The Nobel Peace Prize has gone to Colombia’s president for his peace deal with rebels, even though it failed

Wanted: peace through any means.
Wanted: peace through any means.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Cabrera
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The 2016 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos for “his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end, a war that has cost the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians and displaced close to 6 million people.”

The decision is shocking, for two reasons. One is that it comes just a few days after Colombians voted narrowly to reject a peace accord with the country’s communist rebel group, the FARC, which representatives of Santos’s government had spent four years negotiating. The other is that the prize went only to him. Peace experts such as Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, and Asle Sveen, a Norwegian historian who has written several books on the peace prize, predicted that if the prize was awarded for the Colombian peace process it would be both to Santos and one or another FARC leader, as well as possibly a group representing victims of the 52-year-long civil war.

Why did the Nobel committee give the prize for a peace deal that failed? The decision recalls the award given to US president Barack Obama in 2009, less than a year into his first term in office, for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” That was criticized as premature, even by some Obama supporters; now that his tenure is ending, with the world a decidedly more tumultuous and divided place than when he started, the prize seems even less merited. Geir Lundestand, who was the secretary (a non-voting position) of the Nobel committee at the time, wrote in a memoir last year that in giving the prize to Obama “the committee didn’t achieve what it had hoped for.”

Before the award announcement, Sveen, the Norwegian historian, told the BBC that a Nobel for the Colombians was unlikely, but might be given anyway in an effort “to encourage [the peacemakers] to carry on.” That’s clear in the Nobel committee’s press release, which says:

What the “No” side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement. The Norwegian Nobel Committee emphasizes the importance of the fact that President Santos is now inviting all parties to participate in a broad-based national dialogue aimed at advancing the peace process. Even those who opposed the peace accord have welcomed such a dialogue…

By awarding this year’s Peace Prize to President Juan Manuel Santos, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to encourage all those who are striving to achieve peace, reconciliation and justice in Colombia. The president himself has made it clear that he will continue to work for peace right up until his very last day in office. The Committee hopes that the Peace Prize will give him strength to succeed in this demanding task.

Maybe so. But it’s odd that the committee chose not to give the other key parties in the peace negotiations the same encouragement.