International: Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to Three Women

New York Times

LONDON — The Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 was awarded on Friday to three campaigning women from Africa and the Arab world in acknowledgment of their nonviolent role in promoting peace, democracy and gender equality. The winners were Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — Africa’s first elected female president — her compatriot, peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakul Karman of Yemen, a civil society campaigner.

They were the first women to win the prize since Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, who died last month, was named as the laureate in 2004. The award seemed designed to give impetus to the cause for women’s rights around the world.

“We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society,” said the citation read to reporters by Thorbjorn Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who heads the Oslo-based Nobel committee that chooses the winner of the $1.5 million prize.

In a subsequent interview, he described the prize as “a very important signal to women all over the world.”

As the prize was announced, Bushuben Keita, a spokesman for Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party, declared: “We are dancing. This is the thing that we have been saying, progress has been made in Liberia. We’ve come through 14 years of war and we have come to sustained peace. We’ve already started dancing.

“This is proof that she has been doing well, there’s no cheating in this, this comes from other people. She’s doing very, very well. Her progress has been confirmed by the international community.”

The announcement in the Norwegian capital, followed intense speculation that the prize would be awarded variously to a figure from the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, the European Union or exclusively to Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, 72, a Harvard-trained economist, who is contesting elections set for next Tuesday in Liberia.

Mr. Jagland said the committee had not made its decision because of the Liberian election, calling it a “domestic consideration.”

In a recent interview with the Paris-based monthly magazine, The Africa Report, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf said she did not “want Africa to return to the men’s club” and forecast that women would take over in more African countries.

“It will definitely happen in other countries because many women are now vying for the presidency, which didn’t happen much in the past,” said Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, who was inaugurated in January 2006.

In Yemen, Ms. Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three, told The Associated Press: “I am very happy about this prize. I give the prize to the youth of revolution in Yemen and the Yemeni people.”

More than 250 people were nominated for the prize this year and there had been speculation that it would reward bloggers or other activists from the Middle East using social networking sites and other Internet platforms as they challenged entrenched dictatorships, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt.

But if the committee had singled out the Arab Spring, it could have courted criticism that, far from rewarding efforts toward peace, it had chosen a phenomenon whose final outcome in Egypt and Tunisia is far from clear, and which has provoked bloodletting and strife in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Mr. Jagland said the 2011 prize recognized those “who were there long before the world’s media was there reporting.”

In Liberia, Ms. Gbowee was cited by the Nobel committee for uniting Christian and Muslim women against her country’s warlords. She was praised for mobilizing women “across ethic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the long war” that raged for years in Liberia until its end in 2003 and for ensuring “women’s participation in elections.”

The A.P. quoted her assistant, Bertha Amanor, as calling her “a warrior daring to enter where others would not dare.”

Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf, too, was broadly perceived as a reformer and peacemaker when she took office. In the current election, her campaign has denied opponents’ claims of campaign corruption.

In Yemen, Ms. Karman has been widely known as an activist opposed to the pro-American regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh since 2007, heading a human rights advocacy group called Women Journalists Without chains. But it was only earlier this year — before the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt had gathered pace — that her readiness to take to the streets inspired thousands more in Yemen to do the same.

Her overnight arrest by the authorities in January incensed many people and is credited by some analysts in Yemen with starting the widespread protests that have convulsed the impoverished land since then. Some of her supporters have labeled her “The Mother of Revolution.”

Since then, however, she has become a contentious figure, criticized even by some in the anti-Saleh opposition and her share in the prize could stir further debate among anti-government activists.

Forecasts of the winner are rarely accurate. In 2009, the committee stunned Nobel-watchers by awarding the prize to President Obama.

Last year’s winner was the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo — a choice that infuriated the Chinese authorities and prompted them to take reprisals against Norway. Mr. Liu was not allowed to leave China to receive the prize and was represented on stage at the award ceremony last December by an empty chair.

In the past the prize has not infrequently been split among several recipients, including the 1994 prize shared by Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, the 1978 award to Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin and the 1973 prize to Henry A. Kissinger and Le Duc Tho.