Recently, I argued that the Nobel Peace Prize should go to nobody, “as an acknowledgment that the most notable eruptions of violence have been so grimly predictable, the result of years of individual and collective failures by governments and international institutions.”
Despite that sentiment, I certainly don’t object to the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s prize to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi for, as the announcement put it, “their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
The most surprising thing about the award may be how unsurprising it is. The last few peace prizes — particularly the ones given to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last year, the EU in 2012, and Barack Obama in 2009 — have been unexpected curveballs. Yousafzai, by contrast, was mentioned as a strong favorite in nearly every story leading up to Friday’s prize announcement.
The 17-year-old, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for campaigning for girls’ education in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, has become an international household name, particularly following her high-profile speech to the United Nations last year, and has authored a best-selling memoir.
Satyarthi, a 60-year-old campaigner against child labor in India, is much less well-known. He’s known for mounting raids on factories employing children — sometimes facing down armed guards — as well as running a rehabilitation center for liberated children, organizing the Global March Against Child Labour and setting up a certification system to ensure that carpets are made without child labor.
While Yousafzai and Satyarthi are both admirable and inspiring figures, I think it’s worth stepping back and assessing the Nobel committee’s mission. In its early years, the Nobel Peace Prize was most often given to honor a specific accomplishment in peacemaking — a treaty drafted or a conflict ended. (This is why some individuals not exactly known for their pacifism — Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger, to name a couple — have peace prizes.) But overall, it’s more often been given to individuals involved in the struggle against a particular pressing problem or injustice. (Think Al Gore or Aung San Suu Kyi.) This year is obviously an example of this second type of prize.
While the (somewhat inexplicable) prestige of the Nobel can certainly bring attention to worthy individuals, there’s less evidence to suggest it helps their causes. For instance, the prize given to human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010 has probably made it less likely that Chinese authorities will let him out of prison.
Some also find the Western media’s fascination with Yousafzai a little troubling. When she was passed over for the prize last year, blogger and technology researcher Zeynep Tufekci argued in a widely read post that in the Malala narrative “our multi-decade involvement in Pakistan is reduced to finding a young woman we admire that we all want to take home as if to put on a shelf to adore.” Whereas, she continued, “What the world is desperately lacking, and the Nobel Committee, for once, rewarded, is the kind of boring, institutional work of peace that advances the lives of people.”
There is something irritatingly smug and condescending about some of the coverage of “the bravest girl in the world.” It was a particular low point when, on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart said “I want to adopt you” to a young woman who’s spoken very publicly about the support she’s received from her father — a pretty brave guy in his own right.
But that’s our problem, not hers. My guess is that someone’s who’s comfortable telling the president of the United States to his face that his military policies are fueling terrorism isn’t going to let herself be reduced to a cuddly caricature. And in any case, it was probably wise for the Nobel committee to pair the very young global celebrity with a relatively unheralded activist with years of work behind him.
The committee gave its last two awards to institutions — the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the European Union — and not particularly popular ones at that. In a year in which governments and international institutions seemed particularly ineffectual in dealing with mounting violence and instability, giving the award to individuals seems appropriate. Dividing the peace prize between an Indian and a Pakistani also seems like a deliberate statement at a time when tensions are once again escalating between the perennial adversaries.
So, congratulations to the Nobel committee: If you were going to give the award to someone, you could have done a lot worse.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.