Last week, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 to two journalists, the Filipino Maria Ressa and the Russian Dmitry Muratov, “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression” in their two countries.
The Western media hailed what they regarded as much-needed support for freedom of the press. This was the first time in the over a century-long history of the Nobel Prize that it has been awarded to a journalist. The committee chair, Berit Reiss-Andersen, added that Ressa and Muratov were “representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.”
Ressa, who has dual Filipino-American nationality, is a co-founder of Rappler, a digital media company for investigative journalism, which, according to the committee’s announcement, “has focused critical attention on the [Philippines] Duterte regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign.”
“Nothing is possible without facts,” said the 58-year-old Ressa after receiving the prize. “A world without facts means a world without truth and trust.”
Muratov, 59, was one of the founders of the independent newspaper Novaja Gazeta in 1993. Another co-founder was former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. The Russian journalist felt the credit was not due to him, but rather to the newspaper and “to all those who died defending the right of people to freedom of speech.”
The Nobel Committee has not always made the most judicious choices, however. It is still reeling from the scandal of having awarded the prestigious Peace Prize to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2019. Within a year, Ahmed launched a devastating war against the Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia, home to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that had dominated Ethiopia’s government from 1991 until Ahmed came to power in 2018.
Ahmed’s war against the Tigray Region, which is inhabited by six to seven million people, has turned it into a candidate for the most famine-plagued country in the world. According to a report by the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, the region is on the verge of the worst ever “man-made famine”.
Forces that have joined the Ethiopian army, made up primarily of Amhara militias, have been accused of burning crops, pillaging fields and preventing farmers from ploughing their land. There have also been reports of widespread rape, preventing women from going out to search for food for their children. The violence and starvation have precipitated large waves of forced displacement and spreading hunger.
The Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who received the Peace Prize in 1991, has also proved undeserving. Her reputation as a moral leader plummeted when she defended extremist Buddhist militia crimes against the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (Burma). She did not condemn the forced displacement of the Rohingya to Bangladesh or the incidents of rape, a “weapon of choice” to humiliate the enemy in sectarian conflicts.
Meanwhile, the Iranian and Yemeni rights activists Shirin Ebadi and Tawakkul Karman, who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prizes in 2003 and 2011, respectively, have vanished from the political scenes in their countries. After the Civil War erupted in Yemen in 2015, Karman came out in support of the Gulf-backed Yemeni government against the Houthi insurrection that receives military and material support from Iran.
Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohamed ElBaradei, co-recipient of the Nobel Prize with the IAEA in 2005, resigned as Egyptian vice-president in 2013 and departed from the country.
Menahem Begin, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, was ousted as Israeli prime minister and head of the right-wing Likud Party against the backdrop of the war he unleashed against Lebanon and the revelation of the part his defence minister, Ariel Sharon, played in facilitating the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Beirut at the hands of the Lebanese Forces militia.
In 1994, the prize was awarded to former Israeli president Shimon Peres, former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.
Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli terrorist opposed to the Oslo Peace Accords. Peres and the liberal Israeli Labour Party were ousted from power in 1996 by Benjamin Netanyahu at the head of the Likud, despite this party’s bloodstained record in Lebanon.
Of course, the Nobel Peace Prize itself does not make peace. Nor does it grant its recipients a moral halo with the power to change the world for the better. Conferring the prize on Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso (1989) and Liu Xiaobo (2010) did not change Beijing’s policies on Tibet or human rights in China.
The same applies to Andrei Sakharov (1975) and this year’s recipient Muratov. The former could not make a dent in the totalitarian Soviet Communist system, while the latter is unlikely to affect current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who could theoretically remain in power as the country’s president for another decade.
Former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung was awarded the prize in 2000 “for his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and in East Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular.” But his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il was passed over.
On the other hand, the Nobel Committee has occasionally hit the right mark, as was the case when it awarded the Peace Prize to individuals of such moral stature as former South African president Nelson Mandela (1993) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1964).
The Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded for 19 years, 13 of them between 1914 and 1943 due to the circumstances of the two world wars and the interwar period. The last time it was withheld was in 1972. It has been won by 137 recipients, among them 28 international organisations. The number of organisations among the laureates is growing: 24 from 1944 to the present.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has received the prize twice, in 1917 and 1944, for its work in the two world wars. In the 1950s, the prize was awarded to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). In the 1960s, four organisations merited the award: the ICRC (for the third time) jointly with the League of Red Cross Societies (1963), UNICEF (1965) and the International Labour Organisation (1969).
The United Nations was the first international organisation to win the Peace Prize after the turn of the millennium. It was followed by the IAEA in 2005, the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh in 2006 (“for advancing economic and social opportunities for the poor”), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007. In the following decade came five organisations: the European Union (2012), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (2013), the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet (2015), the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (2017) and the World Food Programme (2020).
It is only natural that organisations such as those above should have an increasing place among the Nobel laureates. World peace is not a goal that can be attained by an individual, however great his or her influence, of even by a state, however great its resources.
For the Nobel Committee, bestowing the award for peace on international organisations is less likely to spark controversy and it also avoids the embarrassments that can arise after awarding it to a politician who ends up leading his country to war, defending brutal rights abuses, or simply fades from the scene.
On the plus side, it showcases the impacts of collective international action and encourages the world powers to work more closely together.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly