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.
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I can’t say that I completely agree with your take on this decision but I understand your reasoning – right up until that last paragraph where you state, “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.” The OPCW’s work regarding chemical weapons is unrelated to the reasons why this young girl was shot by the Taliban and why she had to be a hero. Destroying all the chemical weapons in the world, which obviously is incredibly unlikely, would not change anything about Malala’s situation, the treatment of women/girls or the Taliban’s actions in that regard. Also, this feels a little like punishing an amazing, brave young girl for the tendencies of the West. The fact that the West wants to make a celebrity out of people and our reasons for that do not alter her bravery or the fact that after suffering such violence, her response is to advocate for non-violent change, even against the Taliban.
Again, I do understand your reasoning but it seems almost as if it allows our own shortcomings to cost this girl.
Nothing I said alters the bravery of her, or the tens if not hundreds if not millions of very brave people who put their lives everyday in poor countries to fight authoritarianism and discrimination. We have no shortage of brave individuals. Are we “punishing them” all by not awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to all of them?
Yes, I do emphasize the importance of institution building rather than only celebrating people we pick as adorable and inspiring. The “third world” –and the world– suffers most from lack of institutional capacity in service of peace, disarmament, social justice… That work should be seen as inspiring and more should be done. It doesn’t take away from any one individual to point this out.
A beautifully written and sharp argument for Malala, others like her, and the OPCW’s win today. Thanks for posting.
Excellent piece. Very thought provoking.
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Really great to see you’re taking up issues like this, Z. Best piece I’ve seen on this situation. Thanks.
It is always the background workers that are the most under-appreciated in our modern day world, where visibility means everything. People are used to this celebrity culture which has invaded our thought processes thanks to an excessive media coverage of common events. Another example of people clinging to celebrities happens to be the case of the Physics Nobel this year. After it was announced that the winners received it for their work on the Higgs-Boson particle, everyone in my country started lamenting how Bose, after who had theorised the existence of such groups of particles, and after whom the particle was named, was never honoured for his achievement. Irrespective of what happened in the past, people fail to remember Bose for what he did rather choosing to remember him for what he wasn’t, Nobel laureate. When people speak about Malala in all possible brave terms, I have not seen any one then refer to the condition of women under the Taliban regime, but referring just to Malala.
Nevertheless, thanks to the Nobel Committee, I learnt about the existence of the OPCW and I would like to place in record my appreciation of their thought and work.
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A beautiful piece of content and a really provocative read.
Love your thoughts on Nobel 🙂
I think you have summed it up in the best manner in your comment later. Make it part of the article.
“Yes, I do emphasize the importance of institution building rather than only celebrating people we pick as adorable and inspiring. The “third world” –and the world– suffers most from lack of institutional capacity in service of peace, disarmament, social justice… That work should be seen as inspiring and more should be done. It doesn’t take away from any one individual to point this out.”
Very correct analysis. The talent, dedication and work of too many people go unrecognized in this world.
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I can’t agree with you more. Conflicts have been present since man’s existence and will continue to exist as long as there are differences in opinion and interest. What is important is how these conflicts are managed. There is no denying the fact that Malala has become the face of the miserable struggle that millions of girls and women face every day to simply sit in a classroom and learn without fear from those who want to deny them that right for religious, cultural and political reasons. It is not surprising, therefore, that she won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, which is awarded to individuals who, exceptionally, combat intolerance and oppression. However, the hazardous mission to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stocks and 16 years of wider global efforts by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons cannot be pushed under the carpet. Awarding the prize to the OPCW at this time shows that the world recognises their hard work under dangerous conditions in Syria. The dedication of the OPCW to maintaining peace and security to help form a safer world for all will forever remain important.
She deserved it.