The Nobel Peace Prize: well-deserved and no room for criticism

On Friday, the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai. It would be difficult to fault the Nobel committee for its decision and I have no intention of doing so. Both Satyarthi and Yousafzai are well deserving of the honours for their, as the Nobel citation reads,

struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.

And not just for that but also for their inspiring personal courage.

What is more, the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize jointly to Malala Yousafzai – a 17-year-old Pakistani Muslim – and Kailash Satyarti – a 60-year-old Indian Hindu – very much sets a sign.

The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism,

Thorbjorn Jagland, the committee’s chairman, said upon awarding the Peace Prize in Oslo.

However – at the risk of taking an unpopular stance here – despite the unquestionable importance of Satyarthi and Yousafzai’s common cause and irrespective of their incredible courage, one cannot entirely help thinking that the Committee’s was also very much a safe choice.

It is impossible not to agree that these are worthy laureates or that their struggle deserves all the recognition they are getting and have gotten in the past. It is impossible not to agree that theirs is a cause worthy of a Nobel. Yet the impossibility of faulting the decision is so conspicuous it is in itself noteworthy.

This year’s choice of laureates will not, as other choices might have, call into question “the independence of the parliament-appointed Norwegian Nobel Committee, which selects the winner.” Neither will it do anything to “rock US relations”, as giving the prize to Snowden and/or Manning would have. So as room for criticism goes, the committee has kept itself conspicuously safe from both the people who question its independence and the ones who it may not be quite independent from.

Granted, putting a strain on diplomatic relations by awarding the Nobel isn’t unprecedented – the Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. But the US aren’t China and Barack Obama himself is a Nobel laureate. So is the European Union. Arguably, at least one of these choices has turned out to be perhaps not the best one.

For Snowden or Manning to be awarded the Peace Prize was never likely. At the latest, this should have been obvious from the moment when Snowden was awarded the Right Livelihood Honorary Award, aka the “alternative” Nobel. Without seeking to diminish the significance of the award – which Snowden himself called a “vindication” – one could ask the question if perhaps this was just a little bit of an alibi award. And even if it wasn’t, the fact that Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt kicked up a fuss about Snowden potentially travelling to Stockholm to receive it, says a lot. Bildt declared himself “personally offended”. By contrast, there is probably not going to be much offence taken by anyone at the Peace Prize being awarded to two children’s rights activists, at least not in the so-called “Western” world (and if there is, that person is a moron).

Yet, Bildt taking “personal offence” (which is also moronic) at Snowden’s honours once again beckons the question of why so many people in so many governments still aren’t talking about how offensive indiscriminate mass surveillance is to us as citizens. Instead, governments at best let down and at worst demonise the people who made any such talk possible.

Awarding the Nobel to Snowden and Manning would have been a way of acknowledging the need for discussion, both nationally and internationally. It would have set a clear sign that in a day and age where governments keep calling for more spying powers rather than less and where the threats of terror organisations like ISIS (worrying though this is) are used to justify the infringement of people’s civil rights and liberties, we need at the very least to talk about whether or not we agree to surrender some or all of these rights and liberties in favour of security. The answer of this year’s laureates – who fight for basic rights and freedoms – to that question would probably be a clear and resounding no.

The Nobel Committee rightfully recognises the need to fight for such rights, yet at the same time fails to highlight the fact that having them does not mean that we cannot lose them again. It is a sad thing that while people keep risking their lives for these rights and liberties (and sometimes get duly recognised for that), others take them so much for granted that they allow them to be eroded at every turn. Snowden’s and Manning’s service is that they have made us aware of this. Sadly, many of us have yet failed to listen.

In the UK, there is little significant protest against the plans of the Home Secretary to increase surveillance powers – that is, protest is limited to the usual suspects. In Germany, the government is trying to curb parliamentary oversight and has recently found itself in dire straits after it emerged that its foreign intelligence agency (BND) has been cooperating much too closely with the NSA. Illegal things have happened. In the USA, a lot of surveillance is conducted without any significant oversight at all under Executive Order 12333. Yet, protest remains muted, government commitment to change or even an investigation into the violation of citizen rights even more so. Awarding the Peace Prize to Snowden and Manning may have sent a signal that we all seem to need: of the magnitude of what they have revealed. It might have forced us to look at violations that aren’t so obvious or happen so far away that awarding a prize for challenging them becomes an obvious, unfaultable thing to do.

Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarti are well deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize – that is out of the question. Yet while it is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge their struggle and to realise the importance of their achievements, the same cannot be done for those who highlight the shortcomings of nation states we already consider liberal, enlightened, and in possession of the rights these people are fighting for. It is a silence that resonates within the Nobel Committee’s choice.

Now, perhaps we should cut the committee some slack by assuming that all they were really thinking of was to rightly award the Peace Prize to two incredibly inspiring people who continue to fight tirelessly for an important cause. If that is the case, there is no faulting their choice of laureates. Even if it isn’t, there is no faulting the choice of laureates for the causes they stand for and the inspiring way in which they do it. Which makes it so hard to point to everything the choice isn’t saying. But ulterior motives or not, that silence is there.

Hopefully, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize can serve as a reminder that too many people still aren’t in possession of the rights and freedoms we take for granted. German Green MPs Katrin Göring-Eckardt and Anton Hofreiter called this year’s Nobel Peace Prize a “sign to us all to stand up for children’s rights worldwide”.

Let’s do that. But let’s not forget, either that we already have the rights others risk their lives for and that we must take care not to give them up without even noticing.


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