Nobel Peace Prize targets 'pure peace process' in award to Colombia's Santos

The committee based its decision on the Colombian president’s 'resolute efforts' to end the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war.

Ricardo Mazalan/AP
A cyclist raises his arm next to students camping to ask for peace at the main square in Bogota, Colombia, early Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize Friday, just days after Colombian voters narrowly rejected a peace deal.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos's peace deal with rebels fell apart this week after citizens rejected it in a referendum. But he got a major international boost in his surprise win of the Nobel Peace Prize today – potentially bringing Colombia closer to a definitive end to the war, and the Nobel committee back to its original intent of recognizing a “pure peace process."

The committee based its decision on Mr. Santos’s “resolute efforts” to end the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war, and in the hopes of promoting a final peace deal for the sole remaining armed conflict in the Americas. The war has cost the lives of 200,000 Colombians and displaced close to 6 million.

“The president himself has made it clear that he will continue to work for peace right up until his very last day in office,” said Kaci Kullman Five, the committee chairwoman, in her announcement in Oslo. “The committee hopes that the Peace Prize will give him strength to succeed in this demanding task.”

The Colombian president and FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño, also known by his nom de guerre, Timochenko, were anticipated top candidates to receive the Nobel Peace Prize until a slim majority of Colombians voted no in a referendum on the peace deal on Sunday, amid concerns the terms were too lenient for the guerrillas. That threw their candidacy into question among some observers, such as historian Asle Sveen in Oslo, who thought an award in the wake of the vote could could be seen as a statement against the people who voted no.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee defended its decision to give the prize before a deal had been reached, as well as to give it solely to Santos and not his FARC counterpart.

“There is a real danger that the peace process will come to a halt and that civil war will flare up again,” Ms. Kullman Five said in her announcement. “The fact that a majority of the voters said no to the peace accord does not necessarily mean that the peace process is dead. The referendum was not a vote for or against peace. What the No side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement.”

She told journalists that the committee decided to give the award solely to Santos because he had put “all in” and because of his role as “keeper of the process,” even as that process faced risks.

The five representatives of different groups of victims – Leyner Palacios, Luz Marina Bernal, Contanza Turbay, Jineth Bedoya, and José Antequera – were also nominated this year as representatives for the Colombian peace process by Norwegian Member of Parliament Heikki Holmås.

“There are many parties in this peace process,” said Kullman Five. “President Santos has taken the very first and historic initiative."

The decision not to include Timochenko as a recipient is likely to trouble some, but could have derailed peace efforts. “The main point is that it takes two to make peace,” Dan Smith, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute director, told Norwegian news agency NTB. “It would have been difficult and controversial to include FARC in the prize when one of the reasons that there was a negative result in the referendum was because FARC would avoid punishment for its crimes.”

First Latin American award in more than two decades

The award marks the first time since the 1992 award to Rigoberta Menchú Tum that the award goes to a Latin American candidate. It  also addresses recent criticism about previous awards, according to Kristian Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. The Norwegian Peace Prize Watch, for example, has questioned the merits of giving the prize to US President Obama in 2009, after less than a year in office, and the 2012 award to the European Union.

Mr. Harpviken had tipped the architects behind the Iran nuclear deal – US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran – as more likely candidates after the No referendum in Colombia. Both options however, would fulfill Alfred Nobel’s Testament, which called for the prize money and award go toward “peace congresses,” “creating the brotherhood of nations,” and “the abolition or reduction of standing armies.”

“If you take it in the context of a classical peace treaty, the 1998 prize [to John Hume and David Trimble] for Northern Ireland was the last award for a classical peace treaty,” Harpviken says.

The Peace Prize for Santos also avoids the potential conflict that could have arisen if it had been given to Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina. Her work in standing up for the rights of migrants in Russia had made her a top candidate, but not without reservations. Such an award could prompt the ire of the Russians, similar in nature, though not scope, to that of the diplomatic freeze following the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

“I don’t think [Russian President Vladimir Putin] would take a Chinese stance on the prize, but he could be very critical,” Harpviken says.

This year's Nobel medal and diploma will be given to President Santos at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo City Hall in December.  He was selected from a record 376 candidates, both individuals and groups, for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. The White Helmets civil defense group in Syria, Pope Francis, and US whistle blower Edward Snowden were also among the possible hopefuls for this year’s award.

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