Women's Rights Pioneers Win Nobel Peace Prize

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners were named Friday: Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian activist and author Leymah Gbowee. Michel Martin discusses the winners and meaning of the prize with Kristian Berg Harpviken, who follows the Nobel Committee's process closely and directs the Peace Research Institute in Oslo.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Jews around the world are preparing to mark Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We decided to speak with a woman who converted to Judaism. She's written a new book about the experience. It's called "Becoming Jewish." It's this week's Faith Matters, and it's just a few minutes from now.

But first, the winners of this year's Nobel Peace Prize were announced today and the award honors a trio of remarkable women this year. Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the Liberian peace activist and author Leymah Gbowee.

Here's Gbowee on our program in 2008 telling us what motivated her to get involved in the fight for peace after years of strife.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEYMAH GBOWEE: War fatigue, not having anything to lose because you've lost everything, being pushed so far back physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, every way, that we had two options - succumb to death or fight back. And we decided to fight back.

MARTIN: We wanted to know more about this year's winners and the process for choosing the Peace Prize honorees, so we've called upon Kristian Berg Harpviken. He is a noted observer of the selection process. He's also the director of the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. That's an independent research center that focuses on conflict resolution, dialogue and reconciliation. And he joins us from his office. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

KRISTIAN BERG HARPVIKEN: Well, thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: How often is the Peace Prize awarded to multiple winners? It usually goes to one individual, doesn't it?

HARPVIKEN: Well, it has happened quite a few times in the past that it's been awarded to multiple winners. Sometimes, it's been shared between an organization and an individual. The prize to Al Gore and the International Climate Panel is an example of that.

At other times, it's been shared between individuals. But it is probably the first time that we have a sharing between three individuals, which stem from different countries, where two of the winners are from one particular country and the third winner is from a second country.

MARTIN: And as a close observer of this process, can I get your opinion of how the decision to award the prize to these three women - do you think that they're worthy? Do you think they're a good choice?

HARPVIKEN: I think they're a very good choice. The issue of Yemen peace and security has been an issue that's been in the background of the Peace Prize for several years now, have certainly been propagating a Prize for this purpose. And I'm really glad that the committee has now awarded the Nobel Peace Prize exactly to this very important issue.

MARTIN: What statement do you think the committee is trying to make with this selection this year?

HARPVIKEN: Well, first of all, this is the first time that a prize is explicitly awarded to the role of women in peace processes. And that is ultimately the statement that the committee wants to convey. But there are a couple of other very important statements here, too. And one statement is about the commitment to nonviolent means, which is particularly prominent when it comes to two of the winners, namely Karman and Gbowee.

But there is also a third issue here, which is to promote changes in particular parts of the world. And I think the new Africa, the Africa that is exposed to tremendous democratization and some economic advancement is one and the Arab Spring is the other.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking about this year's winners of the Nobel Peace Prize with Kristian Berg Harpviken of the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. He follows the process closely throughout the year.

It's interesting, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, has been a guest on this program and she talked a lot about the role of women, both in activism and in governance, which is something that you just talked about. I'll just play a short clip from our conversation with her in 2007 when she talked about how her countrymen and women reacted to her decision to appoint women to several top positions in the government. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: In each of these cases, these are women that possess the requisite competence, you know, and character and courage, so they're fully accepted. As a matter of fact, I think, sometimes, they intimidate the others. And this is happening, not only just in Liberia. You know, if you look across the African continent, you find that women are taking positions that have not been traditional women area, so to speak.

MARTIN: You know, Mr. Harpviken, the interesting thing about this award, too, is that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee are both recognized as having achieved, you know, some of their goals. Obviously, there are still, you know, things yet to be done. But Tawakkol Karman is a Yemeni activist. She's still - if I can use this term - is still in the thick of the fight. I'll just play a short clip from a conversation that she told NPR earlier this year about being threatened by a government operative. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TAWAKKOL KARMAN: They will kill me and they will kidnap my children and they throw them from the mountain.

MARTIN: So, I'm interested in the Nobel committee's decision to award someone who's still very much in the middle of it. What is the calculation? Is the calculation that it might strengthen her hand in her efforts?

HARPVIKEN: Well, the will of Alfred Nobel himself says that the prize should be awarded to the person who has done the most for peace in the year that has passed. But the committee that's currently in office, which now is awarding its third prize under the chairmanship of Thorbjoern Jagland is a committee that has very much emphasized its interest in trying to affect the positive development that is underway.

So, I must say, I wasn't that surprised by the prize being awarded to Karman. I was probably more surprised by Sirleaf Johnson and Gbowee being prize winners because, in many ways, they are not so much today's news as they are yesterday's news, which is not at all meaning to belittle their achievements. But if you look at the prizes to Barack Obama and to Liu Xiaobo, we can see how the prize was used in order to affect developments that were yet in the unfolding.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese activist who has been detained for some time now, is there a danger that this award could then cause harm to the recipient or endanger the recipient?

HARPVIKEN: Absolutely. I think that is always a risk. You could perhaps make a similar argument, even when it comes to Aung San Suu Kyi, although the prize to her is a prize that has been widely celebrated. She herself would actually say that the prize has given her a certain level of protection. But she has not been able to play the role in Burmese politics that she would have wanted. So, it's always a double-edged sword, in fact. It does offer that protection, but it does also give the recipient a disability that may put the person at risk.

MARTIN: And, finally, we mentioned that you follow this process closely. I understand that you had a very large short list of persons who you thought might be considered for the award this year, and you were pretty sure that somebody connected to the Arab Spring would get this award. And certainly one person has, but are there other people who you think we should keep our eyes on because they might be Peace Prize winners in the future?

HARPVIKEN: Well, I think one very interesting candidate, which was on my list this year and has also been so previously is the Russian organization Memorial and perhaps one of its founding members, Svetlana Gannushkina, would be my personal favorite, is a candidate to keep an eye on. Memorial has played a tremendously important role in Russia. It's been casting a light both on recent and historical repression, ranging from Stalin's time to the very current wars in the caucuses, and been a major force in reconfiguring the way they think about historical reconciliation, a very interesting international debate that is unfolding right now. So, I think that is definitely an organization to watch out for.

MARTIN: And are there other figures connected to the Arab Spring who you think might be candidates in the future?

HARPVIKEN: Well, I doubt that the Arab Spring activists will now be favorite candidates next year, given that Karman was already this year. But, of course, that depends on how the Arab Spring develops. What we could see is an emerging leader, somebody who moves into office and proves to be capable in managing that very, very difficult transition from autocracies into fully fledged democracies. A person like that would be a very likely Peace favorite candidate for next year's prize.

MARTIN: Kristian Berg Harpviken is the director of the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. He follows the Nobel Peace Prize decision closely each year and he was kind enough to join us today from his office in Oslo, Norway. Mr. Harpviken, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HARPVIKEN: Thanks to you.

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