Costa Rica in an evolving international system: security challenges and the priority of environmental protection

After the 44-day civil war that broke out in the country in 1948, Costa Rica has enshrined in the Constitution the abolition of the army as a permanent institution. Since then, a peaceful approach to security has developed, shaping the international stance of the country with regard to regional and neighboring countries. Moreover, the issues of sustainability and environmental protection have consistently emerged both as means to ensure Costa Rica’s economic stability and to grant nationals the highest possible standards in terms of health and biological diversity.

Facing border disputes without an army: Costa Rica’s peaceful approach to security

The foreign policy of Costa Rica has been and largely continues to be influenced by its domestic historical events. First of all, in 1948, José Figueres led an armed uprising in the wake of a disputed presidential election. With more than 2,000 dead, the 44-day Costa Rican civil war which resulted from the uprising was referred to as the bloodiest event in twentieth-century history of the country.[1] After the war, a junta was formed by the victorious group, and a new Constitution – later approved in 1949 – guaranteeing free elections with universal suffrage was drafted. Since then, a strong democratic presence was established in the country, and especially not only because of the creation of a constitutional assembly, but also because Costa Rica has not followed the potential race to a stronger role of the army as it could have been expected after a period of civil war, with a view to prevent a further change of power from opposing groups. Conversely, in December 1948 a decree from the government junta established the dismantling of the country’s armed forces. This was later reflected in 1949 in the newly approved Constitution, which at article 12 abolishes Costa Rica’s army as a permanent institution.[2] Notably, at the beginning of the Cold War as the world was getting more and more polarized and the army was employed by many countries as a way to control the population, Costa Rica decided not to have armed forces and to use them as powerful means to impose political decisions. For that purpose, political means and negotiations had thus to be engaged. Interestingly, in the bipolar era the tendency of countries was that of building stronger militaries to feel safe, which did not happened for Costa Rica, which could not therefore represent a threat especially for neighboring countries. In that respect, in the case of a foreign attack, not having an army even for self-defense purposes allowed the clear definition of the potential aggressor. Such potential aggression progressively started to manifest itself from the north, as bordering Nicaragua assaulted the country multiple times. In response to that, Costa Rica repeatedly invoked the Tratado Interamericano de Asistencia Recíproca (TIAR)[3] – similar to NATO’s founding Washington Treaty but applicable within the American continent both in the case of foreign aggression, and of aggression between the member States. More precisely, Costa Rica made reference to the TIAR in 1955 and later in 1978, not finding, however, application due to a successful political solution within the context of the Organization of American States (OAS). A further invasion from Nicaragua occurred again in 2010, thereby leading to the well-known dispute before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague. Precisely, the two countries are separated by the San Juan river which legally pertains to Nicaragua, but over which Costa Rica has specific rights of navigation, among others. However, the Nicaraguan army crossed over the area establishing a military camp, and no OAS solution was accepted by the invading country, which was therefore taken before the ICJ after Costa Rica filed the complaint.[4] Additional complaints have been presented during the next years too, particularly involving maritime and continental shelf delimitation.[5] A solution in international law was then found, testifying the commitment of the country to rely on the law of nations as a means to peacefully settle disputes. Overall, in spite of the abovementioned disputes a non-military approach to security was then developed in Costa Rica.

Environmental protection as a national priority

For decades, deforestation has been a serious problem in Costa Rica. Nonetheless, as of today 56% of the national territory results to be covered by forests, proving the efficiency of governmental strategies which were able to concretely halt inclinations toward tree clear-cutting. As a matter of fact, deforestation incentives for the expansion of the land available to livestock and subsequently for milk production were gradually removed in favor of the creation of national parks and protected areas, coupled with governmental subsidies destined to private landowners motivated to protect their national soil. A National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO) was therefore established, and several contracts signed with farmers allowed the latter to receive an annual amount of money for each quantity of hectares of land protected.[6] That program eventually resulted to be successful, and this effort additionally indicates the importance that issues as climate change, environmental protection and sustainable development have for the country and for its inhabitants, which is then reflected in Costa Rica’s foreign policy both at the bilateral and at the multi-lateral level with regard to climate negotiations.[7] Conversely, for what concerns domestic economic activities, environment is of paramount importance as well: eco-tourism – the main source of income of the country – has, for example, served as a further incentive to preserve national wildlife and forests, as tourists usually visit the country to admire its unparalleled natural ecosystem and landscape. In this regard, the national park system was developed starting from the 1970s, and a clear political strategy with regard to environmental protection – which involved legislation change as well – was implemented since then. What is more, Costa Rica appears to be among those very advanced nations which included the right to a healthy environment within the Constitution, which at article 50 provides all nationals with “the right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment. For that, they are legitimated to denounce the acts that infringe this right and to claim reparation for the damage caused”. For this purpose, protection of the marine environment is paramount both to the national policies and to the international foreign positioning of Costa Rica: indeed, the possession of extensive maritime zones in the Pacific led the country to join other regional powers to create protected areas as the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR),[8] and to adopt a specific stance with the International Seabed Authority for what concerns the extraction of natural and mineral resources from international seabed. In this regard, Costa Rica has been very active in pressing for the concession of extraction permits only by conditioning activities in international seabed to environmental clauses enshrined in regulations and mining codes of the Authority.

Old and novel challenges in a changing international order

Costa Rica has recently had to face a consistent influx of migrants coming from foreign countries, and especially refugees from Nicaragua. In most cases, migration has a strong link with working issues, as these generally come to Costa Rica to find better employment opportunities and then send money back home to sustain their families in Nicaragua. A starting date of this phenomenon can be traced back in 2018, at the time when the state of political oppression in Nicaragua began to significantly worsen. However, the consequences on Costa Rica’s security and national economy have been particularly wide, since public debt started to rise at the point of necessitating the country’s participation in a new International Monetary Fund lending program.[9] What is more, the Covid-19 pandemic brought relevant challenges to the country’s leading economic sectors, which extensively rely on tourism. In that respect, many businesses had to close, and other small and medium enterprises could not survive. For this reason, part of the difficulties Costa Rica had to face concerned the re-launch of the leading national economic sector through economic reforms, which gradually returned to normality after 2021, to decrease again after the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Indeed, the Ukraine conflict has indirectly affected tourism through increasing costs of travelling, and similarly prices for shipping and raw materials have strongly risen, with notable impacts on Costa Rica’s exporting capacities.


[1] M. Olander, Costa Rica in 1948: Cold War or Local War?, The Americas, vol 52, issue 4, pp. 465-493, 1996.
[2] UNESCO, Abolition of the army in Costa Rica. Available from:
[3]Organization of American States, Tratado Interamericano de Asistencia Recíproca , suscripto en la Conferencia Interamericana para el Mantenimiento de la Paz y la Seguridad del Continente, Río de Janiero, 1947. Available from:
[4] International Court of Justice, Certain Activities Carried Out by Nicaragua in the Border Area (Costa Rica v. Nicaragua), 2018. Available from:
[5] International Court of Justice, Maritime delimitation in the Carribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean (Costa Rica v. Nicaragua), 2018. Available from:
[6] National Forestry Financing Fund (FONAFIFO). Available from:
[7] Valentina Chabert, La Costa Rica verso l’abbandono completo dei combustibili fossili, Opinio Juris – Law and Politics Review, 18 August 2020. Available from:
[8] More information is available at
[9] International Monetary Fund, IMF Executive Board Approves a 36-month US$ 1.778 Billion Extended Arrangement under the Extended Fund Facility for Costa Rica and Concludes 2021 Article IV Consultation, Press Release no. 21/53, 2021. Available from:

Foto copertina: Costa Rica