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An Interview With Costa Rican Lawyer Roberto Zamorra

Crusader for the Right to Peace

by MEDEA BENJAMIN

Sometimes it just takes one person with a creative mind to shake up the entire legal system. In the case of Costa Rica, that person is Luis Roberto Zamorra Bolaños, who was just a law student when he challenged the legality of his government’s support for George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He took the case all the way up to the Costa Rican Supreme Court—and won.

Today a practicing lawyer, Zamorra at 33 still looks like a wiry college student. And he continues to think outside the box and find creative ways to use the courts to fuel his passion for peace and human rights. 

During my recent visit to Costa Rica, I got a chance to interview this maverick attorney about his past victories, and his brilliant new idea to seek compensation for Iraqis. – Medea Benjamin

Medea Benjamin: Let’s start out recalling the key moment in Costa Rica’s pacifist history.

Roberto Zamorra: That was 1948, when Costa Rican President Jose Figueras declared that the nation’s military would be abolished, a move that was ratified the following year by the Constituent Assembly. Figueras even took a sledgehammer and smashed one of the walls of the military headquarters, announcing that it would be turned into a national museum and that the military budget would be redirected toward healthcare and education. Since then, Costa Rica has become renowned for its peaceful and unarmed neutrality in foreign affairs.

MB: So fast forward and here you are in law school, in 2003, and your government  joined George Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing”—a group of 49 countries that gave their stamp of approval for the invasion of Iraq. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart joked that Costa Rica contributed “bomb-sniffing toucans.” In reality, Costa Rica didn’t contribute anything; it simply added its name.  But that was enough to get you so upset that you decided to take your government to court?

RZ: Yes. Bush told the world that this was going to be a war for peace, democracy and human rights. But he couldn’t get a UN mandate, so he had to create a coalition to make it look like the invasion had global support. That’s why he pushed so many countries to join. Costa Rica—precisely because it abolished its military and has a history of peace—was an important country to have on his side to show moral authority. Costa Rica is listened to when it speaks at the UN. So in this sense, Costa Rica was an important partner.

When President Pacheco announced that Costa Rica had joined this coalition, the vast majority of Costa Ricans were opposed. I was really upset about our involvement, but I was also upset that my friends didn’t think we could anything about it.  When I proposed suing the president, they thought I was crazy.

But I went ahead anyway, and after I filed a lawsuit, the Costa Rica Bar Association filed a suit; the Ombudsman filed a suit—and they were all combined with mine.

When the ruling came out in our favor in September 2004, a year and a half after I filed, there was a sense of relief among the public. President Pacheco was depressed because he’s really a nice guy who loves our culture and he probably thought, “Why did I do this?” He even considered resigning over this, but he didn’t because so many people asked him not to.

MB: On what basis did the court rule in your favor? 

RZ: One of the most significant things about this ruling was that it recognized the binding character of the UN Charter. The court ruled that since Costa Rica is a member of the United Nations, we are under the obligation to follow its proceedings and since the UN never authorized the invasion, Costa Rica did not have the right to support it. I can’t think of another case in which the Supreme Court has annulled a government decision because it violates the UN charter.

The ruling was also extremely significant because the court said that the support for the invasion contradicted a fundamental principle of “the Costa Rican identity,” which is peace. This makes us the first country in the world to recognize the right to peace, something that was made even more explicit in another case that I won in 2008.

MB: Can you tell us about that case?

RZ: In 2008 I challenged a decree by President Oscar Arias that authorized the extraction of thorium and uranium, nuclear fuel development and the manufacture of nuclear reactors “for all purposes.” In that case I again claimed a violation of the right to peace. The court annulled the president’s decree, explicitly recognizing the existence of a right to peace.  This means the State must not only promote peace, but must refrain from authorizing war-related activities, like the production, export or import of items intended to be used in a war.

So this meant that companies like Raytheon, which had purchased land here and intended to set up shop, is now not operational.

MB: What are some of the other lawsuits you’ve filed? 

RZ: Oh, many of them. I filed a case against President Oscar Arias (the Nobel Peace prize winner) for authorizing the police to use military weapons against demonstrators. This case also went all the way to the Supreme Court and won.

I sued the government for signing the Central America Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA, which includes weapons forbidden in Costa Rica. I sued the government twice for allowing the U.S. military, under the pretext of the war on drugs, to play war games on our sovereign land as if they were a game of chess. Our government gives 6-month permits for up to 46 military vessels to dock in our ports, with over 12,000 troops and equipped with 180 Blackhawk helicopters, 10 Harrier II airfighters, machine guns and rockets. Everything on the approved list of ships, aircraft, helicopters and troops is designed and intended to be used in a war—a clear violation of our Right to Peace. But the court has not heard this case.

A big problem for me is that now the Supreme Court is not taking any more of my cases. I have filed 10 cases with the Supreme Court that got rejected; I have filed suits against Costa Rican police training at the infamous US military School of the Americas. This case has been pending for over 2 years. When the Court finds it difficult to reject one of my cases, they delay and delay. So I have to file suit against the court for delaying, and then they reject both cases.

I realize that I can’t use my name to file anymore, or even my writing style because they know my writing.

MB: At an international gathering in Brussels in April marking the 11th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, you came up with another brilliant idea. Can you tell us about it?

RZ: I was in town for another meeting of international lawyers, but the Iraq Commission organizers found out and asked me to speak. There was a brainstorming meeting afterwards and people were bemoaning the fact that the US does not follow international law, that it isn’t party to the International Criminal Court, that it will not hear cases related to reparations for Iraqis.

I said, “If I may, the Coalition of the Willing that invaded Iraq was not just the United States. There were 48 countries. If the US is not going to compensate Iraqis, why don’t we sue the other members of the coalition?”

MB: If you were able to win a case on behalf of an Iraqi victim in the Costa Rican courts, what level of compensation do you think you could win? And then wouldn’t there be another case and another case?

RZ: I could imagine winning perhaps a few hundred thousand dollars. Perhaps if we could win one case in Costa Rica, we could start the lawsuits in other countries. I certainly don’t want to bankrupt Costa Rica with case after case. But we have to look at how to seek justice for Iraqis, and how to prevent this sort of coalition from forming again. It’s worth a try.

MB: Do you think there is something that we could be doing in court to challenge drone killings?

RZ: Certainly. I think the people pressing the kill button should be held personally responsible for criminal acts because the drone is an extension of their body, used to perform actions they cannot do personally.

MB: There is also the fact that if an innocent person gets killed or hurt by a US drone in Afghanistan, the family is entitled to compensation from the US military. But that same family in Pakistan would not be compensated because the killing is done by the CIA. Can you see some legal challenge there? 

RZ: Victims of the same unlawful act should get the same treatment; I would think there would be a way to hold the government liable, but I don’t know enough about US law.

MB: Have you had personal repercussions for taking on such sensitive issues?

RZ: I have friends in the phone company who told me I was being tapped. But I don’t really care. What can they do if I talk on the phone about filing a suit?

Yes, you have to take risks, but you can’t be afraid of the consequences. The worst thing that can happen is that you get shot. (He laughs.)

MB: Why don’t more lawyers around the world challenge their governments in the creative ways you do? 

RZ: Lack of imagination perhaps? I don’t know.

I am surprised that so many good lawyers oftentimes just don’t see the obvious. I encourage students to be creative, to use international law domestically. It’s weird because nothing I’ve done has been extraordinary. These are not really great ideas. They are just a bit different, and instead of just talking about them, I move them forward.

I also encourage students to study a second profession so they start thinking differently. I studied computer engineering as my second major; it taught me to be ordered and structured in my thinking.

MB: I would have guessed that if you had a second major, it would have been something like political science or sociology. 

RZ: No. As a computer programmer you have to be totally focused–structured, ordered and deep. That is very helpful in the legal world. At law school students would hate to debate me. They’d try to move the discussion off track, to veer into a side issue, and I would always bring them right back to the core theme. That comes from my training as a computer engineer.

MB: I suppose another consequence of your work for peace is that you don’t make much money. 

RZ: Look at me [he laughs]. I’m 33 years old and I live with my parents. That’s how wealthy I am after 9 years of practice. I live simply. The only things I have are a car and three dogs.

I prefer to work by myself–no firm, no partners, no strings. I am a trial lawyer and make some money with individual clients, including labor unions. I make about $30,000 a year. I use it to live on, to try cases pro bono at the Inter-American Commission and to pay for international trips, like going to peace forums, world forums, disarmament conferences or the trip I made to Gaza. Sometimes I get assistance from the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.

I love my job because I do what I want to do; I take on the cases I am passionate about. I am fighting for my country and for my personal freedom. I don’t think of this work as a sacrifice but as a duty. If we want peace to be a fundamental right, then we have to institutionalize it—and protect it.

Medea Benjamin is cofounder of www.codepink.org and www.globalexchange.org, and author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.