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Drones, Wars, Genocide: Tainted Legacy of Nobel Peace Laureates

A number of other Peace Prize laureates have also seen their aura fade over time, without necessarily having been particularly belligerent. 

A “champion of peace” doesn’t normally threaten to show no mercy before carrying out an attack that sparks a humanitarian crisis. Yet Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is not the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to go to war.

Officially, the guns in Tigray have been silenced: On November 28, Abiy, who won the 2019 Peace Prize, declared victory after three weeks of fighting in the northern region.

The exact death toll is not known but the International Crisis Group (ICG) has estimated several thousand were killed. Civilians have fled the country in droves and the UN has warned of a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

Abiy’s aura has been tarnished.

“Whatever the rights and wrongs of the current confrontation, it is certain that his reputation as peacemaker will be severely damaged,” the Financial Times wrote in a November 11 editorial. “For the Nobel committee there is a lesson here. When in doubt: wait.”

Such patience would also have been a good idea on several other occasions, historians note.

Ten years before Abiy, Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize just nine months after taking office as US president — according to his recent autobiography even he was asking: “For what?”

Three Bombs an Hour

Days before accepting his award in Oslo, Obama decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. In his acceptance speech, he defended the right to go to war, a word he uttered 35 times — compared with 29 times for the word peace.

“To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason,” he said.

Not only did Obama fail to put an end to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan during his two mandates, but he also stepped up controversial drone strikes.

In 2016, US forces hit seven countries with more than 26,000 bombs — or three bombs an hour — according to the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

President Barack Obama watches mission against Osama Bin Laden
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the White House Situation Room, May 1, 2011. Image: White House/Pete Souza

Former Nobel Committee secretary Geir Lundestad once told AFP the expectations placed on Obama were “totally unrealistic.”

“It was impossible for anyone to meet (the) expectations,” he said.

In 1973, the Peace Prize was awarded to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho for negotiating an armistice.

The peace did not hold and Le Duc Tho, who orchestrated the final offensive against South Vietnam two years later, declined his half of the prize.

Kissinger also offered to return his half, in vain, and his legacy is one of a cynic guided by US foreign policy aims rather than respect for rights.

“Not only did he continue the war in Vietnam but he gave the green light to Indonesia for the invasion of East Timor,” recalls Norwegian historian and Nobel expert Asle Sveen, referring to the 1975-76 invasion and annexation of the former Portuguese colony.

Kissinger is also known for bolstering the power of South American dictators who were friendly to the US.

Nobel and ‘Genocide’

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shared the 1978 Nobel with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for their Camp David peace deal signed that year. But Begin’s hands are also tainted with blood, according to Sveen.

“Begin went on to, among other things, order the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the (siege) of Beirut, and that indirectly led to the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps,” Sveen says.

A number of other Peace Prize laureates have also seen their aura fade over time, without necessarily having been particularly belligerent.

Aung San Suu Kyi stands out in that category.

Her passivity as the military cracked down on Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya — termed a genocide by UN investigators — has led to numerous calls for her 1991 award to be revoked.

The Nobel statutes do not allow for that and the prize committee normally refrains from commenting on developments regarding a country or person that has won the prize.

And yet, that’s exactly what it did in a rare move on November 16, when it said it was “deeply concerned” about developments in Ethiopia and appealed for an end to the fighting — though it still defended its choice of 2019 laureate.

This year, the committee seems to have gone with a safer and more consensual pick: the World Food Programme, which will accept its prize on Thursday.

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