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Winners who disappoint

Dec 02, 2020
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Giving the Nobel Peace Prize to sitting prime ministers or presidents is inherently risky

When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a large-scale military offensive against separatists in the restive Tigray province, which led to the deaths of possibly thousands and forced tens of thousands to flee as refugees, a familiar disquiet arose across the world. Had the Nobel Committee made a mistake in awarding the 2019 Peace Prize to Mr. Abiy, who until last year was hailed as a beacon for democratising Ethiopia and befriending Eritrea? With ethnic tensions spiralling and Mr. Abiy resorting to violent means to manage the nationwide turbulence, was the Nobel Committee naïve in having so much hope in him?

Failing to live up to ideals

There was similar heartburn over President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia failing to live up to ideals. Mr. Santos won the Peace Prize in 2016 for ending the decades-long civil war with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas. Despite his image as a peacemaker, Mr. Santos’s presidency saw continuing paramilitary excesses and rampant human rights violations by agents of the state.

Likewise, when the Nobel Committee gave the 2009 Peace Prize to U.S. President Barack Obama, it proved a controversial choice. Shortly after receiving the Prize, Mr. Obama ordered an American troop surge in Afghanistan, deepening a bloody war. In 2011, he also backed a disastrous military intervention in Libya and subsequently abandoned it when there was chaos.

Yet another much-maligned Nobel Peace Prize winner is Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi. She was chosen in 1991 while in house arrest for her courageous activism against military dictatorship and her campaign for democracy. But once she assumed the title of State Counsellor in 2016 under a power-sharing arrangement with the military in Myanmar, calls for revoking her Prize echoed in international public discourse.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s decision to team up with the repressive armed forces and defend her government at the International Court of Justice against charges of genocide of the Rohingya triggered a global uproar. Several other awards heaped on her have lately been rescinded, with Amnesty International slamming her for “shameful betrayal of the values she once stood for”.

While there is no question that Mr. Abiy, Mr. Santos, Mr. Obama and Ms. Suu Kyi have disappointed legions of admirers, what is common to them is that they have been holders of executive state power. The very logic of raison d’etat pushes these personalities to work under compulsions and make compromises.

Mr. Abiy has justified his war in Tigray as part of the Ethiopian government’s “responsibility to enforce rule of law” and the writ of the state. Should his regime collapse, there could be anarchy or a return to the authoritarian ancien régime. Ms. Suu Kyi feels she has no option but to cooperate with the military if Myanmar’s democratisation transition has to eventually succeed. If she openly challenges the military in the transitional period or steps down on conscientious grounds, the dream of full transfer of authority to civilian leadership could be lost. Mr. Obama too rationalised his actions. He said that as “a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation”, he believed that “force is sometimes necessary”.

Unrealistic expectations

It is unrealistic to expect Nobel Laureates running government machineries to behave like saints. Giving the Nobel Prize to sitting prime ministers or presidents is inherently risky and these recipients should not be held to the gold standard of a Mother Teresa or Malala Yousafzai. If one adopts a less perfectionist lens, all the problematic Nobel Laureates have done some good and some harm.

Unless the Nobel Committee consciously avoids picking incumbent politicians altogether in the future, there will always be reasons to be dejected by such Laureates’ records in hindsight. Understanding them in their political contexts and in particular moments may help us reach a balanced final judgment.

Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs

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