Apostles of Peace
Posted on 1-November-2010
When, last month, the Chinese writer and human rights campaigner, Liu Xiao Bo, was awarded this year's Nobel Prize for peace for his efforts in promoting human rights (obviously, of the people of China), the Chinese Government denounced the decision, saying it was obscene that a criminal should thus be honoured. Almost simultaneously with the announcement of the prize, the President of the USA called for Liu's release. Several similar other calls, including by fifteen former winners of the Nobel Prize, have ensued, nearly all coming out of western Europe and North America. When, in 2003, the Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi was given the same prize for her efforts to promote human rights, calls issued from the same quarters asking the Iranian Government to start doing better in its record on human rights (obviously, again, of the people of Iran). When, on the other hand, in 2009, Barack Hussein Obama, not yet nine moths in office as President of the U.S.A., was awarded the same prize, obviously not for anything he had yet done for promoting peace other than voting against the U.S.A.'s oil war in Iraq in the Senate of that country several years earlier, but for his well-articulated promises for the future, such sceptical questions as were raised in western and non-western quarters were soon drowned out in the general acclamation. These three recent decisions, among others, should give pause to any disinterested observer and to ask the question, regardless of his opinion of the worth of these three recipients or of his views about the causes championed by them, whether the five Norwegians who finally chose the awardees were not motivated by some political arriere pensees. In the first two cases, for example, they could have been trying to promote respect for human rights in China and Iran despite the governments of the two countries and in the third case they could have been trying to promote a newly installed president of the U.S.A. of whose politics they happened to approve. In the language of diplomacy such actions are called interference in the internal affairs of another country.
Any discussion of the decisions about Shirin Ebadi and Liu Xiao Bo is likely soon to get enmeshed with questions about whether promotion of human rights everywhere is a worthy cause. It is necessary therefore to get this matter out of the way. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights made by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 was a very important conceptual advance because it was based on an acceptance of the essential unity of our species and it was the logical culmination of the long historical process of the expansion of the circle of human altruism from family, clan, tribe and nation to now include all of humanity. But the Declaration has remained a statement of ideals and has no legislative force. Assuming it has legislative force, the question then arises about who will enforce the law, for in human societies as we know them laws are enforced by governments and obviously a law covering all of humanity can be enforced only by a World Government. At some time in future a World Government may inevitably come about as only such an institution can deal with problems such as those of overexploitation of the resources of the planet and the consequent degradation of the environment, equitable distribution of the planet's resources among the world's diverse populations, mindless butchery of large populations whether in acts of terrorism or repression or "just" wars like those being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, excesses and greed of global finance capitalism, militarisation of outer space and maybe an eventual colonisation of Moon and Mars. A World Government, howsoever imperfect and howsoever subject to the same kind of power play to which national governments are subjected, is even desirable. But a World Government must remain an utopian dream for the moment. The United Nations, comprised as it is of sovereign states and ruled as it is by the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member states is not and cannot be a World Government. Its will and decisions can be and are flouted by whichever member feels powerful enough to do so. Some of its more powerful members not only disregard the institution when it suits their national purpose but also try to use it when they can for their own ends. The United Nations then can be nothing more than at best a weak instrument for the promotion universal human rights.
There is no escaping the reality that the international community is made up of sovereign nation states, each engaged in the promotion and protection of its own interests. In this, the most important instrument available to a state is its power, political, economic and military. All states are loath to tolerate internal or external challenges to their authority just as in the promotion of their interests they are several times more ruthless, violent and dissembling than individuals pursuing their self-interest. States when engaging in the promotion of noble causes such as democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, arms control or globalisation often do no more than promote their own interests under the garb of a professed noble ideal. Others who see through the deceptive screen naturally resist such efforts. For well-meaning, idealistic individuals and groups engaged in campaigning for just one of these causes, human rights and personal freedoms, it may be salutary to ask why the most powerful country in the world is more concerned about the absence of personal and political freedoms in China or Iran than in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the Honduras. It is an unfortunate fact of international life that promotion of human rights has for long been used as an instrument of Western power. Championing human rights and freedom became a means of pressure used by the West against the Soviet Union through the instrumentality of the seventh basket of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe; it is now used similarly against inconvenient states in pursuit of other unstated Western objectives. The perception not only in Iran and China but elsewhere too that in awarding peace prizes to people like Shirin Ebadi and Liu Xiao Bo, five Norwegians may have done nothing more than acting as instruments of Western power.
To say this is not to deny the importance of the work of either of them or to denigrate them. They are selfless, brave and honest people, not deterred by the great odds faced by them. Unlike many others like them they have not chosen the comfort of exile but fought for their causes from within. Their causes--freedom, justice and fairness--are worthy too for these values are far too important to allow any government to override them. The main point is that in Iran, China or in any other state there are frequent tensions between those who wield political power claiming superior wisdom about the welfare and interest of the entire community on the one hand and the people--variously styled the masses, the hoi polloi or the plebs--on the other. Even in the most liberal democracy, the only rights people get are those they obtain through a struggle--the methods of struggle may vary. The final outcomes of such struggles are nearly always determined by force--coercive force of the state versus the force of popular resistance and the power of persuasion. The outcome of the current struggle in France between the people and the government over pension reforms will be determined by the same correlation of forces. The struggle for human rights in China or Iran can follow no different course and people like Shirin Ebadi and Liu, if they persuade enough of their own people to take risks and stand with them will win. Well meaning people outside France, whether in Norway or the USA or indeed the European Commission will be brushed off by the French government if they speak on behalf of the French protesters, may be even strengthen the will of the government to suppress the protests. The French government acted in exactly the same fashion when there were outside voices raised against their decision to expel a small number of Gypsy citizens of Europe. The Iranian and Chinese governments likewise brushed off Western reactions in the wake of Peace prizes for Shirin Ebadi and Liu. In such struggles outside interventions are at best ineffective and often counter-productive. And this is so because there is no transparent, disinterested, unvarying support by states or the Nobel Peace Committee for human rights everywhere, without diplomatic prevarications, without distinction between friend and foe.
Other questions too arise about these Nobel Peace prizes. Minor cavils about the award of peace prizes to a Bangladeshi economist who had worked on micro credit for the rural poor or a Kenyan woman who had done commendable work on the protection of the environment can be dealt with by arguing that peace is such a large matter that it can embrace all activities which have a bearing on human welfare. The work of three former American Presidents, recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize,Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, directly bore on the promotion of peace among nations at different times and in different places. Yet there can be legitimate doubts about some of the decisions of the Nobel Peace Committee, not only about its omissions but also about the merits of some of the people chosen by it. At least in the case of two of its American awardees the Committee acted like a group of courtiers. The first of these is Barack Obama. Before being elected President of the U.S.A., he had been a professional politician during all of his working life and at no stage had he been even associated with any peace movement. After his election to the American presidency until the award of the peace prize to him, his most important work had been on the rescue of American banks and financial institutions, on a plan of withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq, on making the Afghan war the main focus of American bellicosity, and a promise of working tirelessly for peace between the State of Israel and Palestinian Arabs. I have a great deal of respect for Barack Obama, above all for the verbal and intellectual sleights of hand evident in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Nevertheless, that speech, in which Obama clearly out-jesuited the most jesuistic of all jesuists in casuistry, failed to convince any dispassionate listener that he had earned that prize. Since then the last Nobel Peace Prize winner but one has shown himself incapable of resisting the pressure of his own generals towards an increase in the number of his troops in Afghanistan or of persuading an irredentist Israeli Government to stop all Israeli constructions on Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, a minimal and not an unreasonable Palestinian demand, while the Palestinians and Israel talk peace and by implication the future of a Palestinian state. The case of another American recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Henry Kissinger, is even more doubtful. In all his working life Henry Kissinger has talked more about American power and about the means for preserving and enhancing it than about peace. In the years he served with the U.S.Government, his main concern was with American power and with an honourable American withdrawal from Vietnam--in the end the flight of the last Americans from the roof top of the American embassy in Saigon was not all that honourable--and not with peace in Vietnam or anywhere else. Of the many atrocities committed by the Americans in Vietnam at least one happened directly under Henry Kissinger's own watch. Practically every aspect of the peace deal between the Democratic People's Republic of Vietnam and the U.S.A. had been finalised between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho by the start the autumn of 1972. Yet on an extremely flimsy pretext the U.S.A., in the weeks preceding the presidential election of November 1972, resumed the bombing of North Vietnam. This looked suspiciously like a manoeuvre by a paranoid U.S. Administration to boost the electoral fortunes of one the most unattractive American presidents of the twentieth century. Deaths in distant North Vietnam were of no humanitarian consequence. Even after his retirement from full time political activity, Henry Kissinger has not been known for his association with any action aimed at promoting world peace, nuclear disarmament, or elimination of poverty and starvation. On the other hand he seems to have been an enthusiastic supporter of American military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever Henry Kissinger is, he is not a man of peace and has never been one and only a group of five Norwegians, completely subservient to American interests would consider him worthy of anything called a peace prize.
The Committee that each year chooses the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize has never been a group of disinterested observers of human affairs capable of judging the worth of people who in all kinds of difficult circumstances, fight their often lonely and quixotic battles promoting brotherhood and understanding among people. The world at any given time has numerous such people. Many are indifferent towards worldly success. Many others care little for recognition, least of all by a Committee of five in one of the less important provinces of Europe. Occasionally it stumbles upon really worthy people. At all other times, it brings into prominence individuals or institutions, whom it may serve Western interests of the moment to turn the limelight on. Besides, for all its presumptuous sanctimoniousness, there is very little that the Nobel Peace Committee has achieved in the real work of promoting peace, understanding, and fraternity among the peoples of the world. Had it not been for a kind of feeling of inferiority when facing the West, a kind of occidentalism as it were, the Nobel Peace Committee would, for the peoples of the non-western world, be just another European group whose awards are worth no more than the money they bring. The members of that Committee are no apostles of peace.