Whatever we think of the choice for this years prize, the runners-up deserve some attention.
Since even Obama reacted with disbelief to the news, saying in effect what everyone else said—that it was based on expectations, not accomplishments—I thought I would look into other nominees who were in effect runners-up.
One was Hu Jia, a Chinese dissident and AIDS activist who has consistently defended human rights in his homeland. He has called for an official investigation into the brutal Tienanmen Square repression of dissent in 1989 and often speaks out on environmental issues, including the deadly pollution that Chinese rulers tolerate. He has put himself at risk again and again, and in April 2008 he was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” He has a wife and a small child. While in prison he has won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, for which the citation mentioned “the daily struggle for freedom of all Chinese human rights defenders.”
President Obama recently postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama to ingratiate himself with China’s autocracy; President Sarkozy of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and other leaders have pointedly met with the Tibetan Buddhist leader, freely provoking Chinese ire but doing the right thing.
A second nominee was Morgan Tsvangirai, the long-suffering Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. Until dictator Robert Mugabe, who stole last year’s election from him, Tsvangirai was on the outside of a vicious regime. In 2004 he was put on trial for treason. In 2007 he was severely beaten and nearly killed by Mugabe’s thugs. Not one but two elections were stolen from him, and after the last one his wife of 30 years was killed in a strange and probably engineered auto accident in which he was injured. He has struggled all his life to bring freedom and prosperity to his country, and now he lives day to day in a precarious and tense relationship with the dictator who has tried to do away with him and is probably still trying. He could have used the boost in prestige the prize would have offered, and his country could have used the positive attention.
President Obama did meet with Tsvangirai in June, praised him, and promised him $73 million in conditional aid, a trivial figure compared to Zimbabwe’s economic problems, which it is Tsvangirai’s job to deal with.
A third nominee was Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian Senator and leader of the opposition Liberal Party and of Colombians for Peace. She has worked tirelessly for peace in her war-torn country, plagued for decades by relentless drug violence and powerful cartels. In 1999 she was kidnapped by right-wing paramilitaries and held for several weeks, and there have been two attempts on her life. She declared today that the peace process in Colombia is now impossible as a result of the current administration’s policies, which have thwarted her negotiations with FARC guerillas for the release of hostages.
Another nominee, Princeton and Cambridge-educated Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, a professor of philosophy and Islam at Jordan University, is known for his hard work in bringing about interfaith understanding. Still another, Afghan physician and human rights activist Sima Samar, risks life and limb constantly as she fights for women’s rights to education and health care.
There are others, all extremely deserving, many people in danger who could very much have used the international praise. In all, 172 people and 33 organizations were nominated. It could have gone to Buddhist monks resisting Burma’s military oligarchy, Iranian opposition leaders under severe persecution, and others.
Political considerations have often motivated the peace prize choice, and that is why Henry Kissinger, who helped overthrow democratically elected Chilean president Salvador Allende and who bombed Cambodia in what many view as a crime against humanity, received it. So did Menachem Begin, a former terrorist, and Yasser Arafat, still a terrorist at the time the prize was awarded.
In all these cases a handful of people in Norway thought they were advancing an ongoing peace process, but they were demeaning the prize. I am certainly not putting President Obama in a category with Kissinger, Begin and Arafat, but it is very sad when you consider who was passed over.
Last year, Al Gore won for promoting awareness of global warming, a very worthy project. But the first runner-up was Irena Sendler (Sendlerowa), a Christian hero of the Holocaust. She obtained the job of inspecting sewers and plumbing in the Warsaw ghetto so she could save Jewish babies and children. She smuggled the babies out in her toolbox, the children in burlap bags in the back of her truck.
She was caught and beaten severely by the Nazis, who broke both her arms and both her legs, but by then she had saved about 2500 Jewish children. After the war she devoted herself to trying to reunite them with their parents, but of course most of their parents had been murdered.
Irena Sendler died in March at age 98. The Nobel Prize for Peace is never awarded posthumously. Al Gore could have waited another year, and so could Barack Obama.