Much to the consternation of many, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work negotiating in the Syrian conflict.
While the Putin administration’s anti-gay, anti-women and overtly religious conservative stance might make this seem ridiculous, Putin actually fits quite well into the Nobel Peace Prize’s legacy of controversial recipients.
Here are five examples in no particular order:
1. Yasser Arafat (1994) – Arafat won the award alongside Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East” as represented by the Oslo Accords which set out a five-year transitional period for Israeli forces to withdraw from occupied territories and for a Palestinian authority to be set up and establish a permanent settlement.
This was perhaps one of the most controversial of awards because of Arafat’s history of, by most any standards, presiding over a corrupt, violent and authoritarian regime. Yet the Nobel committee has shown an incredible ability to focus solely on perceived good deeds at the expense of context, illustrating why Putin’s nomination could be in good stead.
2. Wangari Maathai (2004) — Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” and the award was widely praised as a recognition of a woman creating social change.
Undeniably, a great deal of Maathai’s work might be praiseworthy, but what the committee neglected to recognize was that Maathai, speaking at a public workshop in Nyeri the same year she was awarded the prize, had reportedly said that HIV/AIDS was the result of a botched laboratory experiment and that AIDS was the deliberate creation of Western scientists who wished to control the African population.
For once the Nobel Committee could not ignore this controversy and a statement was issued in which Maathai commented she had never said such things and that the pronouncements were “wicked.”
The Standard, which had originally reported on the controversial statements, has always maintained that this was a direct quotation of Maathai’s words.
Putin has made similarly ridiculous statements about the gay population, ones he in fact hasn’t denied, that include him implying that Europeans are dying out in part because of their capitulation to gay marriage.
3. Henry Kissinger (1973) — Kissinger was awarded the prize jointly with Vietnamese revolutionary Le Duc Tho (though the latter turned it down) regarding his role in negotiating a ceasefire to end the Vietnamese war. In reality, not only did the war not conclude until 1975, Kissinger had been instrumental in crafting the Nixon era policies that escalated the Vietnam war.
Furthermore, Kissinger’s role as Secretary of State and his alleged (though broadly evidenced) involvement in a number of heavily questionable attacks including the U.S. bombing campaigns in Cambodia to name just one, has for critics brought the Peace Prize into disrepute.
Next page: Anti-choice and anti-immigration Nobel Peace Prize reward recipients.
4. Mother Teresa (1979) – You may be shocked to see Mother Teresa’s name on this list. Indeed, the abiding legacy is of the saintly and diminutive holy figure who tended to the poor and generally improved life for countless impoverished families. Notably, she won the prize for her “humanitarian work.”
The late Christopher Hitchens wrote extensively on why the simple notion of Teresa as a meek and selfless nun is false. Regardless, for our purposes we need only note that Teresa was aggressively against a woman’s right to choose, and that she in fact used her peace prize acceptance speech to wage the following attack:
‘We speak of peace … I think that today peace is threatened by abortion, too, which is a true war, the direct killing of a child by its own mother. In the Bible we read that God clearly said: ‘Even though a mother did forget her infant, I will not forget him.’ Today, abortion is the worst evil, and the greatest enemy of peace. We who are here today were wanted by our parents. We would not be here if our parents had not wanted us. We want children, and we love them. But what about the other millions? Many are concerned about the children, like those in Africa, who die in great numbers either from hunger or for other reasons. But millions of children die intentionally, by the will of their mothers. Because if a mother can kill her own child, what will prevent us from killing ourselves, or one another? Nothing.’
Teresa was also against the use of condoms, believing the prevention of conception to be a sin.
Teresa’s anti-abortion message is largely understood to have kept the wheels greased on several anti-abortion political machines ranging throughout Europe — particularly in Ireland — and even in the United States. In giving Teresa the Peace Prize and therein providing her yet another international stage, the committee allowed for her to do the work of the Catholic Church and attack women’s choice head on, something we still hear the echoes of today.
5. Cordell Hull (1945) – Hull won the peace prize for his role in helping to establish the United Nations. What the committee apparently overlooked was the fact that then Secretary of State Hull, together with the Southern Democrats, had been instrumental in having President Franklin D. Roosevelt turn away the S.S. St Louis, which was carrying 937 Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution.
Hull threatened to withdraw support from Roosevelt in the upcoming elections if he allowed the refugees on American soil. Roosevelt duly turned the ship away on June 6, 1939. It returned to Europe and while the U.S. did work with Britain to find safety for the refugees, more than a quarter of those who had sought asylum later died in the Holocaust.
Hull himself is not considered to have been an anti-Semite, but his reticence to engage with the worsening situation faced by Jews in Nazi Germany and his broader aims at not seeming to be in the pocket of the Jewish community so as to save his future political ambitions add up to a marked oversight by the Nobel Committee.
Putin’s own hostility toward immigration and even more regarding foreign oversight has been demonstrated by the increased burden the country has placed on foreign NGOs, to name just one example.
This list isn’t meant as an exhaustive look at the controversies created by the Nobel Peace Prize. Indeed, there were countless others that could have been mentioned.
Instead it is a snapshot of the Committee’s selective and highly subjective honors system and how the Putin nomination is unfortunately, despicably, not out of normal bounds for the Nobel Peace Prize.