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‘Myanmar’s onetime champion of democracy and Ethiopia’s prime minister join a roster of figures who, one way or another, have given the Nobel Peace Prize a contentious image.’ The New York Times March 13, 2020

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With Many Dents to Its Image, Nobel Peace Prize Is Hit With a Few More

By Rick Gladstone, The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2019

Myanmar’s onetime champion of democracy and Ethiopia’s prime minister join a roster of figures who, one way or another, have given the Nobel Peace Prize a contentious image.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, second from left, received the Nobel Peace Prize on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, second from left, received the Nobel Peace Prize on Tuesday.Credit…Erik Valestrand/Getty Images

The Nobel Peace Prize has long been contentious, beginning with its origins in the will of Alfred Nobel, the 19th-century inventor of dynamite. But it is extraordinary that two winners are almost simultaneously battling accusations of behavior that is widely regarded as antithetical to the spirit and purpose of the award, first given in 1901.

On Wednesday, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar leader who won the prize in 1991, appeared before the International Court of Justice and denied accusations that her government had committed genocide against the Rohingya minority. Her defense of Myanmar at the court was a jarring contrast to her onetime identity as an intrepid champion of human rights and democracy.

And on Tuesday, the 2019 winner, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, facing accusations of a heavy-handed crackdown on political protests, skipped a news conference after his acceptance speech.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, center, delivered a denial at the International Court of Justice on Wednesday that her government had engaged in genocide against the Rohingya minority.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, center, delivered a denial at the International Court of Justice on Wednesday that her government had engaged in genocide against the Rohingya minority.Credit…Koen Van Weel/EPA, via Shutterstock

In some years, critics have questioned the worthiness of winners without marquee accomplishments — like the 2012 award to the European Union, for example, or the 2009 award to President Barack Obama, just months into his first term.

In other instances — perhaps most famously the 1973 award to Henry A. Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duc Tho, as the Vietnam War was still raging — the track records of winners have been ridiculed. (The singer Tom Lehrer famously said that the choice of Mr. Kissinger had rendered political satire obsolete.)

In the case of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, some critics have suggested that the criteria for selecting winners should be reassessed — including the possibility that the honor could be rescinded. Such questions are inherent to the prize regardless who is chosen, said Dr. Richard B. Gunderman, a professor at Indiana University who has written about the prize’s history.

“The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize has always been fraught with peril, subject to the current drift of public opinion and political and nationalistic motives and prejudices,” Dr. Gunderman said.

“Like all human judgments, the Nobel committee’s decisions are prone to error,” he said. “It should do the best it can and then live with the consequences.”

Here are some other notably contentious Nobel Peace Prize nominees and winners:

Joseph Stalin was nominated for a Nobel prize in 1945 and in 1948.
Joseph Stalin was nominated for a Nobel prize in 1945 and in 1948.Credit…Keystone/Getty Images

Adolf Hitler was nominated in 1939 by a member of Sweden’s Parliament, E.G.C. Brandt, who apparently meant it as a satire against the leader of Nazi Germany, and never intended the choice to be seriously considered. But the nomination created such outrage that it was quickly withdrawn.

Joseph Stalin, Hitler’s nemesis and the leader of the Soviet Communist Party, was nominated twice — in 1945 and 1948 — for his efforts to end World War II. Despite Stalin’s murderous purges and pogroms, those nominations were taken in earnest.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull in 1939.
Secretary of State Cordell Hull in 1939.Credit…Associated Press

The American statesmen Cordell Hull won in 1945 for his role in establishing the United Nations. Six years earlier, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of state, he took steps that led Roosevelt to deny permission for 950 Jewish refugees aboard the liner St. Louis, fleeing Nazi persecution, to seek asylum in the United States.

Many of the passengers on the trip, known as the Voyage of the Damned, later died in the Holocaust.

Yasir Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
Yasir Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization shared the 1994 prize with the Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for the Oslo Accords, still widely regarded as the basis for a peace process. But many critics assailed the choice of Mr. Arafat because of his role in acts of terrorism against Israelis.

Le Duc Tho, center left, and Henry Kissinger, center right, during a meeting days before signing a cease-fire agreement in 1973.
Le Duc Tho, center left, and Henry Kissinger, center right, during a meeting days before signing a cease-fire agreement in 1973.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The 1973 prize was awarded to Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and the North Vietnam statesman Le Duc Tho for having negotiated a cease-fire in the Vietnam War.

Many critics of the war — which would not be over for two more years — ridiculed the choice of Mr. Kissinger, and his Vietnamese counterpart refused to accept the award on grounds that the United States had violated the cease-fire.

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize. She received it in 1991, not 1994.In Collecting Nobel Prize, Ethiopia’s Leader Plans to Sidestep MediaAung San Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar Against Rohingya Genocide AccusationsSurprise Nobel for Obama Stirs Praise and Doubts