Taking the Peace

October 11, 2010

Peace activist Frederik Heffermehl has a good point regarding the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. In case people hadn’t noticed, the prize (which we have to presume still seeks to possess an aura of gravitas) is supposed to be awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses” (from the last testament of Alfred Nobel himself, the old arms-dealing rascal).

Now Liu may be an admirable campaigner for human rights, and there should no doubt be a system of awards for courageous activists who put their lives at risk to further the freedoms and living standards of others, but he has done little to promote international peace.

This isn’t really a new insight. As Heffermehl’s new book argues, “over half of the awards since 1946 have not conformed with the intention of Nobel, who wished to change the international system in order to end wars and armaments.”

Still, we shouldn’t fetishise old Alfred’s every wish. After all, this was a man who was dubbed a “merchant of death” in a slightly presumptuous obituary during his lifetime, and a man who made millions from the invention and sale of dynamite.

Nonetheless, in our time, the prize that his name has been attached to has accrued a certain sense of dignity and importance. Hence, when an imprisoned Chinese dissident is awarded the prize, it focuses attention on the poor human rights  record of the regime that is detaining him, and the rights that it denies its people, and this is all to the good.

But what isn’t good at all, is the way in which the prize diverts scrutiny to enemies of the United States. Few Iraqi or Afghan activists, or anti-war campaigners in the U.S. have been considered recently. And consider this strory while China is raked (rightly) over the coals for the behaviour of its government:

Last week, a Nobel peace laureate travelled to a nation involved in conflict with another nation, seeking to help bring delegations from the warring sides together and to work for a just, sustainable solution. But the government there decided to lock her up at the airport, denying her contact with the activists she sought to counsel. A week later, after an appeal to the country’s “Supreme Court”, she was deported. A couple of years ago, she had travelled to the nation invaded by the country which detained and deported her, being shot in the leg by the occupying army, while protesting against a wall which simply stole huge areas of the occupied nation.

The nations involved were, of course, Israel and Palestine. Irish peace activist Mairead Corrigan Maguire had also participated in the peace flotilla to Gaza earlier this year, which Israel brutally attacked. For her courage, she received a travel ban, which was enforced this week.

I doubt Vaclav Havel will be writing an editorial for the New York Times for Maguire, as he did for Liu. As ever, human rights are applied in circumstances which suit the dominant power, and – as Maguire is finding – no matter how honored you may have been in the past by the powers that be for your peace-making skills, if you challenge the shibboleths of their dominance, all the Nobel prizes in the world count for nothing.


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