The Nobel Peace Prize, unlike those, say, for medicine or chemistry, sometimes lands with a splat. There was Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, who were awarded the medal in 1973 for bringing peace to Vietnam, which they did not. In 1994, the prize went to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres for the Oslo Accords, which mainly opened a new era of Israeli-Palestinian frustration and conflict. And last year, the recipient was Barack Obama, which even from the president's perspective proved to be more a problem to be managed than an honor.
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But this year's prize again has showed the impact a previously little-known activist can have in highlighting the human rights record of a great power. The winner is Liu Xiaobo, a dissident intellectual currently serving an eleven-year prison term for "subversion." In response to the honor, the Chinese have earned an ignominious distinction. They have successfully blocked the presentation of the award, the first time that this has happened since 1936, when the Nazis kept the pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from leaving the country (despite suffering with tuberculosis after being tortured in a concentration camp). Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo's wife, who by Nobel committee protocol could collect the medal on his behalf, is under house detention, and according to the London Times, her telephone and Internet connections have been blocked. "She has not been allowed outside for almost a month," the paper reported.
So, on December 10, World Human Rights Day, there will be a ceremony in Oslo that will feature a king and distinguished guests (except for some delinquent ambassadors, such as those from Russia and Iraq, among others, who under pressure from China declined to attend). But there will be no gold medal presented, and no acceptance speech. What struck me about China's contempt for the Nobel tradition was the boldness it reflected. Not even the Soviet Union and its Polish allies, America's cold war nemeses, actually prevented the award from being delivered, even as they contrived to keep the honoree from making the trip.
The Chinese have denied Liu Xiaobo the right even to acknowledge the prize. Both he and his wife have been cut off completely, and that is unique in Nobel history. China's silencing of a Nobel recipient surpasses the Soviet stance at the pinnacle of their power, when the award in 1975 went to Andrei Sakharov, another case of a troublesome political dissident, admired by those in the world who had heard of him, but considered a threat to the leadership. Sakharov, a great physicist and leader of a small group of Soviet democratic activists was refused a travel visa on the grounds that he might use the trip to unload Soviet military secrets. Sakharov's wife, Elena Bonner, accepted the award for him. She had been in Italy recovering from eye surgery (getting her visa for medical treatment abroad had required an international campaign). At the ceremony, Bonner said, in Sakharov's name:
"Granting the award to a person who defends political and civil rights against illegal and arbitrary actions means an affirmation of principles which play such an important role in determining the future of mankind. For hundreds of people, known or unknown to me, many of whom pay a high price for the defense of these same principles (the price being loss of freedom, unemployment, poverty, persecution, exile from one's country), your decision was a great personal joy and gift."
I can attest first hand how meaningful the award was to Sakharov. A few weeks later, as a correspondent for the Washington Post in Moscow, my wife and I invited the Sakharovs to dinner to say good-by to a departing Italian journalist. Navigating past the police guarding our apartment compound, the Sakharovs arrived at our apartment (their first visit to the home of an American reporter) and clearly regarded the foray as an occasion. Bonner wore the same dress in which she had accepted the prize. Sakharov was spiffy in a three-piece suit and a new Italian tie. There were still years of harassment ahead and a term of exile to Gorky, but, ultimately, the principles of Sakharov and Bonner prevailed, and they engaged actively in the politics of post-Communist Russia. He traveled widely, including to Oslo, and visited the hall in which the Nobels were awarded.
In 1983, Lech Walesa, leader of Poland's Solidarity movement, was the prize winner, having been arrested when the Polish regime imposed martial law in 1980 in what turned out to be a last, unsuccessful effort to contain the push to end Soviet domination. Walesa chose not to travel to Oslo because of the possibility that the Poles would not let him return. So his wife, Danuta, and their thirteen-year-old son accepted the award. Danuta was not a political figure (in the way Bonner was), but that seemed to add to the simple eloquence of her message read on Walesa's behalf:
"We desire peace—and that is why we have never resorted to physical force. We crave for justice—and that is why we are so persistent in the struggle for our rights. We seek freedom of convictions—and that is why we have never attempted to enslave man's conscience nor shall we ever attempt to do so."
I was in Oslo for that event. Mrs. Walesa went home and, within the decade, Poland was no longer a communist country. As with Sakharov, the award, in the hands of Walesa's wife, proved a powerful symbol of commitment to human rights, despite the restrictions placed on her husband.
For all their rising power and confidence on the world stage, the Chinese leaders clearly see Liu Xiaobo and his wife as a threat to their authority, which is why they have shut them down so completely. But that approach actually heightens the importance of the award. The Nobel Peace Prize is sometimes meaningful and sometimes hollow. Whether the medal itself is presented on December 10, Liu Xiaobo has won a symbolic victory for his cause, just as Sakharov and Walesa did in their time. Their Nobel prizes were a prelude to profound changes in Russia and Poland, and that may well be why the Chinese seem so afraid of letting Liu Xiaobo get his.