After his death in 1896, the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite, established the Nobel Prize in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace. The prize is awarded annually to individuals and/or organisations (peace only) whose work “during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” Although it is considered to be the most prestigious award in the world, the noble purpose of the prize creates an odd juxtaposition with the source of the prize money, sometimes referred to as “blood money,” because Nobel’s claim to fame and fortune came mainly from making and selling arms.
Since the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, peace prizes have been the most controversial of all the Nobels. The endless controversies surrounding the prizes stem not only from the ambiguity of the concept of peace, but also from the political motivations behind the selection of the recipients.
However, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to stop the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims by her proxy government, the Myanmar army, begs the question: how noble are the Nobel peace laureates?
The list of peace prize recipients whose eligibility for the honour was questionable is long. Leading the pack of not-so-noble peace laureates is the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who spearheaded a series of secret aerial bombings in Southeast Asia that either killed, wounded, or made homeless an estimated six million people. He also condoned the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh and was instrumental in toppling the Chilean President Salvador Allende in favour of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Nevertheless, he shared the 1973 prize with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho for ending the Vietnam War.
By honouring Kissinger with the peace prize, the Nobel Committee essentially rewarded a war criminal. Tho declined the award, accusing Washington of violating the truce, while two members of the Nobel Committee, who voted against Kissinger’s selection, resigned in protest.
Four years after sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat for their Camp David peace accord, Israeli leader Menachem Begin, once a member of the terrorist organisation Irgun, ordered the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Begin’s terrorist compatriot Yitzhak Rabin and nuclear hawk Shimon Peres shared the 1994 prize with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for signing the Oslo Accords. Two years later, Peres was responsible for the Qana Massacre in Lebanon. Needless to say, the Oslo Accords have not brought a lasting settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which still persists with Benjamin Netanyahu using weapons of mass destruction to kill women, children and unarmed civilians.
It was rather strange that the 1993 peace prize was awarded jointly to two opposite extremes—a great peace activist and a staunch defender of apartheid—Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, respectively. What criteria were used to award the 2009 peace prize to Barack Obama just months after taking office as the President of the United States? Did his work in the previous years benefit mankind? Arguably, awarding the prize to Obama is equivalent to rewarding the Most Valuable Player of the season, and not wait until the player has been inducted into the Hall of Fame.
One of the biggest blunders in the history of Nobel Prize is the prize that never was. Mahatma Gandhi, the epitome of non-violent struggle, has not been awarded the peace prize, although he was nominated five times. According to a former director of the Nobel Institute, the committee’s Euro-centric viewpoint kept Gandhi from receiving the award.
Coming back to Aung San Suu Kyi, at the time of the award, she was portrayed by the Nobel Committee as the champion of “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” In 2015, her election to the post of state counsellor, making her the de facto head of government, was hailed as a watershed moment for Myanmar.
But four years on, the one-time intrepid champion of human rights and democracy has become one of the worst violators of human rights. She is now a global pariah shielding a marauding army from scrutiny, defending its genocidal campaign against the Rohingyas, jailing journalists and locking up critics, thereby leaving the international community aghast as Myanmar remains as repressive as ever. In fact, Suu Kyi is now a major player in the army generals’ very own Game of Thrones.
As the South African Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote in his letter to Suu Kyi in September 2017, “If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” She is willing to pay the steep price because there is no evidence that the appeal from Tutu and other peace laureates had any effect on her actions. Instead, she has become Myanmar’s chief apologist for ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas and she denounces them as terrorists and illegal immigrants.
In 1991, Suu Kyi was applauded for her “courage in the face of tyranny.” Today, because of her complicity with the top brass of the military, she is loathed even by her former admirers. She finally laid bare her true colours by defending the indefensible charges of genocide against the generals at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Lest she forget, these are the people who once imprisoned her for her struggle for human rights and democracy. Yes, she forgot her own mantra: “The only real prison is fear and the only real freedom is freedom from fear.”
By dancing to the tunes of the devil to whom she sold her soul, Aung San Suu Kyi has become an ignoble Nobel laureate, ousting Kissinger from the top of the pack of ignobles. Together with other controversial peace prize winners, she gave the Nobel Peace Prize a contentious image. To remove some of the darker stains in the medal that bear Alfred Nobel’s name, the least Nobel Committee can do is amend the charter of the Nobel Peace Prize and rescind the honour bestowed on Suu Kyi and other recipients who belong to the refuse heap of history.
Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.