luis Guillermo Solis, 6 June 2003.

54. Rojas, "Los derechos humanos en la politica exterior costarricense."
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Author:Brysk, Alison
Publication:Global Governance
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Date:Oct 1, 2005
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