Give the Nobel Peace Prize Posthumously

There’s an easy way to avoid betrayal by winners of the world’s most important humanitarian prize: only give it to dead people.

Aung San Suu Kyi at 20th anniversary ceremonies honoring her winning the Nobel Peace prize December 10, 2011 in Yangon, Myanmar. (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)
Aung San Suu Kyi at 20th anniversary ceremonies honoring her winning the Nobel Peace prize December 10, 2011 in Yangon, Myanmar. (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Regardless of who wins the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow, the controversy over a previous recipient should prompt revision of the award’s future selection criteria. As the atrocity crimes perpetrated by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya escalate (possibly amounting to genocide), so too does criticism of the country’s state counsellor and de facto leader, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. And rightfully so. She is inflaming anti-Rohingya sentiment and blaming “terrorists” for “misinformation” about the crisis, and the government she leads is refusing to grant visas to members of a United Nations probe investigating the horrific violence and preventing international organizations from delivering vital aid.

A growing chorus, including an online petition with over 425,000 signatures, is now calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize or other recognitions — such as honorary Canadian citizenship, “Freedom of the City” awards from Dublin and Oxford, and a distinction from Harvard — to be stripped. The problem isn’t just that Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent conduct makes her undeserving of the Nobel Peace Prize, but that the imprimatur of the Nobel on Aung San Suu Kyi may have made the Rohingya crisis worse. For too many and for too long, the award has cloaked Aung San Suu Kyi’s deplorable actions in presumed benevolence and credibility.

The Norwegian Nobel Institute has stated that it has no authority or procedure to revoke a Nobel Peace Prize. But even if it is unable or unwilling to respond to the criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi specifically, the institute should revise its regulations going forward. Since 1974, the Nobel Foundation’s statutes have stipulated that a Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously, unless the awardee died after being announced as the winner. To protect its integrity, the Peace Prize should instead now be awarded only posthumously.

In making this amendment to the selection guidelines, candidates’ whole lives could be considered. Currently, only a portion of a nominee’s life can be evaluated, as occurred not only with Aung San Suu Kyi when she received the Nobel Peace Prize over a quarter century ago, but also in the cases of other controversial recipients, such as Yasser Arafat, F.W. de Klerk, Cordell Hull, and Henry Kissinger. Posthumous awarding of the prize would also allow worthy individuals overlooked during their lifetimes to be honored. Tragically, Mohandas Gandhi never received the award, an omission later members of the selection committee publicly regretted.

The Norwegian Nobel Institute could decide that candidates will be considered within the first decade of their deaths. This timeframe would be long enough to assess more clearly nominees’ contributions (positive and negative) but short enough for evidence still to be fresh and to avoid a limitless candidate pool.

This proposed rule change would apply exclusively to individual recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. Organizational awardees, of which there have been 23 to date, do not share the same biological restriction on the duration of their work. Since such organizations could operate indefinitely, no particular timeframe would necessarily enable a more objective assessment of their good deeds and misdeeds. The new rule would also not apply to the other original Nobel Prizes — in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature — or the subsequent prize in economics. Unlike the Peace Prize, none of these other Nobels is concerned with the recipient’s morality in mind, and so there is less of a compelling reason to honor achievements only after a full assessment of a nominee’s life can be conducted.

The Norwegian Nobel Institute could look to other awards for guidance on post-mortem recognition — the Pulitzer, Medal of Honor, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony have all been bestowed on deceased individuals. Canonization may be the most relevant honor to use as inspiration and comparison because the procedure begins after the candidate’s death and Nobel Peace Prize winners, including Aung San Suu Kyi herself, are sometimes likened to saints. (Indeed, Mother Teresa received both recognitions.)

To be sure, deliberately waiting to award a Nobel Peace Prize until after the honoree has passed away would dilute some of the prize’s impact. Decades — perhaps even a century — may elapse before an individual’s work is honored. (Malala Yousafzai was just 17 years old — the youngest Nobel laureate of any type, by eight years — when she received the Peace Prize in 2014.) The delay could mean missing the opportunity to call attention to a particular situation and an individual’s efforts therein, perhaps precisely when such increased notice would be most helpful.

Post-mortem Nobel Peace Prizes would also lose the chance of stimulating the honoree’s future work. After all, the stated objective of the Nobel Peace Prize is not just retrospective, but also prospective. Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute from 1990 to 2014, declared that the selection committee “has increasingly come to use the Peace Prize not only as a reward for achievements accomplished, but also an incentive for the Laureates to achieve even more.” A deceased honoree would no longer receive such an inducement.

Waiting could also miss out on alleviating honorees’ financial challenges and cause legal problems. Nobel Prize winners receive an 18-karat gold medal (one of which was auctioned for almost $5 million), a diploma (featuring a unique piece of art custom-made for the recipient), and a financial reward (which may be shared by up to three people and, this year, is set at 9 million Swedish kronor, or approximately $1.1 million). If bestowed posthumously, the honoree would not personally receive these valuable items, which could have helped finance their work. If an individual did not leave a will, difficult questions could arise about who should receive these items in the first place — possibly leading to contentious litigation.

But these downsides to delaying the award until after death are either dubious or could be a worthwhile price to pay for placing the Nobel Peace Prizes on a firmer moral foundation. Aung San Suu Kyi herself provides reason to doubt that a past prize will necessarily motivate future laudable work. Additional contentious situations like Aung San Suu Kyi’s would dilute the award’s prestige and meaning. Moreover, the logistics of posthumous awards are not as intractable as they may appear. The prize-awarding body could assert the final say over the recipient of the deceased’s award. The body might choose to donate the financial reward to the recipient’s institution, a charity designated in the recipient’s will as receiving a significant share of his or her estate, or, where no such beneficiary is named, an organization relevant to the recipient’s work. Where an ongoing organization shared the Nobel Peace Prize with a deceased individual in a particular year, the body could even decide that the former could receive the entirety of the financial reward. Given that the prize has already been shared a total of 31 times between two or three laureates, such a tidy solution may continue to be a common possibility.

Even if the Norwegian Nobel Institute were to revise its rules to bestow the Peace Prize only posthumously, it’s too late to affect this year’s award. And with so many past awardees still living, it’s possible even after such a change that the Aung San Suu Kyi predicament — a Nobel laureate honored for advocating human rights in her country later failing to do so — will recur. But tomorrow’s laureate should be the last one in the position to besmirch the award’s good name as Aung San Suu Kyi has with her bad behavior.

Zachary D. Kaufman, J.D., Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a Visiting Fellow at both Yale Law School and Yale University's Genocide Studies Program. He is the author of United States Law and Policy on Transitional Justice: Principles, Politics, and Pragmatics (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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