After the death of Alfred Nobel his vast wealth, which came from patents on destructive inventions such as dynamite, was left to be put into the creation of five prizes; chemistry, physics, medicine, literature and peace. On the 6th of October, the latter will be announced, and a new Nobel peace laureate will join the ranks of historic giants such as Malala Yousafzai, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King Jr., or Glasgow University’s own (First Baron) John Boyd-Orr.
The peace prize has a number of origin stories, one that it was out of guilt for Nobel’s part to play in the modernization of warfare, but it is actually more likely it came from his correspondence with the Austrian pacifist, and future peace laureate, Bertha von Suttner. The prize specifies that to be eligible, a recipient must have a monumental role in disarmament, peace negotiations (or congress), or the creation of “brotherhood” between nations.
Though its namesake is geared towards the seeking of peace, far too often we see the prize going to somebody, whose over arching life story is not filled with the flowers and rainbows of peace. Two main examples are those of the Nobel anointment of US President Barack Obama (2009), and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (1991).
The reaction to the awarding of Obama spoke volumes. He was given the award for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” as pledged through his historic ‘08 campaign trail. However, the truth is that he was awarded it by the Nobel panel in hope it would set him back on the right track after having quickly slipped from his campaign promises in the first year of his presidency. This was made public in the book Secretary of Peace, written by Geir Lundestad previous Secretary (and now director) of the Nobel institute.
Obama had pledged to reduce troop numbers in the Middle East, but between his election and the ‘09 award, troop numbers increased steeply in Afghanistan, going from 50 to 67,000. The prize (which Obama admitted was surprising) did not curb his troop deployment, which increased to 100,000 by the end of 2010. Even when He finally withdrew troops, it cannot be said that it was inline with trying to keep or create lasting peace.
It wasn’t until after the black ops lead assassination of Bin Landen (in neighboring Pakistan) that the Obama administration started the removal of troops in Afghanistan, removing 30,000 in break neck speeds, coincidentally in parallel to his 2012 re-election campaign, and despite Afghanistan having been described by UN reports as “incredibly unstable” and “lacking basic infrastructure for redevelopment”. The Nobel Prize didn’t only fail to move Obama’s position on troop deployment back to the hopeful minded candidate the world saw in ‘08, but it gave him a false authority on peace. Although I believe Obama to be a relatively humble man, a prize like that can give false confidence in actions, perhaps leading him to think; “If I remove troops from Afghanistan, my home nation will see me as a seeker of peace, but I may destabilize the region… I was given the peace prize to try move me to fulfilling the promises I made in my campaign… this action helps fulfil them.” That’s unlikely the process of thought he went through, but arguably the Nobel peace prize can very easily be used to internally justify taking the easier path if it somehow links with one aspect of peace but peace is neither easy or unidirectional.
The second case is that of Aung San Suu Kyi, who “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” in Myanmar (then Burma) was awarded the prize in ’91. She was only released from house arrest in 2010, 21 years after she’d been arrested by the controlling Military Junta. There is no doubt that she was a key cog in the democratization of Myanmar, and we are often happy when a democratic state is formed from a military one, especially when those revolting call for a non-violent movement, as San Suu Kyi did. However, the issues have come since she was released and helped with the rapid democratization over the past seven years, because although she called for a peaceful movement against the previous military ruling force, she has not, and apparently will not, condemn the systematic genocide and exile of the Rohingya Muslims from the region. It is a very complex situation, that I can’t possibly fully understand, or show all the sides together in this article, but there is definitely a massive issue when a state leader and peace laureate is allowing such atrocities and violation of people’s basic human rights, to go on in their own backyard. She was awarded it for non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights, but she completely is disregarding the rights of the Rohingyans.
The problem with the Nobel Peace Prize is not one of bad luck, but of a flawed system as it can only be awarded to those living candidates. The closest it got to a posthumous award was in 1948, when they declared there to be “no suitable living candidates” only weeks after Mahatma Gandhi was murdered. They left it free creating the year of the Missing Laureate, although other years it hasn’t been awarded, this was the only time that it had been done in respect of an individual’s work.
The fact it must be given to a living candidate means the non-political awards body becomes awfully political. As seen with Obama, they sought a way to push him on a peaceful political track, or with Aung San Suu Kyi, they awarded it because of the view of this person as a peaceful political prisoner, a position it is very easy to advocate for peace from, as Mandela had done before, but it’s a lot harder to strive for peace when put into a position of power, something that definitely differentiates the actions of Mandela and San Suu Kyi. It’s not what you say, but what you do that defines you.
If posthumous awards were introduced within the peace prize, the committee could truly look at the life time work of an individual, and make a well considered decision on if we should remember them as a true laureate of peace.
By Owain Campton