Presentation Speech by Francis Sejersted, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee
Your Majesties, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1994, in alphabetical order, to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East. It is a great pleasure for us to be able to welcome all three laureates here today. We know that they are all heavily engaged in complicated political processes. We therefore set all the more store by your having taken the time to come so far north to our wintry little country to receive the Peace Prize.
That the fate of the Middle East attracts so much global attention is no coincidence. The conflict, or conflicts, in the Middle East concern us all in a very special way. The Middle East is where Africa, Asia and Europe meet. It is where several major religions had their roots. The Middle East is therefore the mirror where the world sees itself reflected. The way conflicts are resolved there, or not resolved, are an example, creating hope, or extinguishing it, in other regions. That is why developments, and not least the activities of our laureates, are watched with such anxious attention.
Permit me to strike a brief personal note. Raised as we were in Norway’s Protestant Christian tradition, we had drilled into us already in primary school the history and geography of two countries: Norway and “Palestine”. When I visited the Middle East for the first time ten years ago, it felt like coming to a country I had known for a long time. It was not just that I had learned its complex and bloody history from the Bible. With a child’s imagination. I had also built up memories of the country. Jerusalem and Jericho were places where I had been. At the same time, I bore within me the deep spiritual unrest which awareness of the holocaust created in us Europeans. The world community’s support for the establishment of the state Israel was intended to right, and probably did right, some of the wrongs committed. Yet I felt more unrest creeping into my mind, not least at the sight of the deserted refugee camp near Jericho, testimony that once again a people had taken to flight. Is there no end to this history? Can no injustice be righted without creating more injustice?
Critics of this year’s choice of laureates have said that the Nobel Committee is so distant from the conflict that it cannot understand it. Perhaps. Probably only those who live in the midst of the conflict know what that means. On the other hand, solutions may be easier to see for those who have a wider view, and can watch events, in Ibsen’s1 words, “through a hollowed hand, to gain a better perspective”. The problem is rather that it is so difficult to reconcile these perspectives. But that is exactly what this year’s laureates have done. Although living in the conflict, they have retained the ability to look beyond it.
In the committee’s view, the so-called Oslo Accords2 concluded last year between Israel and the PLO meant that developments in the Middle East had taken a new turning. What was revolutionary about them was the de facto mutual recognition by the two parties. Not least by virtue of that recognition, the accords opened up a possible way out of the vicious circle of violence breeding violence, and towards peaceful co-existence. Since the accords were concluded, developments have become more dynamic. This applies both to relations between Israel and the Palestinian people, and to relations between Israel and the neighbouring Arab states. The Oslo Accords have, as Prime Minister Rabin said at the press conference yesterday, opened up for a normalization of relations with the entire world.
It has been said that the Nobel Committee ought to have waited. But to say that is to disregard what has already been achieved as a result of the Oslo Accords – in all the areas mentioned. Besides, if we had to wait for what Kant3 in his famous essay called “perpetual peace”, we might have to wait a long time. Peace has to be perpetually won. That means that every award must contain an element of entering into a process, a process with a promise of peace. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded both in recognition of efforts which have been made, and to encourage still further efforts. There can be no doubt that that is also how Alfred Nobel intended the prize to work.
The Committee considers this year’s three laureates to have been the persons most responsible for the Oslo Accords and for following them up. They watched the negotiations from day to day, and took the difficult and fateful decisions on what concessions to make to the other party. In a situation marked by war and hatred, they had to take the risk of showing their opposite numbers at least a minimum of trust, trust that the peace feelers were genuine, confidence that if they offered an outstretched hand, there would be someone there to take it. On that bet they staked their political lives. That takes great courage. For such negotiating games to succeed, there has to be a kind of symmetry. Both sides need to be able to feel that the give and take will end up roughly even. It is chiefly thanks to the three laureates that this delicate balance has been achieved. Concession must be followed by concession, or the process will come to a halt. So far, both parties have given a great deal. Our hope as the process continues is that neither will be driven to breaking these “rules of the game”.
For various reasons, which are none too clear, and which I shall not consider here, the world attaches considerable prestige to the Nobel Peace Prize. That can make it all too tempting for the Nobel Committee to slip, as it were, into moral judges’ robes. We are indeed often called upon, and from many quarters, to be just that – moral judges. Permit me to note that we seek to perform our appointed duties with great humility. For the distant viewer, and perhaps especially for the distant viewer from a privileged and peaceful corner of the world, it is so easy to moralise – a bit too easy. Personally, I am convinced that one reason for the prestige won by the Peace Prize is that moralising arrogance has been avoided. In this way one has been able to support the real moral project – peace. The intention has been, not to judge or to hand out certificates of good conduct, but simply to reward practical work for peace, in accordance with Nobel’s own guidelines.
Right from the start, the committee has given practical peace work a broad definition. The range extends from humanitarian work via work for human rights to political action which helps to prevent or stop or resolve conflicts. And it is precisely in this last important area that our laureates have intervened, so forcefully and with such courage. Hatred and violence breed hatred and violence. The Middle East was deep in that vicious circle; more and more minds seemed possessed by it. But, as we see, there are some who are strong enough to break out, who manage to stop to think, who turn around and go back on their tracks in search of a basis for peaceful co-existence. Perhaps they are the most deserving of respect and admiration. Were we not taught that such homecomings should be the cause of the greatest rejoicing?
On a previous occasion of this kind, I recalled the reflections of the British poet and intellectual Stephen Spender when he took part in the Spanish civil war. For him the fight against fascism was a just cause, but a point came when he stopped and discovered to his horror what a brutalising effect the war was having on him. “It was clear to me”, he wrote later, “that unless I cared about every murdered child impartially, I did not care about children being murdered at all”.4 Spender was strong enough to conduct that kind of cathartic selfexamination, and to break out of the vicious circle he had been trapped in.
This is not attempt on my part to sum up the characters of our laureates, much less to speculate about their deeper motives for doing what they have done, which they may not even know themselves. All I am trying to do is to suggest how complex the situation is and how difficult it is to pass judgement. But my main errand is different, more limited but perhaps at least as important: to call attention to the boldness and consistency of the political initiatives taken by the three laureates ever since the opening of the Oslo negotiations.
The three prize-winners are all in positions in which they have power to intervene in the course of events. But their positions are also exposed. Despite that, they have used them to attempt together to change the direction of developments, to break out of the vicious circle of hatred and violence, and to point out a path to reconciliation. As leaders they represent and mobilise the longing for peace which of course exists in both peoples. The past cannot be forgotten, but one can take various attitudes to it. One can choose to live in its shadow, or to make use of its experience to build a better future. Our laureates have chosen the latter, and so far they have succeeded: developments have taken a new turning.
The situation is still full of tension, marked by violence, killings, and insecurity, and stability is still far to seek. Nevertheless, our laureates have not only shown that a road to reconciliation can be found, but also very bravely taken several steps down that road. It is in admiration of that effort, and in the hope that the process they have started will continue, that they are today being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
2. The major document signed on 13 September 1993 was the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements. For the text see Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin, eds., The Israel-Arab Reader, 5th revised edition (New York: Penguin, 1995): 599– 612.
4. Sejersted referred to these thoughts of Stephen Spender in his presentation speech for Rigoberta Menchú Tum at the award ceremony in 1992. See the text where the book by Sissela Bok, where Sejersted found Spender’s quotes, is cited.
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