In the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, there have been some extraordinary award recipients, moral exemplars who have combined the most passionate commitment to peace and justice in the face of the most strident and oppressive injustice.
There have been some worthy winners: Mother Teresa (1979), 1984 Bishop Desmond Tutu (1984), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964), Amnesty International (1977), and Henry Dunant, the organizer of International Committee of the Red Cross, (1901).
It is perhaps far too easy easy to look back and make fun of the recognition bestowed upon Henry Kissinger (1973), Yasir Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres (1994), and Al Gore (2007). But here I want to focus on the actions—and lack of action—of three important Nobel Peace Prize winners in the last decade: Obama, Elie Wiesel, and Aung San Suu Kyi. This is not to dismiss their good deeds and remarkable accomplishments. It is also to shine a spotlight on each of their moral failings.
*Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace prize winner.
She came to the world’s attention as a shining example of resistance against autocratic regime. Aung San Suu Kyi became one of the most celebrated political prisoners in the world, having spent 15 years of her life under house arrest.
She has refused to condemn the massacre and ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims in Myanmar (Burma). In fact, in her BBC interview this past week, she categorically denied that there is an ethnic cleansing going on in her country against Rohingya Muslims. You can watch the interview here.
International human rights organizations, many of whom had iconized Ms. Ayung San Suu Kyi for decades, disagree. Human Rights Watch released a 153-page report in April on “Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State.” And yet Aung San Suu Kyi has remained silent.
Rather than taking the kind of bold and clear stance that might be expected of someone of her stature, she has repeatedly gone on to find shelter in the equivocal terms of “violence has been committed by both sides.” She also spoke of “fear on both sides.” Rather than a clear condemnation of atrocities waged against Muslims, she returned to the fear of Buddhists against “Muslim world power that is very great.” It is an appalling blaming on violence on victims linked to global conspiracy theories.
There is a clear asymmetry of abuse here, as 140,000 Rohingya Muslims displaced from their home as they have had to flee persecution. Aung San Suu Kyi is probably the only person in Myanmar with the moral and political standing necessary to take a courageous stance against this atrocity, and she has so far shirked that responsibility.
It is frankly disappointing from a person of her magnitude.
* Elie Wiesel 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Wiesel is without a doubt one of the great moral voices of our time. A Holocaust survivor, his book Night has introduced countless students to the horrors of the Holocaust. As part of his own Nobel speech, Wiesel promised:
“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.
We must always take sides.”
And yet Wiesel has his own moral blind spot: Israel.
He has also stated:
“I support Israel period.
I identify with Israel period.
I never attack, I never criticize Israel when I am not in Israel.”
Those two statements are clearly at odds. One cannot claim to “never be silent” whenever and wherever human beings endure sufferings, and at the same time insist that one will “never criticize Israel.” Those two statements could only be reconciled if one was persuaded that the Israeli state never inflicts sufferings on other human beings, or a thought that should make one shudder: Wiesel does not consider Palestinians (and Lebanese and Syrians and Iranians) and their suffering to rise to rank of “human beings.”
Nor is it a sufficient answer to say that one will refuse to take a stand against injustice based on one’s zipcode. It cannot be a matter of where one is. It is simply a matter of when someone, anyone, no matter if it is one’s beloved community or a foe, is committing injustice. Ultimately we, all of us, and certainly our great moral exemplars, are called to stand up for justice no matter if it is being done to our community, by our community, or if our community is simply uninvolved.
Wiesel lent his name and moral credibility to an advertisement that appeared in multiple newspapers around the world, including New York Times, which discounted the claim that Muslims and Christians have to Jerusalem by stating: “It belongs to the Jewish people.” In fact Wiesel initiated the advertisement. Wiesel’s statement, produced on his website included such blatant falsities as; “And, contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.” Somehow the Palestinians who are routinely denied housing permits are living a different reality than what Wiesel describes. Wiesel—the extraordinary bright moral voice when it comes to the Holocaust—fails sadly in speaking truth to power in this case.
Wiesel’s partiality went so far as to focus on “dispossession” in the context of Palestine/Israel on the pages of New York Times again: Except he could not bring himself to speak about the Palestinian dispossession in 1948, where half of the indigenous population of Palestine were dispossessed and made into refugees. He could not bring himself to deal with 1967 and the 45 years of Occupation in West Bank and Jerusalem. No, the only time that Wiesel spoke of dispossession was at the culmination of settler colonialism in Gaza, when the Jewish settlers who had illegally built settlements in Gaza were returned to Israel proper. Then and only then did Wiesel spoke, all the while questioning whether the teachings of the Qur’an contain any elements of forgiveness, redemption, and transformation.
Wiesel stood with President Obama as the President called for crippling sanctions on Iran. When Iran elected a moderate president (Hassan Rouhani) by a landslide, Wiesel has continued to be against dialogue with Iran:
“I am against it, absolutely, come on, of course.”
What kind of a Nobel Peace Prize winner favors war and sanctions over dialogue?
It is frankly disappointing from a person of his magnitude.
*President Barack Obama, 2009 Nobel Peace Prize
Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace prize was one of the least enthusiastically received awards in history.
After all, Obama had hardly had time to do anything of significance to win this prestigious award.
What has he done since?
A lot of good, no doubt. The American economy inches towards a recovery. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), in spite of Republican obstinacy and a clumsy website, promises to offer health insurance to millions of Americans.
We are still at war in Iraq.
We are still at war in Afghanistan.
We are still spending more on our military than the next 12 countries combined.
We are still doing surveillance on both American citizens and international citizens.
We are still holding 164 human beings in Guantanamo without giving them a chance to come up for a fair and transparent trial.
We are still using drones, killing more people than were killed in 9/11 attacks.
We are still under NDAA (The National Defense Authorization Act), allowing Obama to hold American citizens under indefinite military detention.
We are still… an Empire.
We are still an Empire.
It is frankly disappointing from a person of his magnitude.
As we have been told so often, there can be no great disappointment where there is also not great love. The disappointment in Obama, in Wiesel, and in Aung San Suu Kyi is also inseparable for a deep love for them, and gratitude for the courage they have each shown in other venues. And the disappointment has to also be our own, in having ever put our own faith in select individuals instead of the collective good will of humanity.
This is not to suggest that the sum of their lives has been less than impressive. It is simply a reminder that there are no exceptional human beings. We are all unfinished struggles between justice and injustice, light and darkness, beauty and ugliness. And occasionally we see that the loftier a person’s vision is, the greater their own moral blind spots can be.
No, there are no exceptional human beings. There are only exceptional acts of sacrifice, acts of love. The most we can hope for and expect rom any human being, from ourselves, is to put together one act of love after another. And then another. Otherwise to except perfection from any one person is bound to leave us disappointed. We are done with messianic delusions, even if they are certified with a Nobel Peace Prize.
It is also a reminder that we have to keep each other accountable, even the most noble and beautiful of us. We have to insist that we practice moral constancy, and shine the light on those moral blind spots.