The Nobel Peace Prize as Catalyst for Freedom of Speech Should Not be Over-estimated

Chong Hiu-yeung - General Secretary, HKJA
Mak Yin-ting - Chairperson, HKJA

[Jan 2011 - The Journalist]  Dr. Liu Xiaobo, who has been jailed for speaking out for freedom, was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Many in Hong Kong are pleased because his efforts and those of other human rights defenders have been recognised by the international community. Human rights defenders in China have also been encouraged, showing the world that more and more people are ready to voice out their views even though they may be suppressed or penalised.

In fact, the Beijing authorities have intensified suppression of dissent since the announcement that Dr. Liu has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It seems that the freedom of expression in China is in the grip of a very chilly winter.

The empty chair is as powerful as the man who
stood in front of the tank 21 years ago in
Beijing. (Captured from internet)
So what is the meaning of this award to Dr. Liu and what are the consequences for freedom of speech in China?

If you think that this award can improve human rights in Dr Liu's homeland, then you would find the analysis of Dr Ronald R. Krebs, the Associate Professor of Political Faculty of the University of Minnesota not unlike icy cold water poured on your head.

Based on previous research, Dr. Krebs reminds all not to be too optimistic about the future of China just because of this award in an article entitled Supporters of China’s Liu Xiao Bo should be wary of his Nobel Peace Prize which appeared in the Washington Post on October 10 last year. According to him, in the previous five decades, the human rights situation under most authoritarian regimes have not made any significant improvements in both the short and medium term after dissidents in those countries were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nobel Peace Prize Winners Who Push Domestic Reform
Carl von Ossietzky
Germen Journalist against Hilter
Albert Lutuli
Leader of ANC in South Africa
Martin Luther King
Leader of Civil Right Movement in US
Andrei Sakharov
USSR scientist and dissident
Betty Williams, Mairead Corrigan
Peace Activists in Northern Ireland
Lech Walesa
Union Leader in Poland
Desmon Tutu
Archbishop of Anglican Church in South Africa
Dalai Lama
Spiritual Leader of Tibet
Aung San Suu Kyi
Leader of opposition party
Rigoberta Menchu Tum
Guatemala Activist for Indigenous Rights
Nelson Mandela, F. W. de Klerk
Leader of ANC, President of South Africa
Shirin Ebadi
Dissident Lawyer in Iran
Liu Xiao Bo
Dissident Scholar in China

Reporter an exception

Dr. Krebs studied the history of the Nobel Peace Prize in the last century. He found that the prize was awarded to the person who had worked to promote fraternity between nations, abolition or reduction of standing armies and the promotion of peace before 1960. The only dissident awarded the Nobel Peace Prize up till then was reporter Carl von Ossietzky who had opposed the Nazi regime in Germany. He was the 1935 laureate.

After 1960, the Norwegian Nobel Committee seems to have subtly changed the original mandate. Dissidents who had yet to bring about any significant changes to their own countries, have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. About one fourth of awardees over the past 50 years belong to this category. (Table 1)

What is the explanation for this change? Apart from recognition of the work done by the awardees, Krebs suggested that the committee has tried to use the prize to liberalize a state by promoting the movement the awardee led and to raise the concern of the international media to the situation of the awardee’s country.

As Francis Sejersted, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the 1990s said: “The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account…Nobel wanted the Prize to have political effects.”

Has this wish been fulfilled? The USSR dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov was exiled to the industrial city of Gorky five years after receiving the prize, without making any noticeable change to the human rights situation in the USSR. The case of Myanmar is similar. The military junta overruled the election results and imprisoned elected leader, Aug San Suu Kyi. She won the award in 1991 but the junta intensified its suppression of democracy activists.

Dr. Krebs suggested that these authoritarian regimes believe that awarding the Nobel Prize to dissidents is a plot by the international community. These regimes also worried about the effects of the award on the democratic movement inside the country. Hence pre-emptive actions to intensify the suppression and minimize the Nobel Peace Prize effects have followed. The intentions of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to promote reforms have thus failed.

Changes take time

Professor Ting Wai from Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University believes that how a regime changes is too complicated to fall into specific periods of time. It is especially complicated in regards to human rights and democracy, which take time to effect changes especially in the regards to the economy and to people's livelihoods. Changes to the latter make possible revolutionary changes for a regime.

He further pointed out that the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to one dissident for his/her achievements. It may draw worldwide attention to a situation and exert pressure on a particular regime but the “push effect” is limited and should not be over-estimated.

According to Prof Ting, the Nobel Peace Prize is an honour to the awardee and recognition to his/her achievements as well as to associated activists. This is the reason why Liu Xiaobo as well as Lech Walesa got the prize. It is well-known that numerous intelligentsia in Solidarity led by Walesa helped the transformation of communist regime in Poland, and many in China are fighting for democracy and civil rights like Dr. Liu. However, it should be understood that the collective efforts of these activists are not strong enough to trigger changes in China.

Therefore, to measure the impact of the Nobel Peace Prize in terms of the time span from the date a dissident is awarded the prize and the time taken to see a regime change carries little meaning. Prof. Ting said the case of Poland provided an explanation. The Polish Communist government collapsed seven years after Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Walesa became the first elected president in modern democratic Poland. However, numerous factors caused the fall of the Polish communist government. Its relationship with the Nobel Peace Prize is insignificant.

Prof. Ting also does not agree that a watershed in awarding Nobel Peace Prize can be drawn from the 1950s and 1960s. He said that the award of the prize is the result of a comparison of candidates’ achievements for the year. For example, Henry Kissinger the Secretary of State of the US and the leader of North Vietnam, Le Duc Tho got the Nobel Peace prize in 1973 because the Paris Peace Accords was signed between the US and North Vietnam.

He jokingly said that the Paris Peace Accord was signed to make sure the US’s retreat from Vietnam was a dignified one. But the end result was to cede South Vietnam to the North. If Kissinger and Le Duc Tho were nominated in 1975, they might not have been awarded the prize.