The Peace Prize’s lesson for civil society

The Nobel Peace Prize went to four groups in Tunisia that prevented violence by mediating a political crisis with a message about individual dignity and equality.

The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a "quartet" of groups in Tunisia that helped solve a 2013 political crisis. Shown here are the four leaders (L-R): President of the Tunisian employers union Wided Bouchamaoui; Secretary General of the Tunisian General Labour Union, Houcine Abassi; President of the Tunisian Human Rights League Abdessattar ben Moussa, and the president of the National Bar Association, Mohamed Fadhel Mahmoud.

When the Norwegian Nobel Committee hands out the Peace Prize each October, it tries to make a point about the origins of peace. The 2015 prize is a good example. It went to a “quartet” of private groups in Tunisia that saved the country’s democratic revolution by mediating a solution to a political crisis in 2013. These “civil society” leaders offered a basic message to the power-grabbing politicians: In a diverse society, government must recognize the innate dignity and equality of all citizens. Power must not be based on one class, one tribe, one religion, or a superiority of firearms.

This simple point about individual rights still gets lost in much of the Middle East, Russia, China, and other places where “civil society” groups are now on the defensive. The historic role of such nongovernmental organizations in achieving democratic rule, from Ukraine to the Philippines, is seen as a threat by today’s autocrats, who are devising clever ways to suppress them.

The idea of inherent rights as preceding, not being granted by, government is hardly new. It has spread with a greater understanding of each person’s equality and worth. In recent decades, the idea has been embedded in international documents, such as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. These public assertions about rights-based societies have helped undermine authoritarian regimes, such as the Soviet Union. They have given hope to millions. They have helped spread the related virtues of humility and empathy, which are necessary in a democracy to keep peace.

The “quartet” in Tunisia consisted of groups – lawyers, human rights activists, trade unions, and business leaders – that recognized a need to work together beyond their particular interest in guaranteeing inherent rights. The Arab Spring originated in the North African nation when one individual took a stand for dignity in 2010, and others followed, leading to the overthrow of a dictator and revolts elsewhere in the region.

Now almost alone in the Arab world with its newfound freedoms, Tunisia remains an important model in how to create and maintain a pluralistic and inclusive government under a popular constitution.

The country still needs international help in boosting its economy and suppressing violent Islamists. But the peace prize is a big pat on the back, and a reminder about ensuring peace when individual dignity is recognized.

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