Are Nobel Peace Prize Winners Truly Noble?


On the evening of October 3rd, 2015, a series of bombs struck the Kunduz Trauma Center in Northern Afghanistan, killing 42 innocent people. Some were shot as they tried to flee the building and some burned to death in their beds. Others died from collapsing rubble or from the injuries they sustained in the initial explosions. Despite the hospital’s status as a protected site under the Geneva Convention, it was not safe from the United States AC-130U Gunship which would render the only medical facility in the area unusable. Neither were the hundreds of others also unjustly killed by Obama’s airstrikes in the years prior.

Despite the harsh nature of the attack, it was not an isolated incident under Barack Obama’s presidency. Leaked government documents show that during a five-month period, 90% of his drone strikes did not kill their intended targets. Moreover, his 563 total airstrikes resulted in the deaths of between 384 and 807 innocent civilians. 

Ironically, Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize just six years before. It was granted to him for what the Norwegian Nobel Committee considered “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” During his acceptance speech, he stated that the “United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war”. Unfortunately, these so-called standards were not applied when he was recklessly signing off on hundreds of airstrikes, ten times more than the previous administration. 

Like Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi, former state counsellor of Myanmar, experienced a notable transformation in her behavior and conduct subsequent to receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Once revered as a human rights defender and democracy icon in Myanmar, she has since been criticised for her defense and support for the Rohingya genocide, an ordeal which has resulted in the mass murder of over 24,000 people. Perpetrated by the Burmese military and Buddhist nationalists, both groups operated with impunity under her rule, committing an alarming sum of atrocities targeting ethnic Rohingya Muslims. Their actions resulted in the destruction of hundreds of villages, leaving countless individuals without homes and causing over 700,000 people to flee to neighbouring countries. Among the various allegations of abuse and violence against the Rohingya, there have also been widespread reports of mass rape and sexual violence committed by Myanmar’s security forces, particularly against women and children. These reports suggested that over 18,000 Rohingya women and children fell victim to such actions. 

Despite the mounting international pressure and widespread condemnation of the mass extermination, she remained silent and refused to take any action to end the slaughter. In fact, she went as far as to arrest journalists who dared to report on the ongoing genocide and shockingly, even as the atrocities were described by multiple countries as “ethnic cleansing”, Suu Kyi chose to defend Myanmar’s actions before the International Court of Justice in 2019.

Turning to Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, his selection for the prize in 2019 was initially met with optimism and hope for peace in the region. However, his term in office has been marred by widespread human rights abuses, particularly in the Tigray region. Ahmed was awarded the prize a year after assuming office for “his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea”. However, since then, human rights groups have accused him of committing a wide array of human rights abuses that include massacres, sexual violence, and forced displacements. He has also faced allegations of indiscriminately shelling civilian areas and intentionally destroying communities inhabited by Tigrayans. Additionally, his administration has been accused of committing crimes against humanity through the forced displacement of Tigrayans in what is considered an ethnic cleansing campaign.

Although the Nobel Committee could not have foreseen the future actions of the laureates, the contention is that the abhorrent behavior exhibited by some Nobel laureates is often overlooked or downplayed by virtue of their having received the award. Whether it’s Barack Obama or Aung San Suu Kyi, political figures are not monoliths, and their actions through the lens of global institutions are almost always idealized and usually a mere facade of their true intentions. It is not acceptable to overlook or diminish the murderous actions carried out by political leaders merely because they have been recognized with a peace award, especially if the award is already known for its dubious choices. 

While some have been awarded the prize long before their political mishaps, others have been given the award despite their tumultuous political terms. Henry Kissinger is an example, and while he played a very different role to the previous examples in a very different era, he was responsible for an outstanding array of human rights violations.

Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating a ceasefire agreement in the Vietnam War. However, his harsh foreign policy resulted in significant human rights violations, particularly in Cambodia. The decision to grant him the award was contentious and remains so mainly due to his destructive actions being overlooked and not taken into account. During his tenure as Secretary of State and National Security advisor, he was a key architect of a covert bombing campaign that resulted in 2,756,941 tons of bombs being dropped over Cambodia. Much of the bombing was indiscriminate, with 10 percent of this bombing striking unknown targets. Between 50,000 and 150,000 people are said to have been killed and to this day thousands suffer from accidents with remaining unexploded ordnance. Despite this, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his role in negotiating a ceasefire agreement between North Vietnam and the United States, essentially putting an end to US involvement in Vietnam.

The question of whether Nobel Peace Prize winners are truly noble is a complex and contentious one. Figures such as Barack Obama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Abiy Ahmed, and Henry Kissinger all demonstrate that the actions of laureates can often contradict the values of the prize they receive. The atrocities committed under their leadership, be it civilian deaths resulting from airstrikes, genocide, or human rights abuses, cannot be overlooked or downplayed simply because they have been recognized with a peace award. The Nobel Committee’s choices have been disputable in the past, and the recognition of those who later prove unworthy tarnishes the integrity of the award. It is crucial that leaders are held accountable for their actions, regardless of accolades or international recognition. We must also remember that peace is not just the absence of war but encompasses global, economic, and political justice, and only when leaders prioritize these values can they be truly deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

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