National Security & Defense

The Colombian Nobel

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos announces a ceasefire deal with FARC rebels, August 25, 2016. (Reuters photo: John Vizcaino)
A decision in historical context

Over the course of four years, Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, negotiated with the guerrillas known as “the FARC.” This is the Spanish acronym for “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.” The guerrillas have waged war for more than a half-century now: 52 years. The results have been catastrophic.

On August 24, Santos and the FARC came to an agreement. On October 2, the agreement was put to a national referendum. Most people expected it to be approved by a landslide. In the end, it was narrowly disapproved: 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent. Evidently, the majority felt that the agreement was far too generous to the guerrillas. So, it was back to the drawing board for the negotiators.

October 2 was a Sunday. The Norwegian Nobel Committee made its big announcement on Friday, October 7: The Nobel Peace Prize for 2016 would go to Juan Manuel Santos.

This gave the president “a new card to play,” as Nick Miroff, the Latin America correspondent for the Washington Post, wrote. Yes. The Nobel Peace Prize tends to do that. It gives a recipient leverage, a tool. Leaving the FARC aside, Santos can play his Nobel card against his conservative critics — those who faulted his agreement as too soft.

On hearing from Oslo, Santos said, “I accept the award with great humility and as an assignment to keep working for peace.” That is a common reaction of new laureates.

The rules governing Nobel prizes are little known by the public, and they are often ignored by Nobel committees themselves. In his will, Alfred Nobel said that his prizes were to go to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The preceding year? Indeed. That directive is either winked at or insisted on, depending on the need of the committee.

In 2008, the peace committee gave the Nobel to Martti Ahtisaari, a longtime Finnish diplomat. This was essentially a lifetime-achievement award, having nothing to do with the preceding year. The chairman said — virtually quipped — ”It is not easy to take every sentence in Nobel’s will absolutely literally.” The next year, the committee gave the prize to a new American president, Barack Obama. Some thought this was grossly premature. The committee pleaded Nobel’s will, asking, Who else has done more for peace in the preceding year?

Alfred Nobel laid out a few criteria for his peace prize — the foremost being “fraternity between nations.” Who has done “the most or the best work for fraternity between nations”? Often, the committee has honored work within nations. In 1993, they gave the prize to Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, for the peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa. De Klerk was the incumbent president; Mandela was the president-in-waiting.

Last week, when the Colombian award was announced, some people had a question: Where is Timochenko? That is the nickname of Timoleón Jiménez, which is itself a nom de guerre. We are referring to the leader of the FARC, who is the counterpart of Santos. Why didn’t he share in the award?

Essentially the same question was asked in 1998, when the Nobel was awarded for the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. The laureates were John Hume and David Trimble, leaders of the two biggest political parties in Northern Ireland, one of those parties Catholic, the other Protestant. Many thought that Gerry Adams should have been included. He was the leader of Sinn Féin, which is usually described as the “political wing” of the Irish Republican Army. Others thought that no one associated with terrorism should have his hands on a Nobel.

They had thought the same in 1994, when a Middle Eastern trio won the Nobel: Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, who were prime minister and foreign minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. They won for the Oslo Accords, negotiated in the Nobel committee’s hometown. In protest, one member of the committee resigned. He resigned in protest of the third of the award to Arafat. “His past is too filled with violence, terrorism, and bloodshed, and his future too uncertain.”

The chairman of the committee defended the award, specifically its third to Arafat. The role of the committee is not to “hand out certificates of good conduct,” he said. Rather, it is to “reward practical work for peace.” One of the Israeli laureates, Peres, said that he thought Arafat’s share of the prize “fitting.”

In its announcement on Friday, the committee said that it was rewarding President Santos for “his resolute efforts” to bring Colombia’s war to an end. Note “efforts,” not necessarily final results. In light of the October 2 referendum, said the committee, there was “great uncertainty as to the future of Colombia.”

The committee further said, “There is a real danger that the peace process will come to a halt and that civil war will flare up again. This makes it even more important that the parties . . . continue to respect the ceasefire.”

Sometimes the Nobel committee is more explicit than at other times. This time, the committee was perfectly explicit: “By awarding this year’s peace prize to President Juan Manuel Santos, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to encourage all those who are striving to achieve peace, reconciliation, and justice in Colombia.”

Finally, there was a nod to that oft-troublesome document of 1895. The work of Santos in Colombia, said the committee, fulfilled “the criteria and spirit of Alfred Nobel’s will.”

Revisit the 1973 peace prize: the most controversial one ever given. It went to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho, for the Paris Agreement, a ceasefire in the Vietnam War. Le Duc Tho refused the prize. He is the only person ever to do so. The Norwegian Nobel Institute considers him a laureate nonetheless. You can turn them down, but they don’t turn you down.

Explaining the 1973 prize, the chairman said that the committee hoped the parties would “feel a moral responsibility” to see the Paris Agreement through. Of course, Le Duc Tho’s side shot it to hell. In April 1975, as North Vietnam overwhelmed the South, Kissinger tried to return his Nobel prize — which is to say, the medal, the diploma, and the money. (He had used the money to set up a fund for the children of fallen or missing soldiers. He had named the fund after his parents.)

The Nobel committee told Kissinger, in effect, that a Nobel prize was not returnable. Recent events in no way reduced the committee’s “appreciation” of Kissinger’s “sincere efforts to get a ceasefire agreement put into force in 1973.”

The agreement that Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed, in 1979, has stuck (though it has been imperiled at times). The Egyptian president and the Israeli prime minister won the Nobel in 1978. They had signed a preliminary agreement. One of the reasons for awarding the pair, said the committee, was to help ensure that the agreement was finalized. Once you have the Nobel in your hands, goes the theory, it’s embarrassing to fail.

In 1987, the committee placed the Nobel in the hands of Oscar Arias. He was the president of Costa Rica, and the spearhead of the Guatemala Accord, a.k.a. the Arias Plan. The plan was an attempt to end the war in Nicaragua. The Sandinista junta, backed by Moscow and Havana, was fighting guerrillas called the “contras,” backed by Washington, and in particular by President Reagan. The Reaganites were skeptical of the Arias Plan, thinking that the Sandinistas would use it to win what they could not win otherwise.

Privately, the Nobel committee told Arias that they were giving him the prize to use as a weapon against Reagan. The laureate later made a statement to Robert Kagan, who was writing a book about the Nicaraguan war: “Reagan was responsible for my prize.”

In giving the Nobel to the Middle Eastern trio in 1994, the committee was hoping to make the Oslo Accords stick. They were hoping that Arafat, in particular, would feel the weight of the prize on his shoulders. He proved not to be unduly burdened. Regardless, the committee had rewarded work done in the previous year.

David Trimble made an interesting remark when he, with Hume, was handed the prize in 1998. He said that he was “a bit uncomfortable” getting it, adding, “I hope very much that this award doesn’t turn out to be premature.” That was beside the point, in (strict) Nobel terms. But anyone can understand Trimble’s concerns.

President Santos has the wind of the prize at his back. This prize is “the greatest honor mankind can bestow on one of its own,” said Elie Wiesel (who was the laureate in 1986). Lech Walesa told me that, without his Nobel, the Solidarity cause in Poland could not have succeeded. Yet the prize cannot do everything. For example, it has not sprung the 2010 laureate, China’s Liu Xiaobo, from prison. Perhaps it is helping to keep him alive, however.

My guess is that Colombians in general will not be too impressed by the peace prize — and that they will approve an agreement, overwhelmingly, when they are convinced it is just.

Mr. Nordlinger is an NR senior editor. He is also the author of Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World.

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