Peace against a background of conflict. The prize sometimes struggles to find its place.

By Matthew Parkes: Political Columnist

The merits of the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize are often scrutinized, for instance, Barack Obama’s award in 2009 is frequently mocked, however, some Laureates fall from being lauded as paragons of virtue to genocide apologists.

Abiy Ahmed Ali, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and Aung San Suu Kyi, recently ousted State Counsellor of Myanmar, are both examples of how the prestigious award has been dragged into disrepute. 

However, do the criminal behaviours of these leaders diminish the potency of the initial act of peace? Or do they remind us that peace is not static nor permanent and needs to be maintained and nurtured? Or should we consider the award a testament to one of the recipients’ actions rather than their character? 

Legendary characters such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr are uncontested in their contribution to the betterment of the world and their quest for peace among men. Nonetheless, human nature means even Nobel Peace Prize winners have their flaws (Mandela has been criticised for his uncritical relationships with dictators and autocrats). 

The Nobel committee addressed this in the 1994 ceremony, where it gave the award to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Perez and Yitzhak Rabin following the Oslo Accords. The commission chairman said that “the intention has been, not to judge or to hand out certificates of good conduct, but simply to reward practical work for peace, in accordance with Nobel’s own guidelines.” But what happens when the awardee fights against peace 25 years or even 2 years later? 

Abiy Ahmed Ali received the Norwegian prize in 2018 for the peace agreement he negotiated with neighbouring Eritrea. It ended a war that started in 1998 over a border disagreement concerning a town called Badme. It is difficult to calculate the casualties in this conflict, but some estimates put it at close to 100,000 deaths and one million people displaced. The warming of relations is undoubtedly an extraordinary accomplishment. 

Abiy is also commended for his reformist nature, releasing political prisoners, allowing the press to be free of censorship and promising open elections.

In 2020, the newfound alliance with Eritrea is certainly holding strong, but a conflict with the previous rulers of the country — the Tigray people and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — has forced many to re-evaluate Abiy’s character. 

The TPLF, the Ethiopian, and the Eritrean government have been accused of war crimes. Most recently, the latter two have been criticised for a massacre in the city of Axum in the Tigray region which left hundreds dead. In some accounts, bodies were left on the streets to be eaten by hyenas. 

The Ethiopian government had implemented a media blackout on the region following the beginning of the conflict in November 2020 and prevented humanitarian workers from helping displaced people in the countryside. Recently this ban was lifted, only for three journalists to be arrested. 

Many commentators have criticised the Nobel committee for the premature nature of the award given to Abiy. Isaias Irgau, an author at Ethiopia Insight, posed the idea that the prize slowed the world’s response to the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s crimes.

Abiy’s alleged actions have caused immeasurable human suffering, these crimes according to a US report are tantamount to ethnic cleansing. It is unlikely that he will be invited to Oslo again.

It certainly casts a shadow on the peace agreement too. Ethiopia and Eritrea have reportedly used their alliance to cooperate in the Ethiopian Federal government’s mission against Tigray, prompting some to question whether a military arrangement was discussed during the negotiations.

These unforgivable actions reveal the murky side of global politics and humanity. Like the 1994 speech highlights, the prize is not awarded for good conduct but for actions towards achieving peace. It is perhaps too hopeful to expect people who achieve peace after decades of fighting to be completely virtuous human-beings as well.

Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the prize whilst under house arrest in 1991. She is commended for her nonviolent protests in support of democracy in Myanmar. Over the next two decades she remained largely in captivity until she was allowed to run for office in 2015, where she won by a landslide. 

A few years later Aung San Suu Kyi found herself defending the crimes of the country’s military during the Rohingya crisis which saw hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country to neighbouring Bangladesh. 

Since then, she has been condemned by Western leaders and media outlets. However, the recent coup d’etat by the military led to her imprisonment once again. This has left the western world confused on how to respond. Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, has demanded that Aung San Suu Kyi be released, and the democratic will of the people be recognised, but perhaps the voices would have been louder were it not for her disappointing actions. 

In Myanmar, hundreds of thousands of citizens have come out into the street in support of the imprisoned leader, many have died for her. Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership likely means so much more to the people of Myanmar than a successful but incredibly flawed politician, it represents their freedom to choose who represents them rather than it be dictated to them. It is this sentiment that won her the peace prize 30 years ago and why its value still stands.

Both Abiy Ahmed Ali and Aung San Suu Kyi have been allegedly complicit in dreadful crimes against humanity, but their peace prizes should not be tarnished as they demonstrate that even the most problematic individuals have the potential to accomplish peace. This reality should be a source of hope for citizens embroiled in long unending conflicts across the globe, but it is also a warning that peace should be continually defended, nurtured, and maintained as it is perpetually at risk.

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