Declaring women's rights vital for world peace, the Nobel committee awarded its annual Peace Prize on Friday to three indomitable campaigners against war and oppression — a Yemeni and two Liberians, including that country’s president.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first freely elected woman head of state, shared the $1.5 million (R 7.4 crore) with compatriot Leymah Gbowee, who led a “sex strike” among her efforts against Liberia’s civil war, and Arab activist Tawakul Karman, who hailed the award as a victory for democracy in Yemen."We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men...," Norwegian Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said.
Johnson-Sirleaf, 72, and once dubbed the “Iron Lady” by opponents, is running for a second term in an election on Tuesday where she faces criticism for not having done enough to heal the divisions of years of civil war.
Gbowee, 39, had mobilised women across ethnic and religious lines to bring an end to the war in Liberia and ensure their participation in elections.
Recognising Karman, a 32-year-old journalist, was seen as a gesture of the Nobel committee's wider approval for the Arab Spring protest movements, which had been heavily tipped to win the prize for their young street campaigners.
The trio follows only a dozen other women among 85 men, as well as a number of organisations, to have won the prize over its 110-year history.
Several of those nominated for the prize as leading lights in the Egyptian and Tunisian protest movements are women -- Asmaa Mahfouz and Israa Abdel Fatah of Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement Facebook group and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni are among nominees who might be part of an Arab Spring award.
But the difficulty of identifying a clear individual, or even formal group, which might receive the prize on behalf of the Arab Spring movements, may discourage the committee -- as might continued uncertainty about the impact of the changes, both in Egypt and Tunisia, as well as in Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, where bloodshed is continuing.
Egyptian men Ahmed Maher and Google executive Wael Ghonim, arrested for trying to help keep social media alive during the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak, are also cited among potential laureates.
Afghan Sima Samar is another contender, for her efforts to improve women's rights and access to healthcare.
The secession of South Sudan after years of conflict might also be a contender for recognition, though precisely who would be honoured is unclear. The arrest this year of the last major war crimes suspects from the fighting in the former Yugoslavia could be reason to honour the court which has tried them.
The list of possible recipients of the committee's annual favour is almost endless, however, ranging from Europeans like former German chancellor Helmut Kohl and the European Union itself to Cuban dissidents and a Vietnamese monk.
It is unlikely, Jagland said, that the choice will prove as controversial as the first two laureates named during his time as chairman of the panel -- Barack Obama, honoured in 2009 after less than a year as US president on the strength of promises he made, and last year's winner, jailed Chinese dissident Lu Xiaobo, whose recognition infuriated Beijing.
"This is a very strong Nobel Peace Prize for many people, but it is a consensual one for the international community," Jagland said. "It is not uncontroversial but it will not create as much reaction from one country as it did last year."
Former US president Jimmy Carter, whose work after leaving office in promoting democracy and human rights won him the Peace Prize in 2002, told Reuters on Thursday that Obama still had to fulfil the promises which had earned him the award two years ago.
He said that last year's recognition of Lu may well have a positive effect for rights in China, despite the public anger.
As for predicting a winner this year, however, Carter echoed many seasoned Nobel-watchers: "I have no idea," he said.
"I didn't know when I got it."