By Jay Holmes
This year’s nomination of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for the Nobel Peace Prize has once again highlighted questions concerning the Prize’s legitimacy. The nomination came while Putin was orchestrating a Hitler-style takeover of the Crimean region of the Ukraine. Putin has responded to his nomination by accelerating the Russian military campaign and announcing that Russia might withdraw from the nuclear arms control verification process. No reasonable person would point to him as a shining example of a person who works for peace.
If Putin’s nomination is comically absurd, he is not the first controversial nominee. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize only ninety days after taking office—too short a time for the Nobel selection committee to conduct anything like a thorough investigation of him as a candidate. Obama accepted the prize graciously, but he stated that he was surprised, and that he felt unworthy of the award. Many observers agreed. Since receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan, expanded the world wide use of drone strikes, used Cruise Missiles to negotiate Gadhafi’s departure from Libya, sent a military aid team to the Central African Republic, authorized and – according to his supporters – personally orchestrated the U.S. military incursion into Pakistan to kill the infamous criminal Osama Bin Laden. I am not criticizing any of those actions, but only those who are religiously faithful to the president hold him up as an example of a “dove” at this point.
Of course Putin and Obama are not the first instances of controversy surrounding the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2002, after retired U.S. President Jimmy Carter received the Peace Prize, members of the selection committee admitted that their choice was politically motivated as a way to indirectly oppose the policies of President George Bush. Nevertheless, even if it was politically motivated, they at least picked someone who shunned the comforts of a wealthy retirement to spend his time directly working for world peace and to reduce the suffering of the poor.
Far more controversial was their selection of Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres in 1994. Opinions on Peres and Arafat vary wildly depending on whether you ask a Palestinian or an Israeli, but for neutral observers, ignoring Arafat’s leadership in Palestinian terrorist activities requires a strong reliance on denial. If we consider that Arafat ordered the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered, and that he was responsible for dozens of other terrorist strikes around the world, then Arafat’s selection for the Nobel Peace Prize stands out as the Nobel selection committee’s most shameful moment . . . so far.
In spite of the Nobel Committee’s occasionally asinine behavior, it is worth remembering Alfred Nobel’s peaceful intent in setting up the Nobel Prize system and the fact that the Prize has, on many occasions, served to promote world peace. Let us consider a few of the many obvious cases of deserving recipients.
The first recipient who comes to mind as highly deserving is American Professor Ralph Bunche. Ralph received the award in 1950. Before mentioning a few of Bunche’s many achievements, I would point out one of his most endearing personal qualities. Ralph started life as the son of poor parents in Detroit and ended up being raised by his grandparents in Los Angeles. Although that kid from the Detroit underclass became a renowned professor and United Nations big shot, he never forgot the poor. In spite of his fame and achievements, Ralph Bunche never hesitated to stand shoulder to shoulder with the most disadvantaged people of this world.
After a difficult childhood, Ralph Bunche graduated valedictorian of his class at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles and graduated summa cum laude in 1927, and was the valedictorian of his class at a time when many universities around the U.S. were not allowing “negroes” to enroll. Ralph attended Howard University as a graduate student on an academic scholarship and received his masters in political science in 1928. In 1934, he became the first African-American to receive a doctorate in political science from an American university, after which he studied at the London School of Economics and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
During World War Two, Ralph worked as an analyst for the Office of Strategic Services. After the war, he dedicated himself to working toward the foundation of the United Nations. Ralph Bunche and Eleanor Roosevelt worked tirelessly against staunch opposition from many nations’ delegates for the adoption of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Some felt that human rights did not belong in the foundation of the U.N., but Bunche and Roosevelt believed that the U.N. would have no legitimacy without recognizing universal human rights.
In 1947 and 1948, Ralph worked to try to end the Arab-Israeli War. He was the senior assistant to the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine and rose to the office of Secretary of the U.N. Palestine Commission. In 1948, the U.N. appointed Bunche and Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden to mediate the conflict. In September 1948, members of the underground Jewish Lehi group assassinated Bernadotte in Jerusalem.
After the assassination, Bunche became the U.N.’s chief mediator. The Israeli representative was Moshe Dayan. Dayan was known to be an ill-tempered and stubborn individual. He wrote in his memoirs that his most productive negotiations with Bunche happened during billiards games in off hours. Ever the optimist, Bunche commissioned an artist to create memorial plates for each negotiator. When the agreement was signed, Bunche handed the negotiators their plates. Dayan asked Bunche what he would have done with them if the negotiations had failed, and Bunche responded, “I’d have broken the plates over your damn heads.”
For achieving the 1949 Armistice Agreements, Dr. Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. He continued to work for the U.N. and mediated in other war-torn regions, including the Congo, Cyprus, Kashmir, and Yemen. He was then appointed Undersecretary-General of the U.N. in 1968. In spite of his busy schedule as one of the most productive leaders in the history of the U.N., Ralph Bunche also lent his status, expertise, and experience to the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s.
In 1971, Ralph Bunche took ill and left his position at the U.N. In December of that year, he died and was buried in New York. The world had lost one of its greatest champions of peace. Ralph Bunche had upheld the highest ideals of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Many other highly deserving Nobel Peace Prize recipients stand out as remarkable servants of peace. Co-recipients in 1976, Betty Williams and Mairéad Corrigan Maguire were two of the outstanding women of Northern Ireland who boldly stepped up the peace movement in the face of death threats from both sides of the conflict. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa received the prize in 1984 for his work on bringing a peaceful end to apartheid in South Africa with his ability to gain the respect and trust of diverse church groups and help them to unite against the many opponents of peace in South Africa.
In 2003, Shirin Ebadi of Iran received the Peace Prize. As a lawyer and author, Shirin champions human rights, and in particular children’s rights. That is never an easy task, and doing so while speaking out against the pseudo-Islamic junta that runs Iran usually results in a slow and painful death. Remarkably, she survived the anger of the militant mullahs after defending accused dissidents in Iranian courts and founding a human rights group in Iran. She now resides in London, where in spite of repeated death threats against her and her family, she continues her work for human rights. She remains an international champion for children’s rights.
In reflecting on the entire list of Nobel Peace Prize winners, we see that nominees like Vladimir Putin, a.k.a. Stalin 2.0, and winners like Osama bin Laden Prototype Yasser Arafat demonstrate the weakest moments in Nobel Peace Prize history. Unfortunately, they usually receive the most attention. Today, let us remember that the Nobel Peace Prize has more often than not highlighted remarkable people who have worked for a better world.