US' turn to fear Nobel Peace Prize embarrassment

Frank Ching says this week's Peace Prize and Sakharov awards have got the US fearing the sort of embarrassment China used to dread

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 October, 2013, 1:46am

This year's Nobel Peace Prize winner will be announced on Friday. Interest has been fuelled by the nomination of Russian President Vladimir Putin for his proposal to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, forestalling a missile strike threatened by US President Barack Obama.

Nomination, of course, isn't winning. This year there are more than 250 nominees - the most ever - including 50 organisations. Nominees include Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager who survived being shot by Taliban gunmen for her support of girls' education; and Chelsea Manning (previously Bradley Manning), a former army private who was sentenced in August to 35 years in prison for sending hundreds of thousands of classified US files to WikiLeaks.

A win for Putin would be embarrassing for the US, especially Obama, who won the Peace Prize in 2009. But it would be much more embarrassing for the US if the prize went to Manning, who announced his desire to live as a woman the day after his sentencing.

Another major international award announced this week is the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, awarded annually by the European Parliament. Previous recipients include Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. The prize has never gone to an American.

The outcome of this award may be even worse than the Nobel for the US: among those shortlisted is Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose extradition from Russia is being sought by the Obama administration.

While condemned as a traitor by some, Snowden is hailed as a patriot by others. The European Parliament nominated Snowden for its prize after holding hearings at which a letter purportedly from the fugitive was read out. It said that, "the surveillance of whole populations, rather than individuals, threatens to be the greatest human rights challenge of our time".

A former NSA senior executive, Thomas Drake, himself a whistleblower, testified that the agency is, "not just eavesdropping on all Americans and building the architecture for a police state in the US; it has created the largest set of mass surveillance programmes in the history of the world".

Snowden's chances of winning are good but the competition is stiff. Also shortlisted are Malala and a group of three Belarusian political prisoners. If Snowden gets the prize, it probably won't end Washington's attempt to put him behind bars for the rest of his life. But it will suggest that he has the moral high ground vis-à-vis the American government.

So, two individuals seen as traitors by the US are being considered for prestigious ideological awards.

Gone, it seems, are the days when China lobbied every year to ensure that the Nobel Peace Prize and the Sakharov Prize did not go to Chinese dissidents. Eventually, the Sakharov Prize went to Hu Jia , an imprisoned dissident, in 2008, and the Peace Prize went to another imprisoned Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo , in 2010.

Now, it appears, it is the United States' turn to worry, and, perhaps, be embarrassed.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@scmp.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1