Borderline Views: The Peace Prize that got away

The name of Nicholas Winton was submitted to the Nobel Prize Committee in a petition signed by tens of thousands of people throughout the world.

Nobel Peace Prize awarded to OPCW 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nobel Peace Prize awarded to OPCW 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Once again, the Nobel Prize committee surprised us all with its choice of Nobel Peace Prize recipient for this year. The decision to award it to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was a surprising one, to say the least. Had the OPCW had some tangible successes behind it, there would have been sense in the decision, but it is clear to all that the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, which brought the topic to global attention, was the reason behind this decision – despite the fact that absolutely nothing has yet been achieved.
Many of the Nobel Committee’s past decisions concerning the Peace Prize have been the subject of much criticism. The decision to award the prize in 2009 to US President Barack Obama, who has yet to demonstrate any significant activity or success in the realm of world peace, was perhaps one of the most surprising of all.
Other awards, such as that given to the European Union last year or to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat 20 years ago following the signing of the Oslo Accords, have also been criticized, but at least in those cases there was some logic – in both cases, the recipients could point to some tangible past achievements.
In the case of the EU, European and global politics has changed for the better as a result of the emergence of a semi-federal Europe out of the ashes of World War II – regardless of whether the economic union is facing a crisis at the moment. Sixty-five years ago, no one could have dreamed a Europe at peace with itself as is the case today – and for that, the EU was a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
In the case of Rabin, Peres and Arafat, the Oslo Accords were, at the time, a major achievement and signified a structural change in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians. At the time, we believed that there was a real window of opportunity leading to conflict resolution and an end to violence – even if the greater objectives of regional peace were still a long way off. The peace spoilers on both sides did their utmost to ensure that Oslo would fail and, unfortunately, had it their way.
But even today, when the chances of reaching a solution in the short term are as far away as they ever were at the time of the Oslo negotiations, the structural change that involved the mutual recognition and legitimation of the existence of the “other,” creating a framework for discussions and negotiations when necessary, remains an important achievement, albeit not enough. There does not, unfortunately, appear to be any future peace prize recipients on the horizon who will be so honored for bringing the Israel-Palestine conflict to an end.
And no one can protest the awarding of the prize to Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter for reaching, and implementing, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. It may be a cold peace, but it has held steadfast for 35 years – a situation no one could have imagined just a few years earlier at the time of the Yom Kippur War.
Other individual statesmen and politicians have deserved the prize for their work toward peace and reconciliation.
Names that spring to mind include Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa (this has nothing to do with his views concerning Israel), John Hume and David Trimble for their role in bringing greater stability to Northern Ireland, or Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari for his role in bringing an end to the bloody conflicts in the Balkans, especially in Kosovo. These are all people who have something tangible to show for their efforts – and have been directly responsible for bringing an end to violence and injustice in different regions of the world.
This year, there was another name – unknown to most people – on the table. The name of Nicholas Winton was submitted to the Nobel Prize Committee in a petition signed by tens of thousands of people throughout the world.
Sir Nicholas Winton, now 104 years old, organized the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from German-occupied Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II in an operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport. He single-handedly established an organization to aid children from Jewish families at risk from the Nazis. He set up an office at a dining room table in his hotel in Wenceslas Square and arranged for the exit of children below the age of 17 to the UK. He found homes for them and arranged for their safe passage to Britain. His humanitarian work only came to light following his retirement, when members of his family found documents relating to his wartime activity hidden away in the attic of his house.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Winton would not just have been a worthy recognition of a unique individual, but would have given credit to the committee for recognizing that the saving of an individual life, and particularly that of a helpless child, is akin to saving the entire world. Winton was not Jewish and was not involved in any formal anti-Nazi or pro-British organization.
He simply had a deep sense of morality and an inherent understanding that children must not be allowed to suffer under the bestiality of the Nazi regime.
And so he went to work, at great danger to himself, without any headlines or prizes or recognition until, by chance, his activities came to light almost 60 years later.
To hear Winton speak is a revelation in itself. He doesn’t get involved in complex analyses of global politics of the time. He simply puts the moral issues on the table, the value of life and the dignity of the individual. The chances that the global petition on his behalf would succeed was never top of the list. Whether it was even seriously considered by the committee is unknown. But he would have been a worthy recipient – a recipient who would have reminded the world that peace is far more than the signing of a document on the lawn of the White House or in a European palace.
Winton did not receive the prize, but his name and achievements will probably live on in the memory of those he saved and their descendants as a true champion of peace, when the OPCW may have be all but forgotten.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.