Home / Opinion / Malala Yousafzai, Kailash Satyarthi, and the four Nobel truths

It is very easy, and very tempting, to say nice and wonderful things about the nice and wonderful thing that has happened: an Indian and a Pakistani, a Hindu and a Muslim, have jointly won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.

If only India and Pakistan had emerged as joint winners of the football World Cup, or as each other’s biggest trade partners, or as joint leaders of the Human Development Index—that would be something. But joint winners of a prize that rewards social work?

Far be it from me to fire missiles of cynicism at the swarm of congratulatory drones raining hope and good cheer on either side of the troubled Line of Control. Malala Yousafzai is an honourable young woman who has overcome extreme adversity to become a globally admired spokesperson for girls’ right to education. Kailash Satyarthi is an honourable man who has devoted his life to freeing children enslaved by exploitation.

Without taking anything away from the extraordinary contributions of these individuals to their respective causes, it is necessary to point out two things: one, the Nobel Peace Prize is no longer a particularly honourable honour; and two, social work, while welcome, has little or nothing to do with world peace. In fact, the more well-funded an NGO (or social activist), the less its connection with peace-making action.

As per the will of Alfred Nobel, the weapons manufacturer (and former Bofors owner) whose money bankrolls the prize, it is supposed to recognize those who 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".

Setting aside the irony (and hypocrisy) of an arms manufacturer batting for world peace, the letter, if not the spirit, of the award suggests that the work it honours should have some bearing on minimizing or eliminating wars. Wars, by definition, are waged between (or managed by) entities of which one at least is a state. That is because only states command the resources to keep wars going. Hence the reference to “standing armies" and “fraternity between nations".

Sadly, even the dubious idealism of a businessman-inventor who profited from war has proved too much for the mandarins who decide the Nobel Peace Prize winners. From Menachem Begin and Henry Kissinger to Shimon Peres, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has a long history of bizarre choices that would be tough to justify from an anti-war/pro-peace perspective.

As the American journalist and anti-war activist Norman Solomon observed in a recent article, “the Nobel Peace Prize has been on a prolonged detour around the US government’s far-flung warfare, declining to honour anyone who had challenged any of it anywhere in the world." Nowhere is this detour more evident than in the contrast between the approbation showered by the Western political and media establishment on 17-year-old Yousafzai, and the comparative neglect of 10-year-old Nabila Rehman, also a Pakistani, whose grandmother was killed by a Predator drone. President Obama had a widely reported meeting with Yousafzai. But he did not have time for Rehman.

Could it be sheer coincidence that the survivor-activist of a Taliban attack is considered a more deserving ambassador for peace than the survivor-activist of an American drone attack? Well, not when seen in the light of the fact that the only dissident activists to have ever won the peace prize are from countries the US is not particularly fond of, such as China or Iran, and never from the US itself--no matter that Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning or the long incarcerated American political activist Mumia Abu-Jamal are all, every single one of them, inspiring icons of courage who have stood up to the most powerful, and most active, war machine in the world.

This judicious exercise in circumspection should hardly be a surprise, given that Norway is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and the Nobel Committee is appointed by the Norwegian parliament. But such a compulsion, however understandable, to steer clear of displeasing the world’s leading war-mongers does impose severe limitations on the choice of peace prize candidates. The most logical choices--those campaigning against war and injustice—are automatically ruled out. That is why the Nobel Peace Prize—already struggling to stay relevant in a world where war is a highly profitable multi-billion dollar industry—has fallen prey to what has been described as an “NGO mentality". You redefine work for peace in terms of social or humanitarian work so that you can leave the elephant in the room--a simple opposition to state-sponsored mass violence—out of the reckoning altogether.

Going by its track record in the 21st century, one could argue that there are four assumptions—or four Nobel truths—that underlie the choices of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee:

• War-making does not disqualify a person from the peace prize.

• Justice is not necessary for peace.

• Any person who challenges the supremacy of American political interests is ineligible.

• The ideal candidate should either be well-suited for furthering the propaganda goals of Western interventionism, or at least not threaten it.

From this perspective, Yousafzai is a dream choice. For no fault of hers, her story lends itself beautifully to the narrative of brave American drones battling the evil bigoted Taliban so that Pakistani girls like Yousafzai can go to school. Don’t be surprised if an African activist battling Ebola wins a peace prize in the near future.

Satyarthi, too, is an excellent choice, for child rights is the perfect cause in the world today--even better than human rights. His distinctive strategy of combining direct action with media publicity has done much to focus attention on the problem of child labour in India, and that is laudable. But it does not address the root causes of child labour: poverty, and the framework of inequality and exploitation that defines the treatment of labour in general, and extends to child labour as well.

A hundred Satyarthis freeing a hundred children a day from child labour would still not make India child labour-free in a hundred years because the structural causes that make child labour necessary lie in the political economy, and those cannot be rooted out unless the socio-economic disparities in our country are mitigated—and that is dangerous work that few NGOs would dare to pursue.

Not too long ago an Israeli prime minister and a Palestinian leader shared a Nobel Peace Prize. Twenty years have passed since but “peace" is as remote from Palestine as ever, and plainly impossible without justice for Palestinians. Yousafzai and Satyarthi are not even political leaders. And while an Indo-Pak Peace Nobel has a nice ring to it, no amount of social work can substitute for the hard, and often dangerous, toil for political and economic justice without which going on and on about peace can never be anything but a cruel joke.

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