Wednesday 13 November 2019

Nobel prize win for Tunisian group recognises nation as a beacon of hope in Arab world

A Tunisian woman celebrates during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011
A Tunisian woman celebrates during the Jasmine Revolution of 2011
Wided Bouchamaoui, a member of the Nobel-prize-winning Tunisian group

Mary Fitzgerald

Rising above Oslo's picturesque waterfront, the red brick twin towers of its City Hall are one of the Norwegian capital's best-known landmarks. Not simply an administrative building, the City Hall is also where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year.

Inside its main chamber, amid colourful murals depicting the Norwegian resistance against Nazi occupation, the prize named after Alfred Nobel - the man who invented dynamite - has been bestowed on a host of dissidents, activists, politicians and institutions.

A nearby museum documents the Nobel Peace Prize winners since the prize was first awarded in 1901, among them five from the island of Ireland.

The first Irish Nobel Peace laureate was Sean MacBride in 1974, a former government minister and chief of staff of the IRA who went on to play prominent roles in several international organisations, including the UN and the Council of Europe. He was recognised for his commitment to human rights, having been a founding member of Amnesty International.

Two years later, Belfast activists Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams were jointly awarded the prize for their work in founding the Peace People in Northern Ireland. Over two decades later, John Hume and David Trimble were co-recipients in 1998 due to their efforts in bringing the Belfast Agreement (or Good Friday Agreement) to fruition that year.

The Nobel Peace Prize has attracted plenty of controversy during its lifetime. In 1973, critics argued that the decision to honour Henry Kissinger, along with Le Duc Tho, his Vietnamese counterpart in negotiations to end the war there, made a mockery of the prize. Comedian Tom Lehrer quipped that the award for Kissinger "made political satire obsolete".

In 2009, the Nobel committee awarded the prize to US President Barack Obama, though he had been inaugurated just nine months before and was about to oversee a major expansion of the US military effort in Afghanistan plus an upping of its controversial drone programme.

The following year, diplomatic relations between Norway and China became strained after the prize was awarded to prominent Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, with Beijing rejecting Oslo's insistence that the Nobel committee is independent of government.

In 2012, the committee raised eyebrows when it honoured the European Union.

"The EU is clearly not the 'champion of peace' that Alfred Nobel had in mind when he wrote his will," former laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in an open letter with two fellow laureates.

The choice of a faceless institution like the EU as opposed to a person also made some wonder if the prize's impact was diminished somewhat without the power of an individual story that would chime more generally with people.

This year's winner is one that most can cheer. The committee decided to honour the Tunisian national dialogue quartet, comprised of four major organisations in Tunisian civil society, for its role in helping steer the country towards a pluralistic democracy after decades of dictatorship came to an end during what became known as the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.

The bookmakers' favourite was Angela Merkel, who was given good odds for the way she handled Germany's resettling of refugees as Europe tied itself in knots over the exodus. Other names touted were Pope Francis, partly for his role in helping the diplomatic thawing between the US and Cuba, and US Secretary of State John Kerry, along with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, for their historic deal on Iran's nuclear programme.

The decision to award the Tunisian quartet, however, sends a crucial and timely message about the importance of dialogue and what it can achieve.

"The quartet was formed in the summer of 2013 when the democratisation process was in danger of collapsing as a result of political assassinations and widespread social unrest," the Nobel citation said.

"It established an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war. It was thus instrumental in enabling Tunisia, in the space of a few years, to establish a constitutional system of government guaranteeing fundamental rights for the entire population, irrespective of gender, political conviction or religious belief."

Noting that Tunisia faces significant political, economic and security challenges - the country has been rocked by a number of deadly terrorist attacks this year, including on the popular resort of Sousse - the committee said it hoped the prize would help safeguard democracy in Tunisia and be an inspiration to all those who seek to promote peace and democracy in the region and the rest of the world.

Despite Tunisia's undoubted challenges, the country's fragile transition remains a poster-child for others in the Middle East and North Africa. Many in neighbouring Libya, for example, wonder when their bitterly polarised country will ever achieve the balance of inclusivity and compromise that allowed Tunisia to move forward. Tunisia remains a beacon of hope in a region struggling with little of it.

Irish Independent

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