What Does the Rohingya crisis mean for the legitimacy of the Nobel Peace Prize?

On November 14, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University hosted a lecture titled “Understanding the Rohingya Crisis.” During the lecture, panelists addressed the historical roots of the conflict in Myanmar, including the “othering” of the minority Rohingya Muslims and escalating fear of Islam, as well as the responsibility of the international community to respond to the crisis. Not only does the lack of response raise questions about the international community’s commitment to protecting peace, it also precipitates another interesting discussion: What does an ethnic cleansing perpetuated by a Nobel Peace Prize winner mean for the credibility of the award itself?

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader and first state counselor, was conferred the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her admirable fight for democracy in Myanmar. However, actions speak louder than words, or in this case, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s complicity to systemic killings and expulsions of Rohingya Muslims questions her promise to ensure peace and democracy in Myanmar.

Panelists of the event provided context for the crisis in Myanmar and cited startling statistics of pervasive and systematic violence against the Rohingya, which constitutes ethnic cleansing by UN standards. For example, Human Rights Watch reports that military repression has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, forcing at least 600,000 people to flee their homes. And yet, despite widespread awareness, irrefutable evidence of ethnic cleansing, and over 145 signatories to the Genocide Convention, the UN continues to deliberate on whether it constitutes as a genocide. Furthermore, panelist Mayesha Alam mentioned that during the recent ASEAN summit no state besides Indonesia criticized the government of Myanmar for its inhumane treatment of the Rohingya. Unfortunately, the lack of international response delegitimizes international covenants such as the Universal Declaration for Human Rights or principles such as the Responsibility to Protect.

In an open letter to Aung San Suu Kyi, fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “My dear sister: if the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.” Malala Yousafzai, another Nobel Peace Laureate, also expressed her disappointment in Aung San Suu Kyi: “I am still waiting for my fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to do the same. The world is waiting and the Rohingya Muslims are waiting.” Similarly, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch and long time supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, has said, “Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”

In her first public address since the violent military crackdown on the Rakhine state, many of Aung San Suu Kyi’s statements contradicted her actions. She displaced blame and denied culpability claiming that the Myanmar government “condemns all human rights violations and unlawful violence.” She also made false claims, assuring the audience that Rohingya Muslims did not face discrimination and had equal access to healthcare and education--a blatant lie. Perhaps, more concerning, in the same speech, Aung San Suu Kyi announced that despite widespread condemnation, she does not fear international scrutiny.

Despite ubiquitous disappointment around Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and calls for the revocation of her award, former Nobel Prize committee member Gunnar Stalsett defended the committee’s choice: “The principle we follow is the decision is not a declaration of a saint…when the decision has been made and the award has been given, that ends the responsibility of the committee."

Stalsett’s above statement is dangerous—it insinuates that the Nobel Peace Prize committee has no interest in the actions of their awardees post-conferment. Unfortunately, not condemning Aung San Suu Kyi for directly contradicting the very reason for which she is a laureate discredits the legitimacy and value of the prize. Recipients of the Nobel peace prize should be held to high standards, as well as accountable for their actions and face repercussions for committing injustices. While a Nobel Peace Prize has never been revoked, in this case, rescinding the award appears to be one of the more obvious and symbolic means of sending an important message: reputation and power do not acquit one of wrongdoing.

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