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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Big Questions about Little School

IN the past month, 339 people, including170 children, were killed in Russia in aseparatist demand for Chechnya independence;multinational talks on NorthKorea’s nuclear program were delayed;hostages from around the world werekilled in Iraq; and in El Rodeo, a rural areasouthwest of San José, 89 students finishedtheir first week of classes at the Universityfor Peace.Isolated near the end of a dead-endroad, at the top of a hill steeped in mysticism,where even stormy days are somehow,yes, peaceful, the world’s realitiesand humanity’s cruelties might easily beforgotten standing on the grounds ofUPEACE – until you enter the classroom.IT may seem like a joke that here, 15minutes from Ciudad Colón, and a worldaway from fighting in Sudan or humanitarianefforts in Rwanda, a group of men andwomen from around the world could hopeto put the end to the world’s hostilities.For many, it is the tranquility providedby UPEACE’s location that has for nearly25 years provided the inspiration necessaryto visualize solutions to what apatheticallycan be rationalized as human nature.Since its insecure beginnings of rotatingadministrations and one-week seminarson building peace, UPEACE is transforminginto a serious educational institution,attempting to fulfill the dream itsfounders envisioned and the mandatedemanded by its charter, created by theUnited Nations.The university now offers six master’sprograms, including International Law andthe Settlement of Disputes, PeaceEducation, and Natural Resources andSustainable Development.LIKE the conflicts the university seeksto resolve, this growth – and the fundamentalsof educating for peace in general –has faced controversy and sparked criticismin Costa Rica and abroad.Since U.N. secretary general KofiAnnan decided five years ago the university’sview from the hill must look beyondCosta Rica and Central America, to theinternational panorama, some have beenvocally opposed to the direction the schoolis taking.Courses to train military forces inpeacekeeping, in military-free Costa Rica,have been criticized. Accusations of lackof transparency and public responsivenesshave proliferated in the community.The university’s long-standing relationshipwith Radio for Peace International(RFPI) was abandoned in a battle thatseemed out of place in an institution basedon conflict resolution (TT, Nov. 14, 2003).“It is not so difficult to explain the suddenhostility when you consider thechanged direction of the university and itsincreasing commitment to training LatinAmerican military personnel, and growingaversion to close scrutiny by an independentorganization such as RFPI,”wrote former RFPI volunteer NaomiFowler in a Perspective article earlier thisyear (TT, Jan. 9).A scandal involving the EarthCouncil’s sale of government-donated landalso touched the UPEACE campus, as itinvolved some members of the UPEACEadministration (TT, June 4).DESPITE the controversies, and somemisconceptions, surrounding UPEACE,students are excited about the opportunitythe university provides.“Some of my friends at home haveasked if I’m learning which trees are theproper ones to hug, or how to sit in a circleand smoke pot. They are joking. But thereis not really a culture of peace in the(United) States and so they don’t reallyknow what to think when you talk about auniversity for peace,” said ReginaEddleman, an international peace and conflictresolution student from Texas.The school has faced challenges beingaccepted as a reputable institution, particularlyin the Reagan-Thatcher era of the1980s.“People would laugh, make fun of theconcept of peace. It was premature,” saidJames Wallerstedt, a former UPEACE volunteer.And still, even though students todayare taking the formalized study of peacedevelopment seriously, only 36 governmentsof 189 in the United Nations haveratified the university’s charter, accordingto UPEACE founder Robert Muller.The university also earned the reputationas a place where old U.N. and foreigndiplomats go to graze. The school hasgraduated no more than 200 students in itsfirst 20 years and boasted a five-to-oneteacher-to-student ratio at times.AS the U.N.’s only degree-grantinguniversity, some critics have challengedthese numbers as a waste of the university’spotential, prompting Annan’s 1999call for a dramatic reorganization of theuniversity.Since then, the university has createdits six master’s degree programs and lastyear graduated 62 students from 27 countries.Nevertheless, UPEACE may neverbe a traditional university campus –crawling with undergraduate and graduatestudents. According to George Tsaï,new vice-rector this year, UPEACE probablywill never have more than 250 students.Instead, the school has taken a differentapproach to spreading its theories andresearch. UPEACE professors are recordinglectures and compiling materials in an effortto produce packaged courses that can be distributedto universities around the globe.“It is important for people to begin tosee UPEACE as not just a little thing on ahill in Costa Rica, but as the corps of awhole program to get knowledge on peaceand conflict – real practical rigorous stuff,not just general willy-nilly – available allover the world,” said Rector Martin Lees.The Tico Times will explore these topicsand more through an in-depth series onUPEACE. The series begins this weekexploring peace studies. Part two willaddress the history of UPEACE. Part threewill look at the controversies that have surroundedthe university, and part four willexplore its future plans and goals.


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