A civil war that has killed nearly a quarter of a million people and displaced nearly 6 million deserves concerted action. But just when the “experts” had confidently concluded that the Colombian rejection of the peace accord between the government and FARC rebels had doomed the chances of a Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
The surprises in this announcement are several. On the surface, it seems puzzling to give a Nobel Prize in a negotiation whose current status — not to mention ultimate result — is hazy. In fact, within minutes of the announcement, some pundits criticized the decision as premature. This general criticism is hardly new. Both the 1993 award to Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk and the 1994 award to Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat were lambasted as premature. Thus far, the South African plan has worked out. Sadly, the Middle East plan has not.
However, placing a bet on the winning horse is not the goal of the prize. Recognizing a predictable winner is not the point. The committee knows it is impossible to identify and reward in real time the “pivotal moment” of a decadeslong civil war. Only when tomorrow becomes yesterday is there certainty that today’s actions were sufficient. In 2016, the committee expressed belief that progress in resolving Colombia’s civil war is substantial and deserving of encouragement. And in voicing its belief that the “no” vote was a rejection of a specific peace plan and not a rejection of the desire for peace, the committee clearly signaled its hope for renewed efforts. Whether and how the negotiation gets back on track and across the finish line are open questions.
Setting aside the question of timing, a deeper surprise emerged with this award. The Nobel Committee historically has exhibited a penchant for inclusivity, often recognizing bilateral negotiators who were bitter enemies. The Mandela-de Klerk and Peres-Rabin-Arafat examples again illustrate the point. This year, however, the committee singled out Santos. Certainly Santos’ courage to initiate dialogue, fully commit himself, bring the matter to public referendum and not give up on an effort that now seems badly derailed is worthy of the prize. But already there are those who worry that not naming the FARC as a co-recipient is an affront to the rebels and a recipe for alienation. Although Santos had no part in the decision regarding the recipients, he may have to deal with ramifications of unrecognized co-negotiators. Santos now joins the company of singular Nobel laureates such as Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev, statesmen who became the publicly identified leaders of expansive efforts involving multiple parties. Parenthetically, each paid a price for his efforts.
At the same time the world greets this new Colombian Nobel laureate, it says goodbye to another laureate whose record, now in the history books, is still hotly debated. Shimon Peres, former prime minister and president of Israel, shares some life parallels with Santos. Both were elected public servants. Both served as defense ministers in agencies that stand accused in the deliberate deaths of civilians. Both lived in countries racked by 50 years of bloodshed.
Were Peres able to share his thoughts with Santos, he would surely rue the ongoing provocations and recriminations that dogged the Middle East accord before assassination ultimately doomed it. He might also recount his regrets and his mistakes. He might encourage the newest laureate by sharing the knowledge that while success is not guaranteed, there is no success without error and no success without effort. Santos would nod knowingly.
Dr. Maureen K. Reed is former executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum.