What Should the Nobel Peace Prize Recognize?

The 2016 award to Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos for his efforts to end the decades-long conflict with FARC arguably breaks a string of more symbolic recognitions.

Fernando Vergara / AP

The Nobel Committee’s decision to award the 2016 Peace Prize to Juan Manuel Santos is a gamble of sorts, a bet on a peace process that is troubled and still incomplete. But that gamble also represents a return to a different sort of award for the committee. After a string of winners notable for their admirable heroism, the committee has chosen to grant an award recognizing a major effort toward resolving a specific conflict.

The committee praised Santos “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians and displaced close to six million people. The award should also be seen as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process.”

It also acknowledged that the peace in Colombia is a work in progress: “The fact that a majority of the voters said no to the peace accord does not necessarily mean that the peace process is dead.” In a positive sign, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) congratulated Santos as negotiations continued in Cuba.

Many of the most memorable prizes have gone to people working to resolve intractable, decades-long conflicts, and many of them have been controversial gambles. Take the 1973 award to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho. On the one hand, the end of the Vietnam War, which it recognized, was a monumental moment. On the other hand, the idea of Kissinger being a peace laureate has taken on the air of a ghoulish joke: Between the revelation that his boss, Richard Nixon, prolonged the war for political gain, and the proof of Kissinger’s complicity and indifference to slaughter in Bangladesh and elsewhere, he hardly seems like a hero. While the Oslo Accords seemed like a turning point, earning Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin the 1994 prize, a lasting peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems as remote as ever. Yet other prizes have borne the test of time, whether Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat for the Camp David Accords or F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela for the end of Apartheid.

Over the past two decades, however, there have been few such towering prizes. The recent string of winners shows a trend toward recognizing winners who are admirable but have fewer concrete achievements. Too often prizes look like ‘A’s for effort, rather than achievement. No two winners encapsulate this better than 2009 winner Barack Obama and 2014 co-winner Malala Yousafzai. Obama was given the prize scanty months into his presidency, primarily in recognition, it seems, of his not being George W. Bush. Yousafzai became an international hero at age 15 when she was shot by the Pakistani Taliban. Her award acknowledged her status as a powerful activist and voice, but even some supporters were uncomfortable with her win.

“Statement” awards like this are a common theme in recent years: Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005, two years into the war in Iraq. Sometimes, the Nobel panelists have opted to choose winners who represent broad ideas. In 2011, Liberians Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won, but the committee tacked on Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, making the award not a recognition of gains in either country but a more nebulous set of work. In other cases, the committee has made somewhat uninspiring choices, recognizing the European Union (2012) or the United Nations (2001). Does anyone remember either of these today?

Arguably not since 1998, when John Hume and David Trimble won the prize for the Northern Irish peace process, has the committee spotlighted leaders who had worked to solve an intractable, violent struggle. It is in years like this that the committee seems to come closest to meeting Alfred Nobel’s original mandate: That the prize go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

The 2015 prize was somewhere in the middle. It went to four groups that helped establish a post-Arab Spring government in Tunisia. That country has emerged as the only (if tentative) success story of the wave of revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, but the award felt somewhere between premature and anti-climactic. Is preventing a hypothetical bloodshed the same as ending one?

Unfortunately, peace processes like the one in Colombia, or in Northern Ireland, or the Camp David Accords are unusual. They are also risky for the Nobel committee, which could see the negotiations in Havana fail, producing an Oslo-like situation. But negotiations like the one in Colombia are much riskier for Santos and his FARC interlocutors, and it is right and fitting that the Nobel Committee should emphasize their work.