What Suu Kyi's moment shows us
Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but she wasn't able to accept it in person.
June 15th, 2012
10:23 AM ET

What Suu Kyi's moment shows us

Editor’s note: Thorbjørn Jagland is chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and secretary general of the Council of Europe. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Thorbjørn Jagland.

At long last, it seems, Aung San Suu Kyi can deliver her Nobel lecture.

The pro-democracy campaigner from Myanmar will be in Oslo on Saturday to accept the Nobel Peace Prize she won in absentia more than 20 years ago.

It will be one of the greatest events in Nobel history, and it gives us the opportunity to reflect on human rights and what they require of us.

The 1935 Nobel Prize winner, German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, was never able to accept his award because he was imprisoned in a concentration camp and banned from traveling to Oslo.

Nazi leader Herman Goering offered to free Ossietzky from his captivity if he abandoned his pacifism. Ossietzky declined, however, and perished there.

When Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann and Willy Brandt worked to generate public support for Ossietzky to be awarded the Peace Prize, Norwegian author Knut Hamsun — a Nobel Prize winner for literature and a devout Nazi supporter — was furious at the idea. In an open letter, he asked Ossietzky if it would not be better "to help Germany at a time when the entire world was baring its teeth at the German people."

Nordahl Grieg, another acclaimed Norwegian writer, replied: "Hamsun wants Ossietzky to be forgotten. But perhaps it will be one of the things that we do not forget: The great, world famous man who asks the question and the man in the prison uniform who cannot answer.”

These days, political leaders jostle to have their picture taken together with Suu Kyi. I am sure that in 10 or maybe 20 years, they will be competing to be pictured with Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Prize in absentia. It shows that political courage is about joining the fight when it really matters, not just when it is comfortable to do so.

As the trial against admitted mass killer Anders Behring Breivik takes place in an Oslo courthouse, I also want to single out another Nobel Prize winner.

Willy Brandt was the German chancellor who knelt in front of the memorial in Auschwitz. Parts of the German media and political establishment criticized him, claiming that one only does that sort of thing when thinking about God. Brandt retorted, "What else should a fellow human being do at such a moment than kneel?"

The Norwegian people have done just that since Breivik’s shooting rampage last summer. Whether we believe in God or not, we are all striving to understand his motives. Just as we will always struggle to understand the Holocaust.

What we can be sure of is that Breivik and the Holocaust are both aspects of the same phenomenon. He represents an individual's madness, racism and bigotry. The Holocaust was systemic madness, racism and bigotry.

All fascism is driven by people who have more than a political idea. They have an inner desire to kill and to destroy. They have the ideology at their disposal, and they have a prophecy, which in their eyes is so important that it justifies all means.

In the wake of the Holocaust, we have set ourselves the eternal question: Could it happen again? I do not know, but there is good reason to take the question seriously now and forever.

Breivik is not alone in Europe. You only have to look on the Internet. A frightening number of people say they agree with his analysis, even if they do not share his methods.

Moreover, Breivik is not unique in our time. In many places around the world, innocent people are subjected to the same madness.

Breivik says the murders were necessary in order to spare many more lives in the future. Those who send people on suicide missions, explode a bomb in a market or in a mosque think the same — that the killing is necessary for the greater cause. But terrorism makes political hostages of those it is intended to serve.

Against such a background, moderation and compromise are probably the most important values we have to fight for today. This is where the great Nobel Prize winners come in.

Suu Kyi had the strength, after 20 years of isolation, to compromise with the generals that isolated her. Nelson Mandela reached out a hand to his captors. Liu Xiaobo said in his defense speech in court, "I have no enemies.” Brandt received the Peace Prize for starting to build bridges with the East. He understood that the building of bridges must begin with kneeling.

When Suu Kyi comes to Norway to deliver her Nobel lecture, she will remind us all that we need to fight using nonviolent means. And she will remind us that we must all make efforts to bring out the good in ourselves, to stand up for something at a higher level and closer to home.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Thorbjørn Jagland.

Topics: Human Rights • Myanmar

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soundoff (56 Responses)
  1. sam

    "— a Nobel Prize winner for literature and a devout Nazi supporter —"

    Great prize you got there. What's it for, again?

    June 17, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  2. Austin Inyang

    Moslems are killing Moslems in Syria, and yet the Islamic nations are silent, doing nothing. They are all waiting for the western (mostly Christian) nations and the UN to act. And yet when those nations do act – as they did in Libya, and before then in Bosnia & Kosovo – all you hear from Moslems is 'War on Islam,' 'Occupation of Moslem land' and so forth. It seems to me that the only thing that galvanises these people is when some 'infidel' 'insults' the Prophet (SAW). They are not moved by violations of human rights, no matter how horrific. I think its time for Moslems to examine the basis of their faith and its place in modern life.

    June 21, 2012 at 10:17 am | Reply
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