My timeline this morning was full of disappointment that the brave young activist for women’s rights in Pakistan, the amazing Malala Yousafzi, was not chosen for the Nobel peace prize. Instead, the committee awarded the prize to Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The who?… seemed to be a collective sigh of disappointment.
But let me argue that this was exactly the right choice. The Nobel Peace prize should absolutely go to such under-appreciated, crucial institutions that help build peace, and that are sorely lacking in our complex world.
Yes, I am amazed by Malala. How can one not be? Her courageous young body, shattered by Taliban bullets, her strong, kind stance in that Jon Stewart interview everyone on my Facebook timeline shared.. It is hard not to be moved by her.
But she is but one courageous person. Fortunately for the world, there is no shortage of such brave, courageous individuals. In fact, there is an abundance of them, especially in poor, authoritarian countries. If you think Malala is rare, that is probably because you have not spent much time in such countries. Most Malala’s, however, go nameless, and are not made into Western celebrities. (That interview’s most telling moment was when Jon Stewart said “I want to adopt you” to her right after she repeatedly mentioned how great her own father was–such a striking sentiment in which our multi-decade involvement in Pakistan is reduced to finding a young woman we admire that we all want to take home as if to put on a shelf to adore).
What the world is desperately lacking, and the Nobel Committee, for once, rewarded, is the kind of boring, institutional work of peace that advances the lives of people. Everyday. Little by little. But without which lives are shattered and countries crumble (as they do now),
What the world needs more of is many, many more institutions like the “Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons” which are crucial to destroying weapons that destroy lives millions of Malalas. We need organizations and institutions that uphold ceasefires, that observe elections, that document human right abuses, that provide the infrastructure for education, for health, that destroy weapons (conventional and unconventional) and that can act as the institutional capacity of much that is good in international human rights law (which we also need to improve and hold up).
Again and again, the world faces awful moments. Civil wars. Ethnic Cleansing. Genocide. Chemical Weapons. Regular weapons that are just as deadly as chemical weapons. And we turn to international law, to the United Nations (such a flawed institution yet what we have), to international treaties, to the declaration of human rights to find high sentiments which are not matched by a multilateral, institutional capacity to do anything. This doesn’t happen by accident. This happens because nations of the world–from superpowers down to the little, less powerful ones–are not interested in the multilateral, international or national work of disarmament, peace-building, school funding, health care.
We end up without good choices. How did we get here, we ask and we end up looking the other way. Until the next time.
In the meantime, activism and social justice too often gets reduced to celebrity culture. Angelina Jolie visits refugee camps–good for her, but the crucial work of providing clean water to thousands of people trapped in such unsanitary conditions gets underfunded, and children die of cholera. No country takes in the refugees. Diseases spread, hunger and cold settle in.
But by then, the celebrity has moved on, the cameras have moved on, and those under-appreciated bureaucrats, technicians, the planners, the institutions that improve lives of millions of people, everyday, get dismissed, underfunded, even ridiculed. Hey, they are just bureaucrats and technocrats! Yes, one by one, they are just that. But as institutions they are what the world needs much, much more of.
Just in case you feel compelled to point out, I am well aware of the shortcoming of multilateral organizations. Overpaid staff and lack of accountability are real issues. But that does not take away from the fact that more institutional capacity with better oversight and principles is the gaping hole in a world in which almost all our major problems are internationalized, at least to a degree, and yet our institutions and tools remain woefully, dramatically inadequate. You name it. Human rights. Health. Weapons. Global Warming. Multilateral capacity within a framework of international law (yep, I’m bored typing it) is the only way forward because the other alternatives are whims of existing powerful nations, or celebrity moments on television which make us feeling good, but not much more than that.
So, three cheers for Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. May their work, and work of organizations like that, help keep future brave young Malala’s alive and thriving so that they don’t have to be heroes, but can be the children that they deserve to be.