Last week Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos was granted the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the country’s decades-long conflict, just days after the people of Colombia rejected his agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels. Although the much-feted award is granted with the best intentions, unfortunately, the prize will do little to further the peace process in the South American nation. Often, if anything, the Nobel Peace Prize is an omen for dark times ahead.
Take the 2015 recipients, for example. Although the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet were lauded for their efforts to create peace and stability in the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisia remains in a state of emergency due to ongoing violence. Tourism had previously been a profitable industry for the North African nation, but that has almost completely evaporated in the wake of a string of militant attacks. The British government now warns that further attacks on foreigners are “highly likely” in the former tourist mecca.
Europe itself is not immune to the Nobel curse. In 2011 the European Union (EU) was awarded the prize for its “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights.” The selection was ironic, given that the Nobel Committee is based in a country that has staunchly rejected the idea of joining the union. Despite the praise for the EU’s alleged virtues, that didn’t stop British voters in the bloc’s second-largest economy from filing for divorce in the Brexit referendum.
President Obama accepted the prize in 2009, despite the fact that nominations for the award closed just 11 days after he took office. Although he was praised for the “new climate” of international relations he fostered, that was before he bungled America’s response to successive crises in Syria and Ukraine. The Nobel Committee applauded Mr. Obama, noting “never before has anyone been made a Peace Laureate so early into their term of office.” That inexperience manifested itself in a tepid response to Russian aggression and the Arab Spring, leaving 1.4 million Ukrainians displaced, and the Assad regime free to use chemical weapons on civilians with impunity. Ironically, the Nobel Committee has honored leaders who have fostered peace between Israel and Palestine, as well as one who incited hostility. With Russia deploying missiles in Europe and the Middle East, Mr. Obama’s “new climate” ended long before his approaching exit from the White House.
But Mr. Obama is in less-than-admirable company. In 2005 the director general of the International Atomic Agency, Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, was granted the prize for his efforts in limiting nuclear proliferation. Little did the committee know, Mr. ElBaradei had political ambitions of his own. In 2013, as Egypt’s elected government was being overthrown by the military, Mr. ElBaradei seized the limelight and was installed as vice president. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize the military junta was predisposed to heavy-handed crackdowns on protesters. He left the post after he suddenly rediscovered his conscience.
And of course, how could one forget the much-celebrated Aung San Suu Kyi? Long the darling of the West, Ms. Suu Kyi was awarded the prize in 1991 “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” That struggle was not extended to the benefit of minorities in her native Burma. The politician has refused to condemn the mistreatment and massacre of Muslims in Burma, and was even caught making derogatory slurs about them during a television interview.
The reason why so many Peace Laureates fail to maintain the high standards of the award can be put down to a lack of transparency in selecting both the committee and the prize. The composition of the Nobel Committee is determined by the Norwegian Parliament, and is often vulnerable to political influence. For such an influential international award, the committee is surprisingly parochial. Although there are no restrictions on membership, every member of the committee has been a Norwegian citizen. Instead of awarding those who promote disarmament and peace, as Alfred Nobel had hoped, the prize is now doled out to whomever does “good” in the eyes of the committee. As illustrated by the selection of Mr. Obama, the Laureates aren’t even required to have achieved anything substantial. They can be peacemakers with training wheels or with just wishful thinking.
Although Juan Manuel Santos’ drive for peace is commendable, it’s a pity the Colombian people can’t reject the Peace Prize much like how they rejected Mr. Santos’ peace agreement. For what often begins as a blessing, the Nobel Peace Prize can become a curse.
• Oliver James is a journalist and academic at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.