Nobel Peace Prize has often faced criticism from authoritarian governments
Published 10/12/2010 | 12:02
In 1973, Henry Kissinger arrived in Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing about the end of the Vietnam war.
The problem was that the war had not ended – and would not, until North Vietnamese troops overran the entire country two years later.
Luc Duc Tho, Dr Kissinger's North Vietnam counterpart, refused to receive the prize on the grounds that there was no peace – becoming the only Nobel Peace Prize winner ever to do so. Not months later, the US had begun a bombing campaign that would claim tens of thousands of lives in Kampuchea.
"It was in that moment that satire died," said Tom Lehrer, the musical satirist, of the 1973 Peace Prize. "There was nothing more to say after that."
Chinese diplomats charged with campaigning against the Nobel Peace Prize committee's decision to award the honour to Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned dissident, have been recalling Dr Kissinger's story. In their view, the Nobel Peace Prize is an ideological weapon to punish the West's rivals.
"More than two decades after the end of the Cold War that was supposed to end the ideological divide," said Tang Guoqiang, China's Ambassador to Norway, "a prize for peace is still harnessed as a political boot to trample countries considered 'different.' Such a pity."
Few would question Nobel Peace Prize committee's decision to honour figures like Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa – but its five members have often faced similar allegations.
The 1991 Prize went to Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to struggle against her country's military junta. Iran was furious when the award was given to lawyer and judge Shireen Ebadi. In 1989, the committee gave the award to the Dalai Lama, again angering China.
Like China, some governments have argued that giving the Prize to dissidents worsens international relations.
The committee's response to these claims dates back to 1935, when it grappled for months before honouring a political dissident for the first time.
Carl von Ossietzky, a journalist, was imprisoned in 1931 for publishing secret information on illegal German rearmament. He was released in a December, 1932, amnesty, only to be sent a concentration camp less than three years later.
Halvdan Koht, Norway's then-foreign minister, persuaded his colleagues on the committee not to give the award to Mr Ossietzky. But in 1936, a sustained campaign led to his re-nomination. Mr Koht resigned from the committee, along with one of his predecessors in office. Two new members were appointed.
Mr Ossietzky received the prize.
Furious, Adolf Hitler barred Germans from receiving the Prize in the future.
The committee, though, kept backing imprisoned dissidents. In 1975, the Prize went to Andrei Sakharov, the dissident Soviet physicist. Dr Sakharov was denied a visa to travel to Oslo, but his wife Elena Bonner, who was in Italy for eye surgery, received the award on his behalf.
Later, in 1983, the Prize was given to the then-incarcerated Polish trade union leader Lech Walesa. His wife, Danuta Walesa, accepted the award.
Even though most scholars agree the Soviet Union eventually fell apart because of internal weaknesses and economic crisis, the awards gave strength to anti-communist movements behind the iron curtain.
That is what China fears today. Chinese diplomats argue that any political dissent could snowball into conflicts that would undermine its economic growth. Human rights advocates retort this is the argument all repressive governments use to suppress individual freedoms.
So will honouring Liu Xiaobo help democratic movements in China?
There's no way to tell for certain: as the Nobel Peace Prize committee has often discovered, second-guessing history is a hazardous business.
In 1994, the Nobel Peace Prize went to Israeli premiers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, along with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.
The Oslo Peace Accords they had signed, though, have achieved little.
Last year, the Prize went to Barack Obama, the US President for promising to work towards a more peaceful world – but there has been little evident progress in that cause.