In 2009, The Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee awarded Barack Obama, at that time the President of the United States for less than eight months, with its prestigious prize. Many, including some of Obama’s supporters, were of the opinion that he would have been wise to turn down the honor at such an early point in his presidency. Eight years later, the Obama term can hardly be seen as a period of peace and calm for the world and the president who had hoped to lay down the foundations for universal nuclear disarmament, instead committed in his second term to spending over a trillion dollars on renewing America’s nuclear arsenal. The announcement in Oslo on Friday that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is to be awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize is an ironic footnote to the Obama period and the increasing irrelevance of the prize.
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This hasn’t been a good year for the image of the Nobel Peace Prize. In recent weeks, as reports have accumulated of allegations of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, much of the focus has been on the 1991 Nobel peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, an admired political prisoner at the time of her award, today Myanmar’s State Counsellor (equivalent to prime minister) and denier of the Rohingya disaster. There is no precedent for a Nobel Peace Prize being stripped from a laureate, but Suu Kyi’s conduct has led to calls that the Nobel committee change its rule of awarding only living recipients and from now on award the prize posthumously.
But it’s not only the individual laureates such as Obama and Suu Kyi who have let themselves down. In recent years some of the organizations that received the honor have also not always proven successful. In 2013, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons received the prize, largely for its work in implementing the agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal. This year, it transpired that the Assad regime still holds considerable chemical stockpiles and has used sarin against civilians.
In 2012, the European Union was honored for its undoubtable contribution to ensuring peace in Europe since the Second World War (though this overlooked the more crucial role played by NATO), but in the five years since, the EU has been accused of enforcing drastic austerity measures on Greece and lost one of is central members in Britain’s Brexit.
Does the Nobel Peace Prize still promote the values that it was intended to? Seven years ago, the brave Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo received the prize – without a doubt a worthy laureate. However, it hardly helped the jailed Xiaobo, who remained imprisoned for his crusade for democracy until his death earlier this year. The Chinese government also punished Norway with a series of official and unofficial economic sanctions, making the prize committee, comprised of Norwegian politicians, aware of the potential cost of their decisions.
This year they have played it safe. There has been speculation in recent years that the Syria Civil Defense organization, better known as the “White Helmets,” who risk their lives to rescue civilians from bombed buildings in Syria’s war-torn region, would receive the prize. But that decision would have provoked the ire of Russia, which is behind many of the bombings, and has orchestrated a smear campaign against the White Helmets, branding them falsely as being Jihadi terrorists.
Another group mentioned as possible prize recipients in recent years have been the senior diplomats who negotiated the Iranian nuclear deal – former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. But it seems that Iran’s continuing support of the Assad regime’s mass-murdering of Syrian civilians has made that choice unpalatable to at least some of the members of the committee.
All things considered, giving the prize to the ICAN, a rather low-profile and ineffectual organization, was playing it safe. In principle of course, every right-thinking person would like to see a world without nuclear weapons. However, ICAN can hardly claim to any major success in this field. Its major achievement until now has been to lobby for a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons through the United Nations General Assembly three months ago. But while the treaty passed 122-1, none of the nuclear-armed countries took part in the vote and the treaty is no more than a declarative document, with absolutely no real power. The prize may have raised ICAN’s profile, but it brings a nuclear-free world no closer. The best the Nobel Peace Prize can aspire to nowadays is being uncontroversial.