Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The price of the Peace Prize

Oct 11, 2010

Nobel has little impact on world affairs, but offers respectability to causes, protection to recipients

By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

THE award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was greeted by the familiar collection of jarring noises.

The Chinese government duly condemned the award as an 'obscenity'. Predictably, Western governments welcomed the award. Commentators argued that the award will either promote human rights in China or, just as persuasively, precisely the opposite will happen.

But all available evidence suggests this peace prize, like others, will have scant impact on world events.

The supreme irony, of course, is that Alfred Nobel, the Swedish businessman who established the prize together with separate prizes for chemistry, physics, economics, medicine and literature, was hardly a man of peace. He earned his fortune after inventing dynamite - a powerful explosive - and ballistite, a smokeless gun powder. He was a major player in Europe's arms races, earning the nickname 'merchant of death'. Nobel's products helped kill millions of Europeans.

Nor is there any evidence Nobel himself anguished about world peace. His only demand was that Peace laureates should have 'done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses'.

For many years, the awarding committee - appointed by the Norwegian Parliament - stuck closely to this brief.

Some of the recipients sank without a trace, like novelist and pacifist Bertha von Suttner - briefly Nobel's mistress - who argued for disarmament, but died just as Europe's armies were preparing for World War I. British writer Norman Angell argued in 1910 that the globalisation of trade made future wars 'unthinkable' - but got the prize anyway even after his theory was exposed as nonsense.

Nevertheless, during a period of virulent nationalism, when pacifists were dismissed as misfits, the Nobel Prize advanced the idea that dialogue between nations could be just as noble as dying for one's country.

But after World War II, the Nobel committee began to stretch the meaning of its mandate by rewarding not only people who accomplished important deeds, but also those who merely promised to do so. The classic example is United States President Barack Obama, named last year's recipient two months after his election. As he admitted, his track record on promoting peace was precisely nil.

The Nobel Peace Prize committee has been notable in its omissions of awards. Mohandas Gandhi, the spiritual leader of non-violent resistance, never got the prize. Neither did Eleanor Roosevelt, a noted promoter of women's rights.

British prime minister Winston Churchill, hailed in 1945 as Europe's saviour, did not get the Peace Prize, but was bizarrely awarded - probably in recompense - the Nobel Prize for literature.

Nobel myth would have it that the prizes change history. But usually, it is history which buries the prizes.

In the 1920s, the Nobel committee repeatedly honoured politicians who worked for reconciliation between France and Germany; a decade later, the two countries tore Europe apart. US national security adviser Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart were honoured in 1973 for a peace agreement that proved a prelude to further war.

The Dalai Lama is, of course, still in exile. The Palestinians and Israelis are still fighting, decades after their leaders shared the prize. North and South Korea are still on war footing, despite the award for 'peace and reconciliation' to South Korean president Kim Dae Jung in 2000.

What the Nobel Peace Prize does offer is respectability for a cause, and personal protection for its recipient. The Soviet Union had to release physicist and dissident Andrei Sakharov from jail after he got the prize. The Iranians harassed lawyer and activist Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman laureate, but were careful not to harm her. While Ms Aung San Suu Kyi remains under arrest, the Myanmar government knows she cannot be touched.

China faces the same challenge. The political cost of keeping Liu in jail will mount rapidly; sooner rather than later, he will have to be freed, and the only question is whether he should be sent into exile or kept inside the country under strict vigilance.

The Chinese can also learn from this episode. No country welcomes an award to one of its internal critics. But drawing attention to such an individual once it becomes clear he is a potential prize candidate is about the most foolish thing to do. Yet, that was what China did.

Only a year ago, many other Chinese dissidents dismissed Liu as insignificant. But he was propelled to the top of the dissidents' list once he was sentenced to an unprecedented 11 years in jail last December.

The Chinese compounded their error by lobbying Nobel committee members against awarding the prize to Liu, emboldening the judges to do the opposite. Beijing's current threats against Norway are also counter-productive, for they reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of how Nobel Prizes are decided.

As Professor Kishore Mahbubani of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy remarked, it would have helped if, together with honouring dissidents, the Nobel committee also considered awarding its prize to someone like Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader who lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. That would have persuaded the Chinese that honouring Liu is not a patronising or hostile act against their country. But the prize committee works in its own mysterious and largely secret ways.

Still, when the furore dies down, Beijing will realise that, although newsworthy, the prize is just another award like the Oscars, flawed and ephemeral.

Whether Mr Liu goes on to become the martyr of China's opposition depends almost entirely on how he is handled by the Chinese government.

And whether China's political system ultimately changes is a matter to be decided by the Chinese, rather than a committee of middle-aged Europeans in Norway.


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