3 Controversial Winners of The Nobel Peace Prize
“What do we do with a hero who has done something less than heroic?” Wiesel asked.
In 2009, I was in the 7th grade, and I had a music teacher first period who was a little…Republican. We were interrupted by a morning announcement to congratulate President Barack Obama on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. There was applause heard around the main office, and most of us nodded in agreement.
My music teacher, however, snapped. He went on a rant over how we were not at peace, how Obama was only in office for nine months, how we were still at war in Afghanistan. He said many other things about the negative state of our nation in 2009.
“Peace? What peace?” he said, before launching into another rant about how the Nobel Peace Prize was an absolute joke. In 7th grade, I didn’t really have many political opinions.
But the year earlier, in 6th grade, I wanted to be one of the cool kids and often said “you’re racist if you don’t want Obama to win” through history class, only to be reprimanded by my history teacher. I was not alone, because many of the kids I considered cool also said the same thing.
However, I would scroll through my Facebook and Instagram feeds in 2016 to see that many of them became Trump supporters. I had moved away from that neighborhood the next year. On social media a couple of years later, I recalled one of my best friends and neighbors, who was a Kenyan immigrant, running for school president in high school and having his flyers defaced by slurs in high school.
I digress — I only lived there two years and never quite got the pulse of that place at such a young age. I mention my old school because one notable alumnus from the high school I would have funneled into was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, a policy ordered by the very same president who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years earlier. When I found that out, it wasn’t a good reflection on his ability to institute world peace. After all, controversial drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan would increase and muddle much of Obama’s legacy.
Obama is one notable controversial winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. But he is not the most controversial winner in the slightest. After all, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin were all nominated. Hitler was nominated in 1939 as a satirical protest against the nomination of Neville Chamberlain the previous year. However, the joke was not well received. Stalin was nominated twice for his efforts to end World War II. Mussolini was nominated by two different people in 1935, the year fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia.
In the will of Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Peace Prize is supposed to honor:
“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 Nobel Peace Prize has not been perfect, since many charge that Gandhi never won, but should have been a Nobel laureate. Even Donald Trump has been nominated by a far-right Norwegian politician for a Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 based on his negotiation of the Abraham Accords, which facilitated peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Christian Tybring-Gjedde has said he doesn’t support Trump, but the committee should honor him based on facts, not his behavior.
Of the people who actually won the Nobel Peace Prize, here are three people whose prizes are mired in controversy:
Aung San Suu Kyi
In 1991, Myanmar activist, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for setting precedent as an “outstanding example of the power of the powerless.” When she won the award, she was under house arrest for trying to bring democracy to Myanmar. In the words of BBC News, Suu Kyi was a symbol of “peaceful resistance in the face of oppression.”
At the time, she had made peaceful protests for democratic reform and free elections, but they were brutally suppressed by the army. Suu Kyi’s paryt, the National League for Democracy, would win the 1990 national election, only to not be awarded power after the army junta failed to hand over control. She was put under house arrest until 1995.
Now, Suu Kyi is the de facto leader of Myanmar’s international reputation has been more defined by her leadership’s treatment of the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar is facing a lawsuit of genocide by the International Court of Justice after an army crackdown against the Rohingya minority in the Rakhine state.
Since, Suu Kyi has defended the army’s actions and remains very popular with the Buddhist majority. She has defended her country against accusations of genocide. In 2013, she said Buddhists in the Rakhine state live in fear of “global Muslim power.” And in a 2017 call with Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan, Suu Kyi said her government was fighting “terrorism.”
Derek Mitchell, the former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, says the story of Aung San Suu Kyi is more about how the west endowed her with superhuman and God-like status. He says she might not have changed and might have just been consistent this whole time — but the people who endowed her with the Nobel Peace Prize and fawned on her may have just given her too mythic of a status.
“Few people are as perfect as their public image, especially when they are perceived as a saint,” says James Griffiths at CNN.
In 1973, Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese diplomat, Lê Đức Thọ, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Paris peace accords, which officially brokered a ceasefire to the Vietnam War. Lê Đức Thọ didn’t accept the award, but Kissinger did. Awarding Kissinger with the Nobel Peace Prize was highly controversial since Kissinger also ordered a bombing raid on Hanoi while negotiating the ceasefire.
Two members of the Nobel Peace Prize committee resigned in protest of Kissinger’s selection. Tho, who was the first Asian awarded for the honor, said “peace has not yet been established,” and also said that accepting the prize would be giving into “bourgeois sentimentalities.” The New York Times called the award the “Nobel War Prize,” since
Kissinger, as Nixon’s Secretary of State, had authorized bombing raids on Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese in Cambodia. The war would continue for another year, and in 1975, North Vietnam would invade South Vietnam, and Saigon would fall to North Vietnamese forces. Lê Đức Thọ was still in government at the time, and Kissinger offered to return the award to the Nobel committee, but the committee refused.
“I would say that anything Lê Đức Thọ is eligible for, there must be something wrong with it.”
Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin
In 1994, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres after signing the Oslo Peace Accords. Luke Graham at CNBC notes the award was controversial for many reasons. The Israel-Palestine conflict did not end after the Oslo Peace Accords.
Arafat was also a controversial figure himself. Kare Kristiansen, a Norwegian member of the Nobel Committee, said Arafat was the “world’s most prominent terrorist” because of his support for the terrorism of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Columnist Jay Nordlinger in The Times of Israel calls Arafat “the worst man ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Peres himself was not a popular winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, being criticized by Palestinians for what was seen as a man who failed to stop ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem. Richard Evans at Foreign Policy said Peres presided over the proliferation of illegal Jewish settlements in Israel.
Across Israel and Palestine, there was widespread disagreement with the Oslo Accords. A couple of months after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Yitzhak Rabin was killed by an Israeli right-wing extremist. Edward Said called it the “Palestinian Versailles.” As we know now, peace did not last between Israel and Palestine.
What I take away from the most controversial Nobel Peace Prize winners is the award's tendency to grant sainthood and hero worship to its winners. No human being, or their public image, is capable of standing up to the standard of perfection.
And that means our heroes, too. For the record, I love Obama. I wish Donald Trump was never president. But Elie Wiesel was very skeptical about the concept of heroes, saying that giving someone hero status gives them far too much power. Hero worship created dictatorships like Stalin and Hitler, who were “worshipped as gods by millions.”
“So we need to be very careful of those we put on a pedestal, and choose only those who embody those qualities that reflect the very best of human nature. But even that is a dangerous game. What do we do with a hero who has done something less than heroic?” Wiesel asked.
Wiesel talks about his own hero, Moses. Moses was one of the most important figures in the Bible, who was the leader of a liberation army, a legislator, and a teacher. But Moses was also a murderer. Wiesel then differentiated between heroic people and heroic acts, and the truth is that many of the people we worship in the Nobel Peace Prize have many heroic moments, or else we wouldn’t worship them. But are they all heroic people? It’s tough to say, and many would disagree with that assertion.
The solution then isn’t to do away with the Nobel Peace Prize but redefine how we see the sainthood status the prize gives someone. So whether it was awarding the honor to Aung San Suu Kyi, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, or Henry Kissinger, we can all agree that these controversial figures are not saints. Even the founder of the Nobel Peace Prize, Alfred Nobel, was once known as the “merchant of death” because he invented dynamite and many other explosives and even owned an arms company that distributed explosives to armies and terrorists.
But Evans notes the prize wasn’t always a “lifetime achievement” award — before the modern era, the scope was a lot smaller. But after World War II, the committee started to extend beyond its original intention. It started to award people based on hope for what they might accomplish for the future and results toward peace, and when those people fall short of those lofty expectations, it reflects poorly on the prize as a whole.
Ben Ryan at Theos Think Tank defends the Nobel Peace Prize for holding up a vision for some progress. He acknowledges that most winners are “desperately flawed” but still advocates for a better world. At the end of the day, hero-worship doesn’t do many people favors. But the Nobel Peace Prize has been around for over 100 years. Still, the prize has honored people who aren’t as mired in controversy, who were more deserving of their recognition of contributions to humanity’s progress.