When peace prize laureates falter

Two recent Nobel winners are under fire, only highlighting an era in which concepts of leadership are shifting.

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi takes her seat Dec. 10 for the first day of hearings at the International Court of Justice about charges of genocide against her government.

For two prominent winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, Dec. 10 was not an easy day.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 winner for her pro-democracy efforts in Myanmar, was at the United Nations’ highest tribunal, defending her country’s military for the mass killing of Rohingya Muslims. The International Court of Justice in The Hague is considering a charge of genocide against her government, which is largely controlled by the military.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, received the 2019 Nobel Prize on Tuesday even as critics note his peace efforts with neighboring Eritrea, along with his democratic reforms in his own divided country, are still a long way from reality. Wary of his critics, Mr. Abiy refused to hold a press conference after the awards ceremony.

The harsh spotlight on both these icons of human rights may well be deserved. Not every recipient of the peace prize, such as Yasser Arafat or F.W. de Klerk, has been consistently virtuous. Yet criticism of the two winners comes at an unusual time in world events. Many people are challenging the traditional need for inspiring leaders to bring about change. In fact, mass protests in such places as Algeria, Hong Kong, Chile, and Iraq are forcing democratic change even as these uprisings are largely leaderless.

Many of the protests have been self-organizing, relying on hundreds of grassroots conveners and facilitators who use digital tools such as social media to develop “horizontal” consensus. The protesters defy the historical notion of leadership as one of a “great man” with top-down authority and soaring rhetoric. Instead they rely on the idea that leadership implicitly exists in each individual.

In addition, they see leadership as an activity, not a position. And that activity requires modest persuasion and a willingness to cooperate and listen to other ideas and plans. Leadership is not “seized” but shared. Instead of power over others, there is power with others. Instead of pulling rank, people pull together.

When Alfred Nobel set up the peace prize more than a century ago, he wanted it to be given to “champions of peace.” Through much of the 20th century, progress was indeed driven by individuals. Only in recent decades has the prize been given to organizations, such as the European Union or Tunisia’s trade unionists. Such collective efforts at peacemaking are now more recognized.

The need for charismatic figures and vertical hierarchies is hardly over. But as the world sees more Nobel laureates not always living up to the accolades given them, the more people will rely on peacemaking from below, or the quiet influence of people caring for each other as much as they care for a common purpose.

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