Analysis

And the Nobel Prize for Good Intentions Goes To...

Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos was a safe choice; choosing Syrian rescue workers or Greeks who assist refugees would have been a lot more contentious.

A volunteer holds up a baby as others help migrants and refugees to disembark from a dinghy after their arrival to Lesbos, Greece, November 25, 2015.
Santi Palacios, AP

Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, is a worthy winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on a peace deal to end the bitter decades-long guerilla war with FARC rebels. But seeing that the Colombian electorate this week voted against the deal in a referendum, the prize could best be judged as one given for a work in progress. 

The decision to recognize Santos’ work to bring peace to his country was surprising to some, given the public’s rejection of the peace deal, though with a tiny 50.2 percent majority. While it does not invalidate Santos’ work towards resolving a conflict that cost the lives of over 200,000 Colombians, the deal – which would have disarmed FARC and brought it into legitimate politics – is still in jeopardy. 

As it has many times in recent years, the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee awarded a prize for good intentions, rather than for lasting peace. In many ways, the Nobel Peace Prize has become more of an ironic statement than an actual achievement. 

In 2013, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received the prize, only months after the Assad regime gassed 1,400 people to death in a suburb of Damascus. Chemical weapons in various forms continue to be used in Syria. And just last week, Amnestry International published a detailed report on the recent use of chemical weapons by the Sudanese government. 

In 2012, the European Union received the prize, in recognition of its central role in ensuring peace and prosperity in Europe in the six-plus decades following World War II. But the EU is now in its deepest crisis yet, contending with rampant immigration, stagnant growth and, for the first time. the departure of one of its members, Great Britain. Far from an instrument of peace, it is today the object of deep controversy and uncertainty as to its future role.

Other Nobel Prizes in recent years have been purely aspirational. The most notable was the one awarded to the then-new U.S. President Barack Obama, solely for his having changed the discourse of the Bush years. But, with the Obama years now coming to an end, it is clear that though he withdrew most of America’s ground troops from Iraq and Afghanistan he has hardly succeeded in bringing peace to those countries, which are still torn by fighting. Meanwhile the U.S. has remained on the sidelines as the worst episode of bloodshed in this century continues in Syria. 

And then, of course, there was the 1994 Nobel, awarded to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat for the Oslo accords, now in their 24th unsuccessful year.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos addresses the media in Bogota after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
John Vizcaino/Reuters

Santos was considered a leading contender for the Nobel before the results of the referendum appeared to dampen his prospects. Of the other leading candidates mentioned in the press, the smart money was on the residents of Lesbos and neigboring Greek islands, who over the last two years have borne much of the pressure in welcoming and helping the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees smuggled across the Aegean Sea from Turkey. 

But while their work surely deserves praise, the prize committee may have thought that in a crucial period for Europe, when each of its governments, and the European Union as a collective, are struggling with their own immigration policies, Norway included, making an outright statement of compassion and openness toward refugees, could be a bit awkward for all concerned. 

For the second consecutive year, the main players involved in reaching last year’s nuclear deal between the international community and Iran were also in the running. U.S. State Secretary John Kerry, his colleague Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, their Iranian counterparts Javad Zarif and Ali Akbar Salehi, as well as EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini were all mentioned as possible recipients for their role in the Iran deal. But with thousands being slaughtered monthly by the Assad regime in Syria, with Iran’s active support, any mention of Iran in the context of the Nobel Peace Prize would likely have been met with an outcry.

Many in the West had hoped that Syria would nevertheless be on the agenda in Oslo, with the prize going to the Syrian Civil Defense Group popularly known as the “White Helmets”. Despite the group being touted as the favorites by some sources following the result of the Colombian referendum, it seems that the Norwegians, who have their own troubles with a resurgent Russia on their borders, may have felt it a little too provocative towards President Vladimir Putin. 

The White Helmets, who risk their lives daily to dig victims from the rubble left by Russian bombing of Aleppo and other civilian areas in Syria, are currently being portrayed as “terrorists” and stooges of “regime change” hawks in Washington by Russian media and pro-Russian propagandists in the West. Though they deserve every recognition for their work – and the mass-murder of civilians in Syria by the Assad regime and its Russian allies should be in the headlines a lot more than it is – giving the prize to the White Helmets may have been seen as a step too far for the Norwegian committee. 

Syrian civil defense volunteers, known as the White Helmets, work around destroyed buildings following airstrikes on rebel-held Douma near Damascus, Syria October 5, 2016.
Sameer Al-Doumy, AFP

Do the Nobel Peace Prizes do anything? Do they actually promote peace, or are they just consolation prizes given for good intentions and hard work? 

Some observers of the Colombian peace process worry that the prize may not help Santos achieve a peace deal. The 50.2 percent of Colombians who voted against the deal this week could resent what may be seen as foreign interference. There was an expectation that FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timochenko, would receive the prize alongside Santos. Perhaps one of the reasons he missed out was not to further enrage the Colombians currently opposed to the deal. 

Even so, winning the most prestigious prize in world politics may do Santos’ legacy more harm than good.