Politicizing the Nobel Peace Prize

In this Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 file photo Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos makes the victory sign after voting in a referendum to decide whether or not to support the peace deal he signed with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, in Bogota, Colombia. Santos was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for his effort. (Ricardo Mazalan/AP Photo)

Every time a Noble Peace Prize is awarded, it is almost inevitable that the recognition be surrounded by some new controversy, and this year is no exception. According to a New York Times report, the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to President Juan Manuel Santos of Columbia last Friday for his attempts to negotiate a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), a fifty-year-old guerilla movement. FARC, once the militant wing of the Columbian Communist Party, has been declared a terrorist organization by both Columbia and the United States and is credited with countless crimes from kidnapping to terrorism. After four years of negotiations, FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez and Santos announced the peace agreement in August – but, just five days before Santos received his peace prize, Columbian voters rejected the agreement with a 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent vote.

Some critics have marked this as a failure for Santos, claiming that the Nobel Prize was awarded prematurely. They note that this year’s favorite for the prize, a volunteer search-and-rescue group in Syria known as the White Helmets, would have been more worthy recipients. Others argue that the prize will bring more attention to the efforts of the Columbian president and perhaps encourage voters to support the peace agreement. If this is true, then the prize could easily swing the vote enough to pass the agreement. However, the question now becomes not who should receive the Nobel Peace Prize, but what the purpose and responsibilities of the award actually are.

There is no question that the peace prize carries with it a great deal of political influence. According to Geir Lundestad, Secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 1990, when the Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi received the award in 1991, the result was that foreign powers such as the United States and the European Union turned their attention toward human rights issues in Burma. Similarly, when Bishop Carlos Belo and José Ramos-Horta received the prize in 1996, the conflict between Indonesia and East Timor was elevated to the national stage.

While the peace prize has proven to have positive political ramifications, the responsibility for peaceful politics lies with the parties involved and with foreign powers, not with the prize itself. To deliberately award the peace prize as a political tool is not only a misuse of the prize’s intended purpose, but also a disservice to other deserving peace activists. Take, for example, the White Helmets, who have contributed to peace by pulling victims out of rubble in Syria. Awarding the White Helmets the peace prize would likely not have had an effect on the conflict in Syria. Perhaps awarding the prize to Santos will. But to choose the recipient based solely on maximizing the political influence of the award does not respect the nature of the prize.

I am not claiming that President Santos is unworthy of the prize; in fact, his efforts to end fifty years of conflict in Columbia deserve great respect. The problem is in the intention. If the peace prize was awarded to operate as a tool to swing the Columbian vote toward the peace agreement, then it has been misused. Yet if the prize was intended to praise his accomplishments thus far, then the inevitable byproduct of political recognition is permissible.

However, it is essential that there be some genuine action toward peace to recognize. Otherwise, the results are controversies such as the 1973 peace prize, which was awarded to Henry Kissinger. According to a piece from The Atlantic, Kissinger was awarded the prize for his role in ending the Vietnam War, while it was later revealed that he was at the same time complacent in acts of war in Cambodia.

In the same way that the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics are awarded to individuals who have made great advances in their fields, the Nobel Peace Prize must be a prize first, and a political tool second. To deny peace activists and organizations the recognition they deserve in favor of treating the award as a means to some political end is both a disservice to the nature of the prize itself and to proponents of peace around the world.

Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.