It is never been easy for Indians to take the Nobel Peace Prize too seriously. The greatest modern practitioner of non-violent political protest, Mahatma Gandhi, was never given the prize despite having been nominated five times. After he was assassinated the committee declined to award him on the grounds that it preferred not to give the prize posthumously – only to abandon that principle for just one time in 1961 when a fellow Scandinavian, the United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, was killed.
Inevitably, given that almost no one in the world will ever command universal admiration for all his or her actions, the peace prize is the most controversial of all the Nobel awards. Its decisions are always coloured by politics, at times the obscure and whimsical politics of the Norwegians who make the decision. This year’s award to Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos will be no different. The most obvious reason: The Prize seems to have been given less for his accomplishments than as compensation for his failure. The peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla movement for which Mr Santos is being felicitated is now on life support after it was voted down in a referendum. In theory, Mr Santos can press ahead with the agreement and so far the ceasefire between the two sides is holding, but it is now bereft of legitimacy. Mr Santos, if anything, deserves a fair amount of criticism rather than a reward for deciding to put the agreement to the popular vote rather than just getting it passed through the legislature.
The Nobel Peace Prize has been given in the past to help provide moral support to peace-makers still weaving together a nest of olive leaves for political doves to find a home. The Arab-Israeli conflagration has received a few such prizes without any sign that the faultline has disappeared. The same holds true for organisations dealing with climate change and nuclear disarmament, movements that have barely begun to achieve their appointed tasks. But the Colombian peace agreement was both nascent and the civil war, for all its tragic consequences, was hardly an issue of global attention.
The war in Syria, for example, is a quantum level bloodier and consequential and awarding the country’s humanitarian rescue group, the White Helmets, may have been a better place to send a supportive message. It is not as if the peace prize does not have its finer moments – it has shown remarkable nerve in repeatedly recognising Chinese dissident leaders – but it must be cognisant of the fact that this prize has come to represent global hopes and expectations regarding peace. Whimsical decisions that mystify large chunks of the world undermine not only the prize, but the pursuit of peace itself.