The Politics of the Prize

Australian Financial Review Magazine | April  1997

José Ramos Horta: his Nobel Peace Prize was a hot poker jabbed at a long-festering international wound

The differing experiences of two recently on honoured Nobel laureates show that the prizes, far from rising above the political fray, have now become a part of it, as Wilson da Silva discovers.

THIS IS A TALE of two Australian Nobel laureates of 1996. One was born in Brisbane and lives overseas. The other was born overseas and lives in Sydney.

One is feted by governments, honoured by academia and bestowed with the country’s highest honour, the Companion of the Order of Australia. His criticisms of the country, made while on a short visit here and before boarding a jetliner home again, make the front pages of the nation’s press.

The other, returning home after being honoured by presidents and prime ministers abroad, doesn’t even rate a congratulatory letter from the Mayor of Sydney. His reasoned and conciliatory address to the National Press Club in Canberra, his first media event in Australia since winning the prize and an event in which he defends his adopted land against criticism, is absent from the country’s national daily newspaper the next day.

One is Professor Peter Doherty, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine and a resident of Memphis, Tennessee. The other is José Ramos Horta, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Peace and resident of Warwick Farm, in Sydney’s outer west.

One symbolises triumph for Australia in the eyes of the world. Sir Gustav Nossal, president of the Australian Academy of Science, said of Doherty’s win, “All 18 million Australians should walk a millimetre or two taller”. His is the kind of success that politicians want to be associated with: an Australian scientist who, through skill and ingenuity, captures the world’s highest accolade in a complex and pioneering field. Doherty is the ‘clever country’ personified.

The other is a profound embarrassment for Australia. He is a reminder that after more than two decades of passionately and at times single-handedly defending a questionable cause in international forums by our leaders and diplomats, that the world still regards the cause as unjust. Ramos Horta represents abject failure for the country’s political elites. His is the Nobel Prize they would rather ignore.

One symbolises triumph for Australia in the eyes of the world. The other is a profound embarrassment.

“The contrast is just dramatic,” said Scott Burchill, a lecturer in international relations at Melbourne’s Deakin University and a former Foreign Affairs official. “If an item is disturbing to the policy elites, as the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize is, they just drive it off the agenda. They don’t discuss it, they don’t acknowledge it. It doesn’t exist.”

Ramos Horta, the 101st Nobel Peace laureate, has lived in Sydney since 1983. He is now taking out Australian citizenship, which will also make him Australia’s first Nobel Peace laureate. Strangely, there has been none of the frenzy that usually accompanies international success for someone with such a strong connection to Australia. As a nation, we laud as our own Cannes Palm d’Or-winning New Zealander Jane Campion and Oscar Award-winning American actor Mel Gibson, even if they don’t have an Australian passport. 

The reason is summoned up in two words: East Timor. When Australian diplomats hear it, their eyes roll heavenwards. Mere mention makes business people cautious. Bureaucrats are made wary, politicians uncomfortable, and journalists sigh with boredom.

And yet, the tiny South East Asian territory, invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and occupied ever since, is something of a cause celébre elsewhere in the world. Even before the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Timorese-born Ramos Horta, along with East Timor’s Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, both men were warmly received by heads of state in other countries, embraced by religious leaders and even pop stars. 

Following the prize announcement in October last year, Ramos Horta was entertained by the kings and queens of Sweden and of Norway, by German chancellor Helmut Kohl and by South African President Nelson Mandela. His European press conferences were standing-room-only affairs. Upon arriving in Lisbon, Ramos Horta was carried on the shoulders of cheering Timorese exiles at the airport, and stopped in the street by Portuguese housewives wishing their congratulations. Swedish airline stewards pressed him for autographs, British students posed beside him for pictures.

In the country where he calls home, the reception was somewhat different. The Prime Minister flew the expatriate Doherty first class to be guest of honour at a state reception in Melbourne, and at another in Canberra’s Parliament House. For Australia’s other Nobel laureate, who paid his own fare to Canberra, John Howard could not spare the time for a cup of tea. A long-standing request to meet Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was postponed twice and finally granted this year: 30 minutes at Downer’s electorate office in Adelaide.

When Australian diplomats hear it, their eyes roll heavenwards. Mere mention makes business people cautious. Bureaucrats are made wary, politicians uncomfortable, and journalists sigh with boredom.

José Ramos Horta is Australia’s invisible Nobel laureate. Curiously, his invisibility seems restricted to Australian officials and opinion-makers. The ordinary public, however, appear less diffident: on his return from the award ceremony in Norway in December, Ramos Horta spoke to packed auditoriums in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Perth. In church halls, community centres and university lecture theatres, he received standing ovations from students, academics, and clerics. But there was no television coverage, and you didn’t read about it in the newspapers.

THE 1996 NOBEL Peace Prize was a hot political poker jabbed at a long-festering international wound. But it is not the only time the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which decides each year’s winners, has stoked the world’s political hot spots: of late, it seems to even revel in it.

In 1989, it awarded the Peace Prize to a then obscure Tibetan cleric: Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama. The award infuriated China, which had invaded Tibet 50 years earlier and has ruled it ever since. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual as well as the notional leader of Tibet before the Chinese occupation, fled to India during a crackdown in 1959. Still regarded by Tibetans as their leader, the Dalai Lama has eschewed violence and independence, and advocated accommodation with China to prevent the erosion of Tibetan culture. The Nobel Prize granted him a stature and recognition that now allows the globe-trotting Buddhist cleric to fill stadiums from Melbourne to Miami.

Two years later, the committee awarded the prize to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy leader who was wont to walk serenely through lines of Burmese soldiers even as orders to fire were being shouted. The slight, Oxford-educated daughter of the country’s independence hero won national elections that were later annulled by the military junta in power. Since becoming a laureate, she has been a thorn in the side of the Burmese regime: six years of house arrest have not broken her, her criticisms make the international press, and sanctions against the regime not only hobble trade, the Burmese generals and their families can’t even get visas to Europe or the United States. 

“There’s been more controversial prizes and more prizes to individuals who have not completed their work, so to speak,” admits Professor Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Committee for six years. “The Dalai Lama for instance, presented obvious problems with China – this was not a very popular decision with the Norwegian government. In 1996, we heard very clearly what the Indonesian government thought and other governments also commented upon it.”

The 1996 Nobel Peace Prize was a hot political poker jabbed at a long-festering international wound.

But the Peace Prizes haven’t always been like this. Originally, the committee stuck slavishly to the wording in Nobel’s will; the prizes were to be awarded to those “who shall have done the most or best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”. They became 'rewards' to statesmen who promoted peace like League of Nations founder President Woodrow Wilson of the United States (1919) and to peace activists like French missionary surgeon Albert Schweitzer (1952). 

It was not until 1960 that a shift occurred: Albert Lutuli, leader of the African National Congress, won the prize. Here was a South African in the middle of a conflict that was basically about civil and political rights. Four years later it was American civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King who was honoured. From this point on, the Norwegian Nobel Committee made a conscious effort to not only reward peace-makers, but to also anoint those playing a part in unresolved conflicts who nevertheless pursued their aims through peaceful means. It struck a new path, crossing into burning political issues of the day: political freedom in the Soviet Union (Andrei Sakharov, 1975), peace in Northern Ireland, (Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, 1976) and international human rights (Amnesty International, 1977). 

Even in rewarding the "champions of peace", as Alfred Nobel called them in his will, the five-member committee began to score political points. In 1995, as French President Jacques Chirac was weathering months of international outrage over his decision to resume nuclear testing at Mururoa Atoll – after rioting overtook Papeete and even as a fleet of protesters set sail for the tiny Pacific territory – the committee awarded the prize to a long-time anti-nuclear campaigner: Joseph Rotblat and his Pugwash Conferences on peace and disarmament. In 1982, as Ronald Reagan was boosting U.S. military spending and rattling nuclear sabres at the (former) Soviet Union, the committee awarded Alfonso Garçía Robles and Alva Myrdal: he was a former Mexican foreign minister and co-author of the Nuclear Anti-Proliferation Treaty, she a former Swedish cabinet minister, a diplomat at U.N. Disarmament Commission and a strong critic of the superpowers.

However, rewarding past efforts has a tendency to be quickly forgotten by the world, irrespective of the indirect point being made; one can scarcely recall that Mikhail Gorbachev was honoured in 1990 for helping to end the Cold War (while Reagan was pointedly ignored). Invariably, it is the anointing of protagonists at the centre of a conflict that captures most attention. Bestowing the prize on Poland’s Lech Walesa (1983) and South Africa’s Desmond Tutu (1984) were attempts by the committee to not only make a definitive political statement, but also to influence an outcome. 

The political power of the Nobels is not limited to the Peace Prize. In 1958, Boris Pasternak was forced by the Soviet government to decline his Literature Prize after initially accepting it; fellow Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn was similarly barred in 1970. A record two laureates-to-be refused their medals in 1939: Germans Adolf Butenandt for chemistry and Gerhard Domagk for medicine, forced by Hitler to decline. Both men received their awards after the end of World War II. In comparison, the Peace Prize has only been declined once: by Le Duc Tho, then Vietnamese foreign minister who shared the 1973 prize with then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for broking a peace agreement in Vietnam. 

Every year, over 100 nominations for the Peace Prize are received in Oslo by the February 1 deadline. At the committee’s first meeting in late February, it selects from the nominations some 20 to 30 candidates for further study. These are handed to in-house researchers of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, or contracted to outside experts if so required. Reports are produced for the committee, which digest them and then agree on a short-list of five or six candidates by its April meeting. The next five months are spent further researching the minutiae of the lives and achievements of the short-listed candidates, which the committee discuss over a number of meetings. By early October, the committee is ready to make a decision. 

Nominations can only be made by current and former members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee; by sitting parliamentarians around the world; by university professors of political science, law, history and philosophy; by members of the International Court of Arbritation at The Hague, by the Commission of the Permanent International Peace Bureau and the Institut de Droit International; and by past Nobel Peace laureates. The identity of nominees is kept secret (unless those who nominate choose to go public) and no minutes taken of the committee’s meetings, although the documents leading to a decision and the lists of nominees are released publicly 50 years after the fact. Once a decision is made, the candidatures expire unless fresh nominations are made the following year. However, it is not uncommon for those who propose candidates to be unofficially urged to renominate, especially when a candidate makes the short-list but just misses out.

Both of the 1996 winners of the Peace Prize had been nominated before. Bishop Carlos Belo is now known to have been proposed for at least the 1994 and 1995 prizes by a number of people, including Desmond Tutu and U.S. Congressman Tony Hall. When in 1995 word got out that the Catholic cleric was a candidate, Timorese exiles in Australia and Portugal mounted a year-long campaign to convince the Norwegians of his worthiness. Ramos Horta, along with other exiled figures in the resistance, made a number of visits to Norway, making representations to committee members and other Norwegian dignitaries. This actually backfired: the Norwegian Nobel Committee is known to abhor campaigns, and although Belo made the short-list in 1995 – and according to scuttlebutt in Oslo, was the favoured candidate until the last minute – the committee chose to send a strong anti-nuclear message to Paris instead. 

In 1994, Belo had also been in the short-list, but was this time squeezed out by the first triumphs of Middle East peace process in the lawns of the White House: it went to Palestine’s Yasser Arafat along with Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. The decision led to the resignation of committee member Kaare Kristiansen, ostensibly over the inclusion of the Palestinian leader. At the time, Kristiansen said publicly that Belo had been his favoured candidate. Interestingly, Ramos Horta – unbeknownst to him – had also been a candidate that year, nominated by three female Icelandic parliamentarians. According to one source, another reason for Kristiansen’s fury was that the committee, which had been leaning toward the short-listed Ramos Horta and Belo right up until the last meeting, had a sudden change of heart after some heavy lobbying of the committee by Norwegian and foreign leaders. The committee’s Lundestad denies this, but declined to say if Belo and Ramos Horta had been candidates until the very last meeting of 1994.

But 1994 was not the only time committee members have walked out: the 1973 prize to Kissinger and Le Doc Tho saw two of the five committee members to resign in protest. And the 1935 prize to Carl von Ossietsky, a left-wing German disarmament activist and journalist, angered the German government and caused difficulties for the Norwegian government. As a result, two members resigned, including the then-foreign minister, establishing the precedent that no serving minister serve on the committee.

The winning 1996 nomination – that of Belo and Ramos Horta together – came from the same source as 1994: three female Icelandic parliamentarians. The two men were up against 117 candidates, of which 28 were organisations. Candidates that had been considered front-runners were then-assistant U.S. secretary of state Richard Holbrooke (for brokering the Bosnian peace accords), imprisoned Chinese dissident and human rights activist Wei Jingsheng (nominated by a record 58 members of the U.S. Congress as well as a group of Danish parliamentarians), Turkey’s jailed Kurdish parliamentarian Leyla Zana and jailed Israeli nuclear scientist Mordechai Vanunu (imprisoned since 1986 by Israel for going public about the country’s secret atomic weapons program). Those thought to be on the second rung included Mexican bishop Samuel Ruiz (for mediating between the Mexican government and the rebel Chiapas Indians), Cambodian monk Maha Ghosandnada (for reconciling warring sides after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge). 

An old hand at being a  candidate is former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, nominated seven times for his mediating roles in Haiti, North Korea and Africa, and originally for the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel in 1979. He has again been wheeled out this year, which has seen a record 130 entries. Other known contenders in 1997 include Holbrooke, Mayor of the Bosnian town of Tuzla Bešlagić, Croatian peace activist Vesna Teršelič and Serbian opposition leader Vesna Pešić, as well as Wei Jingsheng, the Salvation Army, and Ibrahim Rugova, president of Yugoslavia’s Kosovo province.

Although the other Nobel Prizes can have some political overtones, it is the Peace Prize that has the most clout.

Although the other prizes can have some political overtones, it is the Peace Prize that has the most clout. As an added bonus, the power conferred by the prize does not just amplify the cause it is highlighting, it also enhances the influence of the prize itself. For the committee, it is a win-win combination. It should not be surprising that this tendency to dip its toe into political waters has intensified, perhaps emboldened by the successes of Tutu and Walesa – both men at the centre of conflicts that were eventually resolved. More and more of late, the committee has begun to wade into choppy diplomatic waters like those of Tibet and Burma. And now, East Timor.

“In awarding this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Belo and Ramos Horta, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wants to honour their sustained and self-sacrificing contributions for a small but oppressed people,” Lundestad told a packed news conference in Oslo. “The Nobel Committee hopes that this award will spur efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict in East Timor based on the people’s right to self- determination.”

WHEN THE SWEDISH industrialist Alfred Nobel died 100 years ago, his will set aside most of his fabulous wealth for the creation of the prizes. They were to be presented “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. 

The creation of the prizes was a surprise to his relations, who had expected the bachelor to leave them the bulk of his estate, not just five per cent. The remainder of the wealth – 31.6 million Swedish kronor in today’s money, or almost $340 million – was set aside for the establishment of the prizes. His will stipulated that his sizeable holdings, spread across eight countries, was to be liquidated, invested in securities and the proceeds divided into five equal parts every year, with a portion set aside for administration. It was his wish that the prizes were to be awarded for outstanding achievements in only five categories: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. 

The will, written in longhand a year before his death and not without some legal problems, was a controversial because Nobel did not consult the institutions into whose care he placed the sobering responsibility of choosing the winners: the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (physics, chemistry), the Karolinska Institute (medicine) and the Swedish Academy (literature). Additionally, he assigned responsibility for choosing the Peace Prize to “a committee of five persons” elected by Norway’s Storting, or parliament. He further stipulated that for all five prizes, “no consideration whatsoever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates”. These last two clauses did not go down well with the Swedish establishment, particularly King Oskar II, then monarch of a united Sweden and Norway and an implacable opponent of Norwegian devolution. 

Alfred Nobel's will and testament

No-one is certain why Nobel, a Swede, gave Norway control over the Peace Prize. His close aide and confidant, the young chemical engineer Ragnar Sohlman – to whom Nobel entrusted execution of his will – suspected that Nobel might have been trying to pacify growing agitation for secession in independent-minded Norway, conquered from Denmark in 1814. Others have suggested that Nobel might have been influenced by the autonomous Storting’s more democratic and internationalist character; it could override the king’s veto on most matters and enjoyed greater powers than any other legislature save for Britain and the United States. 

Three years of lawsuits and negotiations followed. After some modifications to the original will, the heirs agreed not to contest it further, King Oskar accepted the compromises and promulgated the governing statutes on June 29, 1900. Five years later, in tense circumstances, Norway dissolved the union with Sweden, and the Storting passed legislation to ensure the Peace Prize stayed its responsibility.

All of the prizes are decided by a complicated system that makes the rigging of a result an onerous task. The Karolinska Institute, a respected independent medical research centre originally established almost two centuries ago to train Swedish army surgeons, was responsible for awarding Doherty and his Swiss colleague, Rolf Zinkernagel, the 1996 prize for “medicine or physiology”, as it is called in the will. Every three years, the institute’s medical faculty elects 50 professors from inside and outside Karolinska to be members of the a 'Nobel Assembly'. From these, five are elected by the assembly to serve on the 'Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine', and another 10 are co-opted for 10 months. The committee then mails nomination forms to a random (and annually rotating) sample of 2,000 professors around the world working in different fields of the medical sciences, inviting them to nominate worthy candidates. The members of the Karolinska committee and the assembly have no power to nominate: only the professors contacted by mail can do this.

“All of this is to ensure that there is a constantly changing composition, and to guarantee objectivity,” said Professor Nils Ringertz, a geneticist and secretary of the Karolinska’s Nobel committee for the 1996 prize. 

Despite the rigid prize-selection system, scientists – some noteworthy, some not – pepper the institute every year with glowing letters of recommendation for aspiring colleagues.

Once the nominations are in, a short-list is selected and members of the committee go to work, studying candidates and researching both the nominated work and whether other candidates are more worthy or should also be included. Over 10 months, a slow weeding-out process reduces the average 200 candidates to just a handful. A maximum of three candidates can be awarded any one of the Nobel Prizes, and the statutes stipulate that recipients must be living at the time a decision is reached. The finalists, complete with voluminous documentation, are presented to members of Karolinska’s Nobel Assembly, who are later called together to vote on the winners. A telephone call is immediately made to the winners, and minutes later the information is released to the press.

Doherty experienced this first hand. “We were in bed at 4.20 am and the telephone rang. We have ageing relatives in Australia so we thought, ‘Oh God’. My wife Penny answered the phone and heard: ‘Good morning. This is Nils Ringertz from the Nobel Committee,’” he recounted. “She passed me the phone and he said ‘Congratulations. You and Rolf Zinkernagel have won the Nobel Prize for Medicine. We will be in touch later with the details. You have two minutes to make personal calls, then you will not be able to make any calls because your telephone will be tied up.’”

Doherty and Zinkernagel with their Nobel medallions

Despite the rigid prize-selection system, scientists – some noteworthy, some not – pepper the institute every year with glowing letters of recommendation for aspiring colleagues. Some even mount campaigns to ensure that a particular favoured researcher, who may or may not be a nominee, is levitated to the top of the list. This is to no avail, says Ringertz, and can actually harm a candidate, especially if the campaign is slick and orchestrated, or seen to be putting pressure on the deliberations of the assembly.

“The whole system has been built to ensure that campaigns are ineffective,” said Ringertz, leaning back in his leather chair at the institute’s Stockholm headquarters. “Since we only consider nominations from those who have been invited, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you send a letter, it gets filed there.” He motioned to a waste paper basket by his desk.

Good candidates surface again and again, often nominated by many of the invited professors as the value of their original work is increasingly recognised. Others are infatuations of the year that are never seen again. In science, it is not immediately obvious which discoveries are significant. Doherty and Zinkernagel, for example, did their original work on immunology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, at Canberra’s Australian National University, between 1973 and 1975. It was not until the late 1980s that its potential was realised as researchers used the duo’s discoveries to solve complex problems in transplantation, grafts and viral infections.

Ringertz declined to say if Doherty and Zinkernagel had been candidates for the $1.42 million prize previously. Committee and assembly members are, theoretically, sworn to secrecy. But Doherty, a polite but focussed 55-year-old never short of an opinion, later told the Financial Review Magazine in his room at Stockholm’s lakeside Grand Hôtel, where all the laureates are accommodated, that whispers had reached him some years before. “You hear these things. You don’t take too much notice.”

The other academies have similar systems. None of these were prescribed in Nobel’s will which is, after all, little more than one page of handwritten instructions penned at the Swedish-Norwegian Club in Paris a year before his death. The measures had to be designed by the institutions and, after much disagreement, promulgated into law by King Oskar. It was at this time that the Nobel Foundation was created, the trustee of Nobel’s will and manager of his fortune. 

Mullis – a surfing, roller-skating, guitar-playing biochemist – has been described by colleagues as “a wild man”, and his three ex-wives say he has a penchant for young blondes.

Today, the foundation has investments worth almost $400 million, and an annual income of $31 million. The fortune would have been greater today had not Nobel originally stipulated that his wealth be “invested in safe securities”. These proved a questionable strategy, and the annual prize amounts soon began to shrink. In 1946 the Swedish government granted the long-sought tax exempt status, and in 1953 the governing statutes were loosened to allow investments in shares. Today the foundation has 58 per cent of the bequest in shares, 27 per cent in interest-bearing instruments and the rest in real estate. In 1996, the foundation paid out $6.7 million in prizemoney, $7.4 million to the prize-giving bodies, and reserved $2.8 million for operating costs. The rest was ploughed back into the prize pool.

Since the first prizes were awarded in 1901, they have garnered a reputation that has often made laureates seem beyond the reach of mortals. But not all the science prizes take decades to be recognised, nor do they always go to scientists who have laboured long and painstakingly with singular devotion. And whether they are model citizens is not necessarily a factor. 

American Kary B. Mullis, then 49, picked up the 1993 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his invention of PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, less than a decade after making his discovery. The technique has made duplicating millions of DNA strands, previously a laborious and expensive process essential for biotechnology, as easy as operating a microwave. Mullis – a surfing, roller-skating, guitar-playing biochemist – has been described by colleagues as “a wild man” and his three ex-wives say he has a penchant for young blondes. On his visit to Sweden, while staring at the Royal Castle across the lake from the Grand Hôtel, he toyed with the pen-sized laser pointer and aimed it at passers-by. Only a year before, a sniper had shot passers-by at random in Stockholm’s streets using a laser-sighted rifle. It didn’t take long for the police to arrive at his door. Later, on being received by Sweden’s King Carl Gustav and Queen Silvia, he jokingly offered his teenage son’s hand in marriage for the 16-year-old Crown Princess Victoria – in return “for a third of the kingdom”. The royal couple didn’t laugh, and Mullis’ seating arrangements at the head table for that night’s opulent Nobel Banquet were changed.

Kary B. Mullis with surfboard

Another Nobel laureate, Dr D. Carleton Gajdusek, may not be Sunday school material either. In February this year, the American researcher was sentenced to a year in jail for molesting a 16-year-old boy, one of 56 children he had brought to live with him from research trips to Papua New Guinea, Micronesia and other Polynesian islands. The winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Medicine said he had brought back the children, mostly boys, to educate them. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation said the case against the 73-year-old arose out of a crackdown into child pornography on the Internet, and they said references had been found to Gajdusek’s journals describing sex between men and boys and musings on the acts. Shortly before the sentencing, Gajdusek retired from the National Institutes of Health in the United States and, under a plea bargaining agreement with the prosecutors, will serve nine months to a year behind bars. Had he been convicted, Gajdusek might have faced 30 years in prison.

Even in the case of the Peace Prize, question marks occasionally arise, or campaigns to discredit winners are mounted. Rigoberta Menchú, a Mayan Indian of Guatemala, won the medal in 1992 for fighting indigenous rights issues. The decision was generally applauded, but conservative critics charged that Menchú had taken part in violent guerrilla activity against the Guatemalan government. Although two of her sisters are guerrillas, and government soldiers murdered her mother, brother and father for opposing landowners, she has concentrated on political and social work for indigenous Guatemalans, according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. 

Questions have been raised about Ramos Horta himself. Within two days of the Nobel committee’s announcement, Indonesian officials accused him of approving “a series of murders, torture and arrests”, and of being involved in two massacres of his own people in East Timor while a member of Fretilin (an anagram in Portuguese of “Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor”), the left-wing political party that briefly ruled the former Portuguese colony before the Indonesian invasion.

Questions have been raised about Ramos Horta. Within days of the Nobel announcement, Indonesian officials accused him of approving “a series of murders, torture and arrests”. Ramos Horta denies this.

Ramos Horta denies this, saying that between May and September 1975, the time of the massacres – resulting from sharp differences between  Fretilin and the conservative UDT (Timorese Democratic Union) that eventually led to a civil war in August 1975 – he was actually attending the Australian National University in Canberra. Ramos Horta says he was “never part of the politburo or the military command” of Fretilin. Not that he necessarily minds such allegations: the last time Ramos Horta was so accused, in an article in Kerry Packer’s New Idea magazine, a writ for defamation was filed and he walked away with a settlement of a cool $200,000. Now, for the first time in his life, Ramos Horta owns property: he has a bought a bachelor apartment in Lisbon, and is looking for more spacious real estate in western Sydney where he and his mother can live. His barrister in the pro-bono case was Stuart Littlemore, of Media Watch fame.

Ramos Horta (shirtless, at left) with Fretilin guerrillas in 1975

Winning the Peace Prize is not all about meeting kings and queens; it can be a health hazard too, as Yitzhak Rabin and Martin Luther King discovered. Since the Nobel announcement, the once sporadic death threats against Ramos Horta have increased. The underground resistance in East Timor recently notified Ramos Horta of evidence that a Timorese collaborator, a convicted criminal,  had been hired by the Indonesian military to assassinate him abroad. His family inside the territory told him a similar tale, adding rumours that an attempt would be made before the end of the year.

The resistance are not the only ones that worry about such threats; when Ramos Horta asked the Norwegian Nobel Committee to stay at a friend’s home in Oslo rather than the opulent Grand Hôtel – he didn’t feel right, he said, considering many of his colleagues are in Indonesian prisons – they declined on the grounds of safety, saying they were responsible for his life whilst he was on Norwegian soil. Security was certainly tight during his time in Oslo: journalists attending the press conferences faced a cordon of armed police, metal detectors and bag searches by sniffer dogs. Norwegian journalists said the security afforded to the two Timorese men was on a par with that given to the past winners Arafat and Rabin. 

JUDITH PEAD, Her Excellency the Australian Ambassador to Sweden, had a most delightful task. Resplendent in a ball gown of black silk and an orange-and-gold shawl, she was clearly enjoying the spectacle in the Prince’s Gallery of the imposing Stadshuset, the glass cabinets displaying the 1996 Nobel Prizes for the assorted galaxy of the world’s best and brightest, as well as Sweden’s political and industrial elite. Men in white-tie drifted across the marble, delicate haute couture swished past in the half-light and Möet & Chandon Brut Impérial sparkled in gently-held flutes. She was smiling pleasantly at the passing show – then suddenly went icy.

“Ah!” she exclaimed, her eyes darting suddenly at me, then narrowing. “So that’s why you came all the way here. Timor.” 

Earlier, Her Excellency had the pleasure of dining with King Carl Gustav and Queen Silvia at the main table of the Stadshuset’s cavernous Blue Hall, an honour accorded only to the winning Nobel laureates and their partners, descendants of the Nobel family and the ambassadors of nations whose citizens had been honoured with a prize. Australia had not had a seat at the main table since 1973, when Patrick White received the Literature Prize. It is an honour rarely afforded an Australian diplomat, and a rare honour for the country. Thanks, of course, to Professor Peter Doherty.

Men in white-tie drifted across the marble, delicate haute couture swished past in the half-light, and Möet & Chandon Brut Impérial sparkled in gently-held flutes.

And the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm is an affair like no other. It has been called the world’s best dinner party: 218 waiters in white jackets moving in unison, paired with each other and holding silver platters aloft, slowly marching down the baroque stone steps with each course. The stairway is lit by torches held by men in silk Arabic costumes; the waiters, male and female, come to a halt as one at each of the 66 long tables, where 1,300 guests are seated. As one, they begin serving the guests. Between courses there are speeches, soprano arias, and performances by students representing each of the universities in the city. The main table cuts the long hall in two like a cotton-sheeted runway; 88 finely-dressed men and women sit with the royal family and the laureates. The event even has its own gold-rimmed china set, along with gold cutlery, brought out only once a year. And every year, some of the cutlery goes missing. “It’s scandalous,” said a ball-gowned Swedish journalist at one table. “Most of the guests are not people in need.”

Sweden's King Carl Gustav and Queen Silvia arrive at the Stadshuset’s cavernous Blue Hall for the Nobel Banquet

The invitation-only event always takes place on December 10, the day a century ago when Alfred Nobel died, and the day when the awards are officially presented to the laureates. In Sweden it is held at the Stockholm Concert House before 1,800 guests who listen to speeches and are serenaded by symphonic interludes. King Carl Gustav presses each laureate with a handshake and their medal, an ornate diploma and a cheque.

They are handed out in the order in which they are first named in Nobel’s will: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature. In Norway the event is held earlier but on the same day, in the Rådushallen or Main Hall of the Oslo City Hall, against a backdrop of white marble and the vivid oil-on-wood murals of Henrik Sørensen. While King Harald and Queen Sonja observe, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee presents the Peace Prizes; this year, to the two Timorese. Before the assembled 1,000 sombre guests, Ramos Horta had dropped his medallion, and the chairman quickly bent to pick it up. I had just described this scene to the Ambassador, prompting her icy comment.

There had been a trace of irritation in her reply, a slight pulling away in the body language. This might have been due to the fact that Her Excellency’s previous overseas posting, before making ambassador, was Jakarta – making her, perhaps, particularly sensitive to the subject of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize. Or perhaps it is, as some commentators suggest. that Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, in common with much of the country’s policy elites, has long been acutely sensitised to the issue of East Timor. When hundreds of Timorese civilians were gunned down by Indonesian troops in a massacre that made world headlines in 1991, Australian diplomats in Jakarta questioned witnesses not about the bloodbath, but pressed them for evidence of Timorese provocation. Pead was among them. When the ABC’s overseas satellite service Australia Television was established in 1993, officials from Foreign Affairs visited the journalists in Darwin and advised them not to cover the issue of East Timor. Pead led the delegation. In the 1990s, relations between the Australian embassy in Jakarta and the Red Cross, the only international agency operating in Dili, broke down over the issue of East Timor. Pead was the embassy’s liaison officer. 

This might help explain why Australia, so well represented in Stockholm, made no great effort to be in Oslo. Canberra says it was not invited. The Norwegians say they automatically invite the ambassadors of any country that expresses an interest.

Why Foreign Affairs has for so long had such a blind-spot when it comes to the issue is not clear. Critics charge that Canberra was anxious to see development of the rich Timor Gap oilfield between Australia and East Timor, development that had been stalled while under Portuguese administration but would have been (and was) eagerly sought if under Indonesian rule. Others suggest that Canberra’s closeness to Jakarta, almost unique in international diplomacy for a mature liberal democracy and a military-led Third World nation, necessitates that it look the other way when it comes to such unpleasantries as East Timor. It is, after all, a tiny territory hardly noticed by the rest of the world. At least until now.

Critics suggest that Canberra’s closeness to Jakarta, almost unique in international diplomacy, necessitates that it look the other way when it comes to such unpleasantries as East Timor.

Often in international affairs, issues can be very complex. East Timor is not one of them. Indonesia invaded a European colony that was being prepared for independence. Six months later, it unilaterally declared the territory its 27th province, in defiance of two resolutions of the United Nations Security Council calling for a withdrawal. There have since been another eight resolutions in the U.N. General Assembly, variously calling for an immediate pullout or that Indonesia respect the right of the Timorese to independence. 

Australia is virtually alone in its 21-year defence of the Indonesian occupation and acquisition of East Timor. To this day, the United Nations (like most other countries) does not legally recognise Indonesia’s annexation. Australia does. Many countries accept that, for all intents and purposes, Indonesia controls the territory. It is an acceptance that is, however, unspoken: it is termed de facto recognition, and does not bind a country to deciding issues of ultimate sovereignty, and it has no standing in international law. Australia is unusual in that it has, almost alone in the world, granted de jure recognition to the Indonesian annexation: legally binding acceptance of sovereignty. And it has gone even further, saying publicly that the “incorporation” (as Foreign Affairs prefers to call it) is irreversible. To grant such legal recognition to the coercive acquisition of territory by force is highly unusual in international circles; akin to recognising Argentina’s brief annexation of the Falkland Islands, or Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait. This is because, under international law, such conquests are illegal. And the Indonesian occupation of East Timor is, incontestably, illegal.

Australia's Gareth Evans (right) and Indonesia's Ali Alatas (beside him) toast the signing of the Timor Gap oil treaty

In Portugal, the Timorese cause is warmly welcomed, and Lisbon is a constant diplomatic agitator for the single goal of Ramos Horta and his colleagues: a U.N.-supervised vote on independence. Australia’s stance on the issue would surely not have helped its high-profile bid to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council last year. The bid was finally lost – to Portugal.

Considering that Australian foreign policy is so out of step with the rest of the world on the issue, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize must indeed cause some heartburn in Canberra. And with the profile that the Peace Prize brings, the issue is unlikely to go away. If the East Timor issue refuses to die after 21 years of relative obscurity, surely a Nobel Peace Prize is only going to make the road for Australia’s foreign policy a lot more bumpy.

A RIVERSIDE PLAZA in Lisbon. Across the flowing Tejo, a weak sun rises through the winter fog, catching the lone figure in the overcoat and signature bow tie. The tiled surface of the square depicts the sweep of Portuguese colonial history, from an age when Lisbon still ruled the seas. At his feet there is a map of East Timor, claimed in 1511. His long shadow stretches toward the north-west, to the cold Nordic, to Oslo. His destination today.

Ramos Horta poses for photographs. He is uncomfortable, uneasy, his eyes darting to and fro, his body tense. “Must be nerves over the prize,” I suggest. “No,” the photographer shakes his head. “I’ve never seen him like this. It’s got to be the death threats.”

It is December 7, 1996. In a few hours, Ramos Horta – for two decades the international face of the Timorese struggle for independence – boards a plane for Norway to collect the prize. Just four years earlier, he had proposed a peace plan that offered to halt to the guerrilla war and a suspend of the issue of East Timor’s sovereignty for up to 12 years in return for greater autonomy, a scaling back of the large-scale Indonesian military presence and an eventual vote on its future. It is this plan, praised as conciliatory in diplomatic circles but criticised as too concessionary by many Timorese, that won him the peace accolade.

Ramos Horta has not been back to East Timor. He is an unwilling exile. So long as his country is occupied by Indonesia, he cannot return.

In a sense, his journey to Oslo really began 21 years ago on another airplane. Climbing above the mountains of his homeland and headed for the United Nations where, as foreign minister of an eight-day-old independent East Timor, he sought international recognition for his fledgling new country. But by the time his plane landed in wintry New York, East Timor was independent no more. 

Ramos Horta at a riverside plaza in Lisbon at dawn on the day left for Oslo to collect his Nobel Prize

Ironically, today is also the 21st anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Ramos Horta has not been back since. He is an unwilling exile. So long as his country is occupied by Indonesia, he cannot return.

Looking at the lonely figure in the cold dawn light, it is obvious that his final destination cannot be found on any boarding pass, will not be announced over any airport loudspeaker nor flashed up on any destination board. Not today, at least. But maybe some day. 

Wilson da Silva is a journalist in Sydney, and a former foreign correspondent for Reuters. This was the cover story of the April  1997 edition of The Australian Financial Review Magazine.

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