What’s the point of the Nobel Peace Prize now?


Photo by Candice Seplow on Unsplash


“Too often…we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”
– John F. Kennedy

Does the Nobel Peace Prize matter any longer? To the winner, most definitely yes. He, she, or they receives a medal, the lifelong prestige of being a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, a personal diploma, and 10 million Swedish crowns or roughly $1.4 million US dollars.

That’s quite a lot of goodies and not to be sneezed at.

But does the Nobel Peace Prize mean very much any longer to the wider world? Should we be admiring, reverential even to a Peace Prize Laureate, for very long?

Unfortunately, recent winners such as Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, and a more senior Laureate, Myanmar’s displaced leader Aung San Suu Kyi, have diminished the lustre of the Peace Prize.

Mr Ahmed won the Prize in 2019; Ms Suu Kyi in 1991.

At the time they were picked out by the Nobel awarding committee, both Mr Ahmed and Ms Suu Kyi were considered icons of peace and democracy, potentially transformational figures for their countries and possibly, the world. (Full disclosure: I wrote a glowing piece for Quartz (paywall) on Mr Ahmed when he was awarded the Prize on October 11, 2019. Like many analysts, I could not have imagined the subsequent transformation Mr Ahmed wrought.) Having managed to ease tensions with neighbouring Eritrea , he then resorted to political repression within Ethiopia to suppress ethnic violence and unrest.

As for Ms Suu Kyi, she initially lived up to her credentials as a freedom fighter. Myanmar’s military junta abjured absolute control and allowed a slow political transition to quasi-democracy. A sitting US president visited, championing engagement with the military to promote democratic change. Then, earlier this year, the military reasserted control, removed Ms Suu Kyi and put her on trial. But she had already, decisively stepped off the high pedestal on which the world (and the Nobel awarding committee) had placed her, by defending the military against allegations of ethnic cleansing and war crimes against the Rohingya minority.

Like Mr Ahmed, Ms Suu Kyi’s subsequent record after the Nobel Prize,  seemed to tarnish what was awarded.

Some months ago, The Washington Post quoted Henrik Urdal, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, on a testy issue: the riskiness of awarding the world’s ultimate peace prize. Mr Urdal suggested that the Nobel awarding committee was increasingly bestowing awards on people who were engaged in the process of peace-building rather than having already achieved the product. “The expectation is of course that the award nudges the process along,” he said, adding that “the Abiy award was probably the riskiest of their process awards, though it would still be too early to call it a failure.”

That was then.

Now, Ethiopia has had an unquiet, unsatisfactory election (polls were not held in four of the country’s 10 regions, according to the election board), war has displaced two million in the Tigray region and the UN says famine is looming.

Mr Ahmed has not seemed a shining figure of peace for the past two years. In fact, ever since he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mr Ahmed and Ms Suu Kyi are by no means representative of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. But, it’s fair to say they underline a devastating reality: a Prize-winner may or may not spend the rest of his or her life working for peace.