WASHINGTON – There’s no shortage of awards and prizes out there for diplomacy, peacemaking and humanitarian achievement. But the one that will be handed out Friday, bestowed by a committee selected by the Norwegian parliament in honor of the man who invented dynamite, is considered the most important and most deserving of media attention.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has made some bad calls in the past (Yasser Arafat, Henry Kissinger and Teddy Roosevelt come to mind), and little evidence suggests that the prize does anything to promote peace. At its best, though, the Nobel Prize’s media spotlight gives the committee the opportunity to highlight important issues: climate change in 2007, women’s rights in 2011 and the elimination of chemical weapons last year.
This year the prize committee could best serve its mission by giving the prize to the person who most deserves it: nobody. Such a move would highlight that this has been a particularly violent year around the world. More importantly, it would serve as an acknowledgment that the most notable eruptions of violence have been so grimly predictable, the result of years of individual and collective failures by governments and international institutions.
While the emergence of Islamic State and the disintegration of Iraq and Syria have taken place at alarming speed, these were less sudden explosions than the climaxes of crises that have been worsening for years. There’s a lot of blame to go around here, to the governments involved and those that intervened from the outside. But it shouldn’t be surprising that an unchecked civil war in Syria and years of shortsighted sectarian governance in Iraq would lead to a situation like this.
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The United States, and former Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, will not win any awards for peace promotion this year. In 2009, President Obama raised eyebrows in Oslo by using his Nobel acceptance speech to make the argument that there are times when the use of force by governments in the name of preserving overall peace and stability is “not only necessary but morally justified.”
Five years later it’s harder to make the case that the world has become more peaceful as a result of the judicious deployment of American violence. A global drone war may have decimated al-Qaida, but its local franchises and splinter groups are as potent as ever. NATO airpower ousted a tyrant in Libya but left a chaotic power vacuum in his place.
The breakup of the Soviet Union is justifiably seen today as a major advance for the cause of peace and human freedom. Mikhail Gorbachev deservedly received the Peace Prize during the final days of the Soviet empire in 1990. But this year’s crisis in Ukraine showed that everything is not hunky-dory in the former USSR. For the first time in decades, a European border was redrawn by force, and the international community was exposed as utterly unable to stop it from happening. Ukraine has been invaded by Russia without Moscow admitting anything of the sort, though Ukraine’s own government doesn’t have entirely clean hands, either.
More than 2,000 people, most of them civilians, died in Gaza and Israel over the summer, the latest in a recurring cycle of violence in which both sides seem increasingly indifferent to casualties and fail to recognize their own long-term interests. (Nobel Prizes have been awarded for that peace process, too.)
This was the year that the international media finally, if briefly, started paying attention to Boko Haram’s campaign of terror in northern Nigeria. (Nigeria led the world in terrorism fatalities in the first half of 2014.) But that conflict’s been developing for a long while as well. The world’s newest country, South Sudan – a darling of the international aid community, not to mention George Clooney – also collapsed into a civil war that seemed inevitable since its founding.
This was the year that three countries in West Africa were devastated by a disease that would probably have been containable if decades of civil war and kleptocratic rule hadn’t left those countries with threadbare public health systems and populations understandably suspicious of those in power.
And this was the year that we learned that the side with tear gas, truncheons and pepper spray gets to decide what “one country, two systems” really means.
I don’t think the world is a hopeless maelstrom of violence. Good things have happened in the past 12 months as well. Three of the world’s five largest countries – India, Indonesia and, this week, Brazil – are holding democratic elections, and there’s been major progress on containing AIDS and tuberculosis, which are among the world’s deadliest diseases.
Even so, it’s hard to find anyone deserving of a Peace Prize in 2014. The original purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize was to reward the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” And on that score, there was not much to report this year.
The committee should follow the example of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, the world’s most generous prize given to individuals, with an outlay of $5 million over 10 years plus $200,000 per annum after that. The prize has simply not been granted in three of the six years it has existed because no suitable candidates were found. This has served the prize’s goal – highlighting and compensating former African heads of state who governed well while in office and stepped down when they were supposed to – better than watering down the criteria.
The Nobel Peace Prize was not awarded on 19 occasions, including for most of the duration of the two world wars. The most recent year in which the prize wasn’t granted was 1972. If the prize doesn’t get handed out, the monetary award (about $1.1 million) “shall be reserved until the following year,” according to the Nobel website.
Some of the names up for discussion this year are quite deserving. Malala Yousafzai, who has promoted the education of girls in rural Pakistan in the face of Taliban violence, and Denis Mukwege, who has advocated on behalf of victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are both doing remarkable work. And I certainly don’t mean to denigrate the efforts of the many activists, aid workers and officials working for peace in difficult circumstances around the world.
But if the committee really wants to send a powerful message to world leaders after a not-so-peaceful year, there’s only one way to do that: Give one of the world’s most famous awards to absolutely no one.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.