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How Political Is This Year’s Nobel Peace Prize?

The Nobel committee is usually looking to make a statement. Is it trying to tell us something about #MeToo—maybe even Brett Kavanaugh?

Pictures of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nadia Murad, a public advocate for the Yazidi community in Iraq and a survivor of sexual violence, and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, displayed in Oslo on Oct. 5. (Fredrik Hagen /AFP/Getty Images)
Pictures of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nadia Murad, a public advocate for the Yazidi community in Iraq and a survivor of sexual violence, and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, displayed in Oslo on Oct. 5. (Fredrik Hagen /AFP/Getty Images)

Was it just a coincidence that the Nobel Peace Prize committee recognized two activists against sexual violence on Friday, the same day that a man who is likely to be long shadowed by accusations of sexual violence was virtually guaranteed a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court?

Almost certainly it was. The Nobel prizes were scheduled to be announced this week, and it was only because of a series of unforeseen circumstances that the cloture vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination took place the same day as the peace prize announcement. Moreover, the scale of horrific sexual violence that this year’s honorees, Iraqi activist Nadia Murad and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, have fought against—war crimes such as the taking of sex slaves and endemic gang rape—vastly outweighs the allegations made against Kavanaugh.

Still, it was hard to ignore that the announcement of the prize came a year to the day since the New York Times published its expose on Harvey Weinstein, starting a movement that ultimately took down hundreds of accused sexual predators and turned the hashtag #MeToo into an international phenomenon.

At a news conference in Oslo, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, was cautious about identifying this year’s award with #MeToo, but she acknowledged there is a link between the movement and the kinds of sexual war crimes Murad and Mukwege have fought to eliminate. “What they do have in common is that it is important to see the suffering of women, to see the abuses,” she said.

The enormity of the violence Murad and Mukwege have fought to end may be one reason the committee is careful about drawing parallels. Murad spent three months as a sex slave at the hands of Islamic State militants who killed her mother and many other Yazidi women. Mukwege has treated thousands of rape victims in eastern Congo, which the United Nations has called the “rape capital of the world, and he and his family were attacked by militants.

Still, the Nobel Peace Prize is nothing if not attuned to the emerging zeitgeist. And there is general agreement that in recent decades the prize has grown increasingly politicized—that is to say, the committee likes to send heavily freighted messages of support to movements and individuals it deems to be on the right side of history. Begun in 1901 to fulfill Alfred Nobel’s desire to honor those who promote “fraternity among nations,” it has gradually become what University of Minnesota scholar Ron Krebs, who’s made a study of the prize, calls “aspirational.”

“It’s about awarding aspiration versus accomplishment,” he told Foreign Policy, especially when an international actor or institution for peace or human rights is under pressure, fighting for its life, or imprisoned. “This is no different from giving it to the European Union when the EU was under pressure, or to the president of Colombia when his peace plan was on the ropes, or awarding it to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] because you want to bolster their goals.”

Perhaps most famously—or infamously—the committee awarded new U.S. President Barack Obama the prize in 2009 when he’d been in office only 37 weeks. For most observers at the time, the award was mainly seen as an expression of global relief that George W. Bush was no longer in office and that a historic American president pledging to bring us together was.

But Obama turned out to be not quite the dedicated peacemaker the committee had hoped for—among other acts, he added more troops to Afghanistan and more than tripled U.S. drone strikes. The then-chairman of the Nobel committee, Geir Lundestad, later wrote in his memoirs that “even many of Obama’s supporters believed that the prize was a mistake. … In that sense the committee didn’t achieve what it had hoped for.”

The current prize could also be a nod to the Nobel Prize organization’s own #MeToo scandal, after it emerged that a French photographer who had grown close to members of the literature prize committee in Sweden was accused of sexual harassment and rape. The Swedish committee (which is mostly independent from its Norwegian counterpart) canceled this year’s literature prize because of the scandal.

“They have their own work to do in terms of getting their house in order,” Krebs said. “And maybe that played a role in why the Norwegian committee chose to highlight sexual violence in war. They could be shying away from the #MeToo movement in ways they didn’t have to” because of the Swedish scandal.

Krebs and other observers, in any case, believe that the prizes have generally had little impact in furthering the goals of their honorees in recent years—and occasionally, they achieve the opposite effect. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist who won the prize in 2003, was forced into exile by the Tehran regime in 2009.

Krebs said this year’s award will similarly do little to ameliorate sexual violence, whether it is in the boardroom or on the battlefield.

“On one hand, one appreciates the work the Nobel Committee is doing in bringing attention to it. But I’m pretty sure the Islamic State doesn’t care.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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