The road to peace is often rocky and in the case of the University for Peace literally so. Situated about 20 miles west of Costa Rica’s capital San Jose, the United Nation’s shrine to that most elusive of global ambitions is perched some 800 metres above sea level at the end of a precarious, snaking and dusty road.

This article appears in the education supplement of the UK Guardian 09.12.08.

On the way there you pass through some of the most fabulous countryside Central America has to offer — not all of it uncultivated. Nicaraguan labourers lug heavy sacks of coffee beans under the blazing November sun while bus drivers must negotiate local kids on BMX bikes shepherding skinny cattle.


Eventually though the signs with the familiar UN blue-on-white lettering signify your arrival at the Universidad para la Paz, or UPEACE as its students and staff call it. Unseen exotic birds greet you with squawks as you step onto the grounds. The 300 hectares, donated by the Costa Rican government not long after the university was founded in 1980, contain some of the most pristine forest in Central America.

But if the landscaping is stunning the building is small as universities go. About 160 international students take an MA here in Peace and Conflict studies (cost $21,849) but although the canteen does a roaring afternoon trade nobody actually lives on campus. Some get the bus in from the capital, some commute from the sleepy town of Ciudad Colón at the foot of the valley while others elect to live a short walk down the road amongst the locals in the tiny hamlet of El Rodeo. Athena Stallcop is one of them. The 34-year-old Idaho native has just started her thesis and seems to enjoy the anachronism of carrying the name of an ancient warrior goddess in this paen to passivity. As we walk up to the small clutch of maisonettes where she and a few other UPEACE students live she asks if I want a mandarin and without breaking step casually grabs a perfectly ripe specimen from a tree. There are no kebab shops in sight and the closest pub is an outdoor bar on a horse ranch which is “almost never open”. Later on Athena shows me round the Student Union. It’s empty and bare save for the word ‘peace’ daubed on the wall in all the languages of the world. No beer kegs, no ripped seats, no posters for the Fantasy Role Playing society’s next meeting and above all it is — horror of horrors — spotlessly clean. “There’s a yoga club here and Tuesdays and Thursdays there’s meditation,” says Athena. This is a university for serious dreamers.

But fellow student Egyptian 32-year-old Bassem Sedra, is acutely aware of any charges of starry-eyed optimism: “I wouldn’t say so,” he says, “a lot of us have witnessed a lot of conflicts and that doesn’t make us idealists.” Athena agrees, it’s people from non-warring zones — North Americans and Europeans — who most need their outer sheen of naivete scraped off. However, “we do suffer from an incurable malady, hope” adds Bassem deliberately quoting Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Like most students at UPEACE Bassem and Athena want to continue to “promote peace” once they complete their studies, Bassem is leaning towards an educational role while Athena is looking for more practial work. However, when it comes to practicalities and conflict resolution you can’t avoid the thorny topic of when to use military force. It’s a question especially pertinent here in Costa Rica whose government constitutionally abolished its own armed forces in 1948. A fact which played a large part in the UN’s choice of UPEACE location.

For Bassem the issue is clear and he’s surprisingly candid about past shortcomings: “Sometimes you have to go for force. Like in Rwanda in 1994. I think the situation would have changed if they had used force from the beginning, That was one of the biggest UN failures. If we had intervened in Rwanda I would have called it a just war.” Athena is not so sure: “I hold to that Ghandian method of non-violence.” But when I mention that even Ghandi might have struggled in the hellhole that is today’s Eastern Congo she falters slightly: “Yes . . . and for Somalia you have to have peacekeepers and they do have to resort at least to defensive violence.”

Views on international conflict resolution and militarism are the bread and butter of the nine programmes on offer here but when it comes to office views UPEACE’s Rector John J. Maresca has a vista which would shame the most high-powered Manhattan mogul. Stupendous doesn’t come close. In the foreground the rolling ‘peace garden’ with busts featuring campaigners like Ghandi, Roosevelt (that’s Eleanor not Franklin), Henry Dunant (first winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace) and David Ben Gurion, forms a languid crescent around the front of the building. The hillside falls away steeply behind leading your eye across the valley and beyond. To the left somewhere lies the Pacific, to the right the Caribbean — “On a clear day you can see several volcanoes off in the distance. I have seen Toucans too”, says Rector Maresca.

In 2007 there were, according to the Heidelberg International Conflict Research Institute, 31 conflicts in the world with “massive” violence. So depending on your worldview the very existence of an institution dedicated solely to the study of peace is either blinkered optimism or a long-overdue antidote. But there’s no denying the way Costa Rica’s intoxicating culture of peace negates crude attempts at cynicism. As I prepare to leave this hillside paradise I remark on the silhouette of a dove painted into the very centre of the vast window. Another nod to the peaceniks? Mr Maresca lets slip a wry Texan smile: “This is just to keep the birds from flying into the glass.”


1 Comment so far

  1. Elizabeth Allee on December 10, 2008 2:47 pm

    Dear Mr. Coletti,

    I am a student at UPeace; I read your article, and I am disappointed. It does not look like you have fully done your research. Did you look into where UPeace graduates work after they receive their MA’s? Did you sit in on a class? Talk to students in different programs?

    Believe me, UPeace is not perfect. I will be the first to say it. But what we do have is 160 students from all over the world, from all different backgrounds: educators, hippies, diplomat’s children, military intelligence, social workers, and so on. And we all tap in to one another’s backgrounds, we work on learning in the real sense – the kind that leaves you with more questions than answers. The kind that shows you just how little you – and everyone else – actually knows.

    I encourage you to return, to follow up your story, and to get a better view of the real UPeace.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind