The Nobel Peace Prize for 2016 has been awarded to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. According to the Press Release, the award was given for his “resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long war to an end…. The award should also be seen as a tribute to the Colombian people who, despite great hardships and abuses, have not given up hope of a just peace, and to all the parties who have contributed to the peace process.” The Committee noted that peace in Colombia is now uncertain with the narrow defeat of the referendum on the peace deal. But “the referendum was not a vote for or against peace. What the ‘No’ side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement.”
The award to President Santos is consistent with a long tradition of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to architects of peace agreements. There are numerous examples. President Theodore Roosevelt won the prize in 1906 for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese war. During the interwar period, the prize was awarded to Aristide Briand, Gustav Stresemann, and Sir Austen Chamberlain for the Locarno peace deal between France and Germany. In 1950, Ralph Bunche won the prize for negotiating an end to the Arab-Israeli war in the Middle East. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won the prize in 1973 for the ceasefire agreement in Vietnam. Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (and much later Jimmy Carter) won the prize for the Camp David Accord. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias won the prize in 1987 for negotiating peace in Central America. Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin won the prize in 1994 for the Oslo Peace Accords. And John Hume and David Trimble won the prize in 1998 for the Good Friday Agreement. In short, the award to President Santos is in recognition of one of the most common themes in the long history of the Nobel Peace Prize: those who have sought and achieved an end to conflict through negotiated peace.
There are two items worthy of note about the decision to award the prize to President Santos. First, it is notable that the award was not also granted to FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, better known as Timochenko. Typically following a peace deal, the prize is granted to leaders from both sides of the negotiating table. It is possible that Timochenko was not nominated in time to win the prize (as was the case with Jimmy Carter in 1978), or more likely, there are aspects of Timochenko’s background that the Committee considered disqualifying. Widely suspected of war crimes and drug trafficking, a shared prize between President Santos and the Marxist guerilla leader would have raised eyebrows. (Prizes to unsavory figures like Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger are among the most controversial in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize). By singling out Santos for the prize, the Committee maintained the integrity of the prize and lauded the chief architect of the peace deal.
Second, the decision to award the prize to Santos despite the peace deal’s narrow defeat in the October 2 referendum came as a surprise to many. But the Nobel Committee has frequently used the prize to not only honor past achievements, but also spur parties to redouble their efforts to secure peace. No one considered that the Oslo Accords had achieved peace in the Middle East, but it was a high water mark for what was possible in the region. Likewise, the award to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan in 1976 was solely about the hope of future peace in Northern Ireland. By awarding the prize only to Santos, it strengthens his hand in the negotiations. It is widely suspected that the principal reason the Colombian people rejected the peace deal was because the amnesty deal was too favorable to FARC, and now Santos will have enhanced moral authority to strike a harder bargain. It also should embolden Santos to continue his efforts to find a peace deal that is acceptable to both the FARC guerillas and the Colombian people.
The awarding of the prize recognizes the tireless efforts of Santos and his mediation team (including my friend and Notre Dame colleague Doug Cassel) to end the longest ongoing civil war in modern history. It is cause for celebration and hope that peace will someday come to the long-suffering people of Colombia.