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Nobel Peace Prize plays it safe with Martti Ahtisaari

By Adrian Blomfield,
October 10, 2008

After several years of slightly odd choices, the Norwegian Nobel committee has returned to tradition by awarding its famous peace prize to Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president.

When he came up with the notion for the award, Alfred Nobel envisaged that it would be given to people who had done “the most or the best work for fraternity between nations.” Recent recipients have prompted criticism that Nobel’s vision has been debased. People like Al Gore, the former US vice president and Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist, may have been worthy in their own fields but it was a difficult stretch to suggest that they had done much to further world peace.

Mr Ahtisaari is undoubtedly a more qualified winner. One of the world’s most prolific peace negotiators, he has been involved in mediating talks to end conflicts across the globe, from Northern Ireland to Namibia and Indonesia.

That has done little to silence the critics, however. In the recent past, the Nobel committee may have eccentrically quixotic or nauseatingly politically correct, depending on your point of view. In 2008, it has been far too conventional, perhaps even craven.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Enshrining Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom from want and freedom from fear — the declaration has become the world’s most translated document.

It is an important anniversary and many believe that the peace prize should have been awarded to one of the brave individuals who have risked their lives and liberty in pursuit of protecting those freedoms. There were many contenders but most bookmakers pointed to two in particular: Hu Jia and Lidia Yusupova.

Mr Hu is a Chinese human rights campaigner, pro-democracy activist and champion of the environment who is currently serving a 3-1/2 year jail sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”. In a year that has seen international attention focused on China because of the Olympic Games, the Nobel Committee could have used its role as the world’s conscience to remind everyone of Beijing’s miserable human rights record.

Mrs Yusupova, often described by international human rights organizations as “the bravest woman in Europe” was clearly another deserving candidate.

She risked the daily danger of kidnap to become one of the few human rights activists to work and live in Grozny and virtually single-handedly exposed the gross atrocities that Russia and its loyalist Chechen henchmen visited upon the people of that sorry part of the world.

By passing both of them over, campaigners that I have spoken to in Russia believe that the judges have dealt a blow to the cause of human rights around the world. To paraphrase Sergei Kovalyov, a veteran Soviet-era dissident, the decision made it look like the committee had scant regard for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Bizarrely, some defenders of the Nobel committee have argued that it would have been inappropriate to give the peace prize to a human rights activist.

That has not stopped the judges in the past - and rightly so. Few would argue that the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy activist, Lech Walesa, Desmond Tutu or the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov were unworthy recipients.

Then again it is easy to risk offending Burma, Apartheid South Africa or even the Soviet Union during those comforting days of the Cold War when it seemed so much simpler to distinguish right from wrong.

Provoking the powerhouses of China and Russia, especially when Europe depends on the latter for so much of its energy, is clearly a more unappetizing prospect for the Nobel judges.

It may have ditched the quixotic eccentricity, but it seems that the Nobel committee is as politically correct as it ever was.

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