A look at three leading contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Peace is its own reward” are the words of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most resounding symbols of peace, human rights and social justice. Every year the efforts of extraordinary individuals who changed the world are acknowledged. Since 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has promoted the virtues of peace and the selfless acts of individuals for the good of mankind.
So, it may come as a surprise to learn that Gandhi himself never received the Peace Prize.
Since it was first awarded, critics have challenged whether each nominee and laureate has rightfully met Alfred Nobel’s principles of national fraternity, abolition of warfare and peace promotion.
Of the 259 Nobel Peace Prize nominees this year, over 100,000 petition signatures supported the candidacy of U.S. soldier Chelsea (formerly known as Bradley) Manning for the release of controversial government files, diplomatic cables and brutal combat videos to WikiLeaks. But despite public applause for Manning’s military exposure of war crimes, she is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence over crimes of espionage, theft and fraud — which exposed certain non-peaceful actions of President Obama, who happens to be the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“On the world stage, acknowledging Manning’s acts could prevent a monopoly on cultivated ignorance,” said Merrill Aldigheiri, creator of a prominent Facebook page supporting advocating for Mannings nomination. “For the USA, knowing that a Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Obama, is jailing a new winner of this same prestigious medal would have to get people thinking. We need to stimulate critical thinking.”
This year brings the highest number of candidates ever, surpassing the previous record of 241 candidates in 2011. The list includes Myanmar President Thein Sein and the youngest-ever nominee, 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl shot in her head and neck by the Taliban while advocating for education and women’s rights.
Each year the committee and the world opinion struggle to find an ideal on how individuals should be selected that is free from the influences of power and national authority. But as stated in Nobel’s will, the acts of the deserving medalist must have in their actions “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
Candidates, courage and controversy
Many human rights groups feel Manning is a model for justice, both in terms of gender expression and equality as well as exposing government lies.
“Every president who wants to launch another war can’t abide whistleblowers,” said Norman Solomon, RootsAction co-founder. “They might interfere with the careful omissions, distortions and outright lies of war propaganda, which requires that truth be held in a kind of preventative detention.”
Solomon presented five thousand pages of Manning supporter’s signatures to the committee in Oslo, Norway. Although the petition was for Manning, her win could be seen as a vindication for fellow whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, who was a potential nominee this year, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a 2011 nominee.
“I think many people in Norway have some sympathy for the actions of Bradley Manning, and especially Edward Snowden,” said Asle Sveen, author of various Nobel Peace Prize texts and former Norwegian Nobel Institute Research Fellow. “However, it is highly unlikely that Manning, Snowden or Assange will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The members of the Nobel Committee are almost all former politicians who view the alliance and close ties between the USA and Norway as crucial for Norwegian security.”
In the eyes of some army veterans, Manning signed a contract to serve and protect the U.S. and broke it, while claiming the leaks of over 700,000 documents were “sloppy” and “foolish,” marking Manning as a traitor. Critics allege the leaks put ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in danger after classified material was released in one massive document dump.
When the Taliban located Malala Yousafzai, she was on her school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The Taliban opened fired on her and shot her in head and neck. Her crime was for advocating that girls receive an education — but perhaps more to the point for criticising the militant group in her online diary. Appearing originally on BBC Urdu, Yousafzai wrote under a pen name accusing the Taliban’s of imposing strict prohibitions on girls from attending schools in Pakistan’s northwestern Swat district.
On Jan. 3, 2009, she wrote
“I am afraid. I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taleban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.”
Pakistan ranks as the country with the second-most children not in school, with 23 percent of girls aged 3 to 16 not receiving education, according to the National Status Education Report for Pakistan last year. The majority of schools in the country are government institutions, but of those schools, 54 percent are boys-only, 30 percent are coeducation while 16 percent are girls-only, leaving a gap between the education of girls and boys in Pakistan.
Yousafzai was 11 years old when she started spreading her message in Pakistan, encouraging people to stand up against the Taliban in spite of the militia’s raids on homes for books and school materials. When they discovered her identity, the Taliban attacked Yousafzai last October, leaving her in intensive care at a Pakistani hospital until she was transferred to care in the U.K, where she now lives.
After a difficult recovery, Yousafzai continued her activism. In an address to the United Nations, she said, “The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
Even a letter written to Yousafzai from a senior Taliban commander doesn’t seem to change her stance either. Rather than criticizing her education efforts, the note said, “The Taliban believe you were intentionally writing against them and running a smear campaign to malign their effort to establish an Islamic system in Swat Valley, and your writings were provocative.”
According to Sveen, Yousafzai’s presentation and work in the U.N. “has increased her candidacy for the Peace Prize, despite her young age. She has obviously grown into a role model for young people — here in Norway especially for immigrant girls from Muslim countries.”
An online petition for Yousafzai helped push her nomination by the Canadian Federal Party, which was encouraged by Canada-born Pakistani writer and activist Tarek Fatah. Having already received awards including Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize, there is worry that this spotlight might make her a bigger target for groups affiliated with the Taliban and that the award, despite her worthiness, may be too burdensome for a young girl.
Some question the nomination of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) President Thein Sein. Many recognize the nation as a whole has improved relations with the international community since Sein took power in 2011. His reforms include scaling back repressive laws, releasing thousands of political prisoners and making steps to diminish internal conflicts.
But with Sein’s background in the country’s military junta, he is still viewed as a consort with militia leaders who broke down democratic uprisings. Today Myanmar;s government is accused of taking part in incitement against local Muslims, including allegedly providing fanatic Buddhists with petrol containers to torch homes of Muslim villagers in June, adding to the thousands seeking refuge in camps after riots in March resulted in dozens of deaths as Buddhists burned Muslim homes, mosques and schools.
Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) placed Sein on his shortlist along with five other Nobel Peace Prize recipients. Sein is the fifth selection of the group for “spearheading a gradually evolving peace process in the country,” including reconciliation with the junta opposition National League for Democracy, despite his military ties.
According to PRIO, “the committee has often insisted that the prize is not to be for saints only, and has in recent years been particularly eager that it makes a difference in processes unfolding, even if that may carry high risk.”
Is this a new shift away from initial aims of Alfred Nobel? In such a large nomination pool, are individual’s most recent activities toward peace, rights and reconciliation more important than widespread opposition and a violent past?
The nominations unfold
The current members of the 2012-2014 Norwegian Nobel Committee are Thorbjørn Jagland, Kaci Kullmann Five, Inger-Marie Ytterhorn, Ågot Valle, Gunnar Stålsett and Berit Reiss — Andersen, the first four also having served the 2009-2011 term.
When deliberation of nominees takes place, Geir Lundestad, Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and Secretary of Norwegian Nobel Committee Awards Prize said reports from academic and international experts are what lead up to the final decision announced in October.
For petitions like the one for Manning’s nomination, it is “perfectly legitimate to submit signatures of support for candidates of the Nobel Peace Prize. This happens every year and some of these campaigns can be really comprehensive,” Lundestad said.
Although Solomon collected over 100,000 signatures for Manning, Lundestad said other campaigns for peace prize nominees have had more than 200,000, with the record being 750,000 signatures for one candidate who did not get the award.
For many of Manning’s supporters, the award would mean a big comeback on Obama’s win in 2009, when he was honored the prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Then only about eight months into his presidency, some argued Obama’s record was unproven.
From the time Obama was in office ,the number of troops deployed to Afghanistan were and remain the highest since 2001. Between 20,000 and 35,000 troops were deployed through 2005-2009, but troop levels peaked at 100,000 in 2011 before decreasing to 60,000 today, according to the Brookings Institution Afghanistan Index.
CIA drone strikes in Pakistan were also highest during those years. From 2004 through 2008 there were a total of 49 strikes, but from 2009 to 2013 there have been 322 strikes documented by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Manning supporter Aldigheiri feels that a presidential pardon from Obama is deserved, but even if the award is honored to Manning while behind bars, she wouldn’t be the first laureate to accept it while detained.
Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the prize in 2010, is a Chinese activist for constitutional freedoms who spent 20 years fighting for a more open and democratic China. Arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 11 years in prison for his manifesto advocating shifts toward democracy in the country, the government called him a dissident, but the Nobel committee saw him for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.
In 1991, the prize was awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest in Myanmar by the regime. A founder of the National League for Democracy opposition and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, she nonviolently urged military leaders to leave power in the hands of a civilian government for aim of an established democratic society and free ethnic groups from oppression.
Of all the Nobel Peace Prize laureates, only 12 are women, making a case for supporters who say it’s Yousafzai’s time.
But no matter who wins the award this year, as nations and systems change and as revolutions unfold, defining the most prominent peace endeavours will be hard to judge.
“We start of course with Alfred Nobel’s will,” Lundestad said. “He mentions three criteria specifically in his will — fraternity between nations, reduction of standing armies, the holding of peace conferences — but these three criteria have to be interpreted in the light of today’s situation, and that is what the committee is trying to do the best it can.”