The Oslo Freedom Forum is an annual human-rights conference, held in the Norwegian capital. There are always brave and admirable people among the speakers. One such at the conference last May was Leymah Gbowee of Liberia. And she was surely the most colorful: colorful in her dress and colorful in her presentation. She joked about her pleasantly plump figure. And she had a serious message to impart: “The road to freedom is long. The cost of freedom is high. The fight for freedom is not for the fainthearted or the pessimistic.”
On October 7 came big news out of Oslo: The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that Gbowee would receive the 2011 peace prize. She would receive it along with two other women: another Liberian, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is in fact president of the country; and a Yemeni, Tawakkul Karman. The women, said the committee, were winning the prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” The ceremony will take place on December 10, as it does every year: On that day in 1896, the man who willed the prizes, Alfred Nobel, passed away.
In that will, he says that a “person” shall win one of his prizes, not “persons.” But the statutes of the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm say that up to three people may share a prize. Only once prior to this year was the peace prize divided between three people. (The Nobel prizes are now 110 years old.) That was in 1994, when Yasser Arafat won along with two Israeli statesmen: the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the foreign minister, Shimon Peres. The Norwegian Nobel Committee was honoring them for a process begun in, and named for, the committee’s own city, Oslo. Never mind that Arafat and his PLO would quickly shoot this process to hell.
More than a few say, “When they gave the Nobel peace prize to Arafat, that’s when I gave up on the prize.” But one might remember that the two Israeli statesmen were happy, or at least willing, to appear with Arafat in Oslo. And one of them, Peres, went out of his way to say, in his Nobel lecture, that Arafat’s share in the prize was “fitting.”
Until this year, twelve women had won the peace prize. The first was Baroness Bertha von Suttner in 1905. She was a veteran peace campaigner, a novelist, and a friend of the testator. Other women to win include Jane Addams (1931) and Mother Teresa (1979). In one fell swoop, the committee boosted the total of women to 15. In its announcement, the committee said, “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.”
Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have done their best in Liberia — a country whose recent history is not for the squeamish. On the night of April 12, 1980, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe entered the bedroom of Pres. William R. Tolbert with 17 other soldiers, and bayoneted the man to death. Doe met his own end on the night of Sept. 9, 1990. The president, as he had become, was tortured to death by Prince Johnson and his crew. Johnson drank Budweiser as the crew cut off both of Doe’s ears, forcing the president to eat one.
The two civil wars were no nicer. The first lasted from 1989 to 1996, and the second from 1999 to 2003. These wars were so savage, so depraved, so annihilative, they defy human description. They featured child soldiers, who were drugged up; the hacking of limbs; and rape after rape after rape. Any female from childhood to old age who escaped rape was lucky. There was a total breakdown of civilization and moral order.
Gbowee, who was 17 when the wars started and 31 when they ended, decided to do something about it. Fed up, desperate, and fearless, she organized other women in a peace movement: a “mass-action campaign,” as they called it. In every way they knew, they pressured the combatants to stop fighting. They wreaked “peaceful feminine havoc” on them, to quote Gbowee. The women’s story is told in a 2008 documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
In 2005, Johnson Sirleaf was elected president: becoming the first democratically elected female head of state in all of Africa. Gbowee called this “the icing on the cake” — the icing on the cake of the peace movement and the wars’ end. America’s first lady and secretary of state, Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice, attended the inauguration. George W. Bush gave Johnson Sirleaf the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
Born in 1938, she was the daughter of a pioneering politician in Liberia. In her years as president, she has restored a semblance of civilization to the country, although Liberia’s problems are still horrendous. Rape is still a constant. And corruption in government is terrific, clean as Johnson Sirleaf may be personally. Two years ago, I talked to a Liberian official. I asked him whether foreign aid was, on balance, helpful or harmful. He said, “Do you know the difference between AID [as in the U.S. Agency for International Development] and AIDS?” I said no. He said, “The letter S.”
Johnson Sirleaf pledged to serve only one term but, in the manner of politicians everywhere, changed her mind: She was reelected last month, shortly after her Nobel prize was announced. Her campaign slogan was, “Monkey still working, let baboon wait small.” What it meant was, “The president needs more time to accomplish her mission; the opposition can just cool it for a while.” Running for reelection in 1864, Abraham Lincoln had a similar slogan: “Don’t change horses in midstream.”
About the Yemeni laureate, the Nobel committee said, “In the most trying circumstances, both before and during the ‘Arab spring,’ Tawakkul Karman has played a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.” Karman, age 32, happens to be the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel peace prize. At one time, Martin Luther King was the youngest winner: He was 35 in 1964. Karman cites him as her number-one model.
Like Johnson Sirleaf, she is the daughter of a prominent politician. It stands to reason that women who rise in Third World countries (as we used to call them) should be the daughters of leading political men. They have familiarity with politics, and they have self-confidence. One thinks of Indira Gandhi in India. If she had sprung from a farmer’s family, would anyone have heard of her? Instead, she was the only child of a founder of the modern state. Essentially the same can be said of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma — who won the Nobel peace prize for 1991.
Karman has been agitating for freedom and democracy in Yemen since at least 2005. In that year, she started a group called Women Journalists Without Chains. Last January, inspired by the uprising in Tunisia, she led a similar uprising in her own country. The government detained her for a day and a half. The dictator warned her brother that, if she kept it up, she would be killed. She kept it up, and has survived. On the day the Nobel prize was announced, she said, “This is a victory for Arabs around the world. And it will end the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
After 33 years — more than Karman is old — Saleh has promised to leave power at the end of this month. Is the Nobel peace prize responsible? Surely not, but neither could it have hurt. Sometimes the prize makes a difference, sometimes it doesn’t. Lech Walesa told me that his Solidarity movement in Poland could never have succeeded without the prize. On the other hand, the prize to Aung San Suu Kyi didn’t make a dent in Burma.
How have you been feeling about the Nobel peace prize lately? Personally, I find that I can’t quite write it off. I feel the same about the literature prize. For ten straight years, they’ll give it to a far-Left hack. (I exaggerate just a little.) Then they’ll give it to Bellow, or Naipaul, or Solzhenitsyn — or Vargas Llosa, who won last year. In the space of seven years, 2002 to 2009, the peace committee gave the prize to three American Democrats: Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Barack Obama. I think all three prizes are dubious. Besides, Bill Clinton must be miffed, being the only top Democrat uncrowned (so far)
But the 2010 prize was a bold stroke, going to a Chinese prisoner of conscience, Liu Xiaobo. For over 60 years, China’s democrats had been waiting for a Nobel, and they finally got one. Cuba’s democrats are still waiting — and will probably wait forever. Be that as it may, the Norwegian Nobel Committee did very well in 2010, and they did well again this year.
About the three laureates to be crowned, or bemedaled, on December 10, you can raise a number of questions. For example, President Johnson Sirleaf has made many compromises, as she has tried to keep her tribalistic and explosive country together. Last month, she was campaigning with Prince Johnson, once just another torturing warlord, now a senator. Gbowee points out that, in Liberia, every villain is a hero in some community. As for Tawakkul Karman, she belongs to an Islamist party — and yet she is a liberal, certainly in the Arab context. She maintains that “things like extremism and terrorism, which have grown under dictatorship, will fade away in a free Yemen.”
Almost never are Nobel peace laureates saints (an exception being Mother Teresa). They are human beings, working in messy human situations. Each of the 2011 laureates has stuck her neck out. Each has risked a great deal for the betterment of her country and her fellow man. Furthermore, we in the West should remember that, while female empowerment is old hat here, it is new hat, or no hat at all, in many of the world’s places. So, for the 2011 Nobel peace prize, hats off.
– Mr. Nordlinger is an NR senior editor. He has a book coming out from Encounter in March: Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World.