Oslo, Oct. 10 (Reuters): Guardians of the Nobel Peace Prize have again raised a little-known campaigner to the world stage by honouring Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi in a surprisingly bold push for reform in the Muslim world.
Nobel watchers praised the Nobel committee for the choice likely to send pro-democracy waves far beyond Iran, but said hopes of influencing Tehran were fraught with risks of failure. “This prize will promote all people who try to reform the Muslim world,” said researcher Espen Barth Eide at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), calling it “a process prize” aimed at steering events towards democracy.
“It could prove effective. Perhaps Iran will be the start of a modernisation process for the entire Muslim world,” he said.
The 1992 prize to Guatemalan human rights campaigner Rigoberta Menchu, then little known abroad, put the spotlight on the struggle of indigenous peoples in Latin America, even though it has not ended discrimination in Guatemala. In 1995, the committee surprised virtually everyone, including the winner, by celebrating veteran ban-the-bomb scientist Joseph Rotblat. The prize did not stop France, however, from testing nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.
And the Norwegian Nobel committee has sometimes been slammed for controversial and unexpected choices. Other times, like last year when former US President Jimmy Carter won, the award has been seen as a pat on the back for long service for peace.
The panel has been routinely blasted for splitting the 1994 award between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, then Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for the now-derailed Oslo peace accords.
“The committee does not live in an empty room. We have antennae out and feel where there are areas which now need to get into focus,” the head of the five-member Nobel committee, Ole Danbolt Mjoes, said about the prize to Ebadi.
“We wish to see that in the nation that Ebadi comes from women should come into focus, the Muslims need to come into focus — every country in the world needs to get into focus where human rights are violated,” he said. Kari Vogt, a University of Oslo researcher who was among a few who had correctly tipped Ebadi, said it would help Iran’s reformists and signal that “Islam and human rights are compatible”.
“Ebadi stands for a non-Western way of looking at human rights. That is a strong signal,” Vogt said. Ebadi was the first Muslim woman to win the prize. “The question is how controversial the prize is in Iran,” said chief researcher Stein Toennesson at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. He said if Iran’s President Khatami welcomed the prize, that would “boost her status and make it difficult for the conservatives to brush the focus away. In that case, it could really bring change.”