When a Nobel Peace Prize winner wages war, who loses?

Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix/Reuters/File
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his wife, Zinash Tayachew, salute the torch light parade from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2019, the day he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

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The Nobel Peace Prize may bestow winners with a saintlike aura, but it’s no stranger to controversy. Henry Kissinger’s win was so hotly debated that two members of the Nobel committee resigned. Barack Obama’s selection in 2009, after just one year in office, attracted criticism. 1991 laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has defended Myanmar against charges of genocide. And now, the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has intensified criticism of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the prestigious prize just two years ago.

The Tigray conflict has resurfaced long-standing questions that have long haunted the Nobel. How do you define peacemaking? Who deserves a prize for it? And what happens when the award is given to someone who goes on to wage war?

“There’s an inherent problem in the idea of giving a peace prize for starters because the bar is so high for successfully negotiating, agreeing to, and implementing peace,” says Leslie Vinjamuri, an expert on human rights and U.S. foreign relations at Chatham House in London. “Frequently in the toughest conflicts we see setbacks, returns to violence, returns to instability before you finally settle on stability. … We have to recognize that complex reality that peace is dynamic.”

Why We Wrote This

What does a Nobel Peace Prize really represent – and how do you define “peace” in the first place? Those questions have an especially sharp edge amid the war in Tigray, just two years after Abiy Ahmed’s win.

When Mulugeta Gebregziabher heard in October 2019 that the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to Abiy Ahmed, the new reformist prime minister of Ethiopia, his reaction was immediate dread.

“I thought, this is going to give this guy the legitimacy internationally to do whatever he wants,” says the Ethiopian professor of biostatistics, who now lives in the United States.

For Yonatan Fessha, an Ethiopian legal scholar at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, the choice betrayed a startling lack of research.

Why We Wrote This

What does a Nobel Peace Prize really represent – and how do you define “peace” in the first place? Those questions have an especially sharp edge amid the war in Tigray, just two years after Abiy Ahmed’s win.

“Someone closely familiar with the political dynamics of that region wouldn’t have given this award to Abiy,” he remembers thinking.

Nearly two years later, the chorus condemning the decision to give Mr. Abiy the award has swollen. Since November 2020, the prime minister – hailed by the Nobel Prize committee for giving Ethiopians “hope for a better life and a brighter future” – has been waging war on one of his own provinces, Tigray. There have been multiple documented massacres of civilians and the region is experiencing widespread starvation, much of it as a result of troops blocking humanitarian aid. Earlier this month, Mr. Abiy’s party was declared the winner of an election boycotted by two major opposition parties, and in which about a fifth of the country’s regions haven’t yet voted, poising him for a second five-year term.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
Displaced people are seen at the Shire campus of Aksum University, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, March 14, 2021.

The war and disputed election have resurfaced long-standing conversations about the decision to give Mr. Abiy the world’s most prestigious prize for peacemaking. And more generally, they have again raised questions that have long haunted the Nobel. How do you define peacemaking? Who deserves a prize for it? And what happens when the award is given to someone who goes on to wage war?

Nobel’s vision

“Any Nobel Peace Prize given to an individual bestows on that individual a very high legitimacy in the world – it’s one of the most prestigious prizes a person can win,” says Kjetil Tronvoll, a peace and conflict researcher at Bjørknes University College in Norway, who studies Ethiopia.

Yet the criteria for winning one are remarkably fuzzy, says Fredrik Heffermehl, a Norwegian peace activist and the author of “Fame or Shame? Norway and the Nobel Peace Prize.” Sometimes it goes to political leaders brokering an end to conflict and oppression at home: like Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, for ending apartheid and ushering in democracy in South Africa; or to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin, for “their efforts to create peace in the Middle East.” Other times, it’s given to humanitarians like Agnes Bojaxhiu, better known as Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic nun who ministered to poor and dying people in Kolkata, India; or to activists like Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani advocate for women’s education.

But Alfred Nobel, a Swedish inventor best known for creating dynamite, actually had a very clear vision of what he wanted his peace prize to reward, Mr. Heffermehl says. And it was neither local peace accords nor human rights activism.

Eva Plevier/Reuters/File
Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi leaves the International Court of Justice, the top United Nations court, during hearings in a case filed by Gambia against Myanmar alleging genocide against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, in The Hague, Dec. 12, 2019.

In his will, Mr. Nobel wrote that the prize should go each year “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” 

“It is not a do-good prize,” Mr. Heffermehl says. “It is not a prize for international friendship and understanding. It is specifically a prize for avoiding future wars through global cooperation and disarmament.”

Even those criteria, however, can be far from clear-cut.

“There’s an inherent problem in the idea of giving a peace prize for starters because the bar is so high for successfully negotiating, agreeing to, and implementing peace,” says Leslie Vinjamuri, an expert on human rights and U.S. foreign relations at Chatham House in London. “Frequently in the toughest conflicts we see setbacks, returns to violence, returns to instability before you finally settle on stability. … We have to recognize that complex reality that peace is dynamic.”

Despite Mr. Nobel’s will, the committee has long interpreted its mandate more broadly, as a prize for people reducing violence in the world. Still, many critics say it has tarnished the prize’s name by awarding it to people who were already embroiled in war, or would go on to be. In 1973, for instance, the prize went in part to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for his efforts to bring peace to Vietnam – even as a bombing campaign Mr. Kissinger had orchestrated was still ongoing in Cambodia. (Mr. Kissinger’s selection was so controversial at the time that his co-awardee, North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho, refused the prize, and two members of the Nobel committee resigned in protest.)

The 2009 prize was awarded to U.S. President Barack Obama, then commander in chief of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in 2019, just a month after Mr. Abiy won the prize, Myanmar’s heralded opposition leader and 1991 peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi stood before the International Court of Justice in The Hague to argue that the slaughter of an estimated 24,000 Rohingya was not a genocide, but a military action against terrorists and insurgents.

Prize as encouragement

As Mr. Obama noted after winning the award, “Throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.”

In Ethiopia, according to the Nobel committee, that “set of causes” included peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea and democratic reforms for Ethiopians, who had lived the previous three decades under an authoritarian one-party regime.

Mr. Abiy became head of that regime, but from the moment he took office, in April 2018, he set about loosening his government’s grip on its people, releasing thousands of political prisoners, negotiating a peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea, and welcoming back high-profile opposition political leaders from exile.

Stian Lysberg Solum/NTB Scanpix/Reuters/File
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed delivers his speech in front of the Norwegian royal family during the award ceremony in Oslo City Hall in Norway Dec. 10, 2019. The conflict in Tigray has intensified scrutiny of the decision to give Mr. Abiy the award.

But even in the earliest days, observers say, there were signs that his reforms were not as positive for the country as they seemed – particularly when it came to reorganizing Ethiopian politics.

For nearly three decades, since the end of a brutal civil war, the country had been ruled by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of ethnically based political parties dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. After Mr. Abiy’s ascension, many Tigrayan leaders were sidelined, and the TPLF accused the government of unfairly targeting its leaders in corruption purges and leadership changes. When Mr. Abiy announced in late 2019 that he was forming a new party, the Prosperity Party, to succeed the EPRDF, the TPLF refused to join.

“The Nobel Prize emboldened Abiy to reform the internal political structure, which was the single most significant trigger for the war today,” Dr. Tronvoll says. “High-level party insiders have told me that in those negotiations he used the prize to basically say, ‘I have an international mandate to rule as I see fit.’”

Dr. Tronvoll recalls asking foreign diplomats why they did not comment as domestic reform started to backslide. He says he was told that Mr. Abiy was “untouchable.” That reluctance to criticize Ethiopia, he adds, endured well after the fighting began in Tigray.

Even as it gave Mr. Abiy the prize in 2019, the Nobel committee appeared to acknowledge doubts about his award.

“No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early,” the group wrote in a press release announcing his win. “The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”

Ultimately, it’s five individuals wrestling with “a really complex calculation that they clearly struggle with and reassess time and time again,” Dr. Vinjamuri says: when to award a peacemaking prize you can’t take back. “But I like that the prize is usually pretty bold,” she adds. “It’s sort of trying to be part of something, rather than just being purely a seal of approval for past deeds done.”

For Mr. Abiy, the peace prize may in the end be both a blessing and a curse. It “was an asset at the beginning; it won him many friends,” says Mr. Fessha. But in November 2020, after the Tigrayan government held local elections in defiance of a national postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic, fighting broke out, and quickly escalated. Since then, thousands (tens of thousands, according to Tigray’s opposition) have died, and more than 1 million people have fled their homes.

“Now he has become the Nobel Peace Prize winner who refuses to give peace a chance,” Mr. Fessha says. “And that label could be a liability.”

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