Peace Prize politics

Opinion by Mina Shah
Oct. 17, 2016, 12:30 a.m.

Last week, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, just a few days after a defeat of his attempt to strike a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist group that has caused a lot of violence in the country. The referendum had failed with 50.2% of voters rejecting the deal in an unexpected turn of events, meaning that, at the time that the prize was awarded, Colombia had (for the time being) lost out on a huge chance for greater relative peace.

Despite this, President Santos won the Peace Prize alone for his efforts to push the deal through.

While understanding that President Santos’s desire to bring peace to the world and his efforts to get the accord passed are important and ought to be lauded, it remains unclear whether he ought to be given the Nobel as a result of his work. Additionally, with the context in which the committee awarded President Santos the prize, it is unclear exactly why he received the award.

In theory, the Nobel Peace Prize measures accomplishments and gains toward a more peaceful world. And at the time the prize was awarded, President Santos had failed in a considerable way to bring about greater peace to the world. This is not to say that efforts to bring about peace shouldn’t be acknowledged, because they certainly should. On the other hand, efforts are not results, and conflict in Colombia has been going on for almost 70 years (I cite La Violencia as the beginning of the conflict period). Further, there are plenty of other people and groups in the world this past year that have actually made considerable strides for a more peaceful and just world. These include groups fighting for an end to violence against trans-folks, participants in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline and all those continuing to work for the end of police brutality against Black and Brown folks.

Further, there is no reason, necessarily, that the prize ought to have been given to President Santos alone. It is possible for the prize to be given to multiple people in a single year, and the impact of giving the prize to President Santos by himself was that global attention turned more specifically toward the relationship between the general public, the government and FARC in Colombia, which could have put undue pressure to push through a referendum that the majority of people in Colombia did not want. Had the prize been given to multiple actors, the attention on Colombia’s current political climate would have been diluted, due to the fact that some attention would necessarily go to the landscapes around the other awardees. As a result, there would have been less international pressure on Colombia to move politically in one direction or another with regard to these accords.

The other impact of giving the prize to President Santos alone, if we accept that the situation in Colombia warrants a Nobel, is that the leaders of FARC, who are also actively participating in the negotiation process in order to come to a peace agreement, get completely ignored. They become marginalized from conversations about where this potential for peace comes from.

In addition, it is important to think about the way in which the awarding of this prize is in itself a political act that has real consequences in the world. Soon after the prize was announced, a shift in the conceptualization of the peace deal occurred in a way that made it more politically feasible to enact in-country. This is problematic if even part of the intent of the committee was to push this peace deal with FARC through by giving the prize to President Santos.

Just to clarify, I think that peace is an excellent thing and I am glad that the peace deal with FARC still has the possibility to go through. And the fact that President Santos plans to donate the money from the prize to the victims of the conflict is also a good thing. What I don’t think is necessarily appropriate is awarding this prize in order to further particular political agendas, especially if influence to pass the specific legislation is coming from outside of the space in which it will be enacted. The legislative follow-through toward peace related to conflict with FARC should come from within the country, and similarly, the agreement on the details of the accord should happen unmediated by the world’s desire for a tepid, artificially imposed calmness.

International organizations, including allegedly apolitical award committees, should absolutely not interfere in political situations that they will not have to live with and in and among. That is not their responsibility, at least if we truly believe in our highly espoused ideals of self-determination and freedom. It is the responsibility of the polity that composes the nation or space affected by such legislation or political possibility to act in the way they best see fit for their space. Moving forward, it will be important for international award committees to clarify their true intentions and give the Nobel Peace Prize to those who have made actual gains and not in an attempt to sway outcomes.


Contact Mina Shah at [email protected].

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