Nobel Prize under fire for 'shameful' decision to award a genocide defender

Published 10.12.2019 19:48
Updated 20.12.2019 02:18
A shopping mall in Bosnian capital Sarajevo protests the Nobel Prize for awarding Peter Handke by writing shame on you, Nov. 10, 2019.
A shopping mall in Bosnian capital Sarajevo protests the Nobel Prize for awarding Peter Handke by writing "shame on you," Nov. 10, 2019.

The Nobel Committee's move to award a man like Peter Handke by overlooking his personal ideas favoring genocidal policies led to massive reactions in the international community as many regarded the decision as 'shameful'

International outrage continues to grow against the Nobel Committee as this year’s literature prize will be awarded to Austrian author Peter Handke, known for his admiration for one of the “butchers” of Bosnia-Herzegovina, convicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. According to many pundits, the decision is a “shameful” one that defames the prize’s long history as awarding such a man means awarding his ideas, which are hateful against the Bosnians while defending genocidal policies.

According to Sefik Dzaferovic, a Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidential Council member, the move shows that the Nobel Committee has lost its “moral compass” altogether.

“It is shameful that the Nobel Committee has accepted so easily the defense and protection of Peter Handke for Milosevic and his fixers, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who have been convicted with the heaviest war crimes, including massacres, by the U.N.’s former Yugoslavia International Criminal Court,” Dzaferovic said.

Handke, 77, was expected to receive his prize yesterday at a ceremony that would have made headlines for its literary value under normal circumstances; yet, the Austrian author’s controversial past led to negative publicity instead. Known for being a friend of Milosevic, Handke is not only famous for his literary work but also for his work spreading hate toward Bosnians, defending the massacres of the Serbian side during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. Handke not only admires Milosevic, who he visited when in prison and demanded to testify in favor of, but also, evidently, called on the public to “rise” for the Serbians during the war through his writing. He even claimed that Muslim Bosnians were actually killing themselves and blaming Serbians for the crimes while stating that he “does not believe” that Serbians committed genocide in Srebrenica.

The move, although causing outrage in the international community, led to serious reactions in Bosnia-Herzegovina specifically since it is one of the countries that has suffered most from figures like Milosevic. The head of the presidential council of the country, Zeljko Komsic, who is a Bosnian Croat member of the council, wrote a letter to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences on the issue, calling for academy members to go and visit Srebrenica before awarding any prize to Handke. Expressing that they believe in the humanitarian values of the founder of the prizes, Alfred Nobel, as well as the reputation of the prize itself, Komsic said that considering all these values and the esteemed reputation of the prize, this decision of the committee disappointed Bosnian citizens.

More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed after Bosnian Serb forces attacked Srebrenica in July 1995, despite the presence of Dutch troops tasked with acting as international peacekeepers. Srebrenica was besieged by Serb forces trying to wrest the territory from Bosnian Muslims and Croats to form their own state. The U.N. Security Council had declared Srebrenica a "safe area" in the spring of 1993; however, Serb troops led by Gen. Ratko Mladic, later found guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, overran the U.N. zone. The Dutch troops failed to act as Serb forces occupied the area, killing about 2,000 men and boys on July 11 alone. Some 15,000 Srebrenica people fled into the surrounding mountains, but Serb troops hunted down and killed 6,000 of them in the forests.

Husein Kavazovic, the head of the Islamic Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the other hand, said the academy’s move sends a “bad message” to the victims of the humanitarian crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo, as well as in other places. He also demanded the academy change its decision, or they would demand the retrieval of the prize. “This horrible message would not contribute to peace in the region, facing the past and building a new future where there is no place for the praising of war criminals and criminals in general,” he expressed.

Turkey, Croatia, Albania, Kosovo condemn award

Bosnia-Herzegovina is not the only state to condemn the decision as many other countries also reacted against the prize, refusing to participate in the award ceremony while expressing their condemnation. Turkey’s Stockholm envoy Hakkı Emre Yunt announced the country’s decision on Monday, which was followed by Croatia, Albania and Kosovo.

"Giving the Nobel Literature Prize on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day to a racist who denies the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and defends war criminals will have no other meaning than awarding human rights violations," President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Tuesday.

According to Erdoğan, such a decision is not a first for the Nobel prize and will not be the last.

“Nobel has exhausted itself. Nobel has caused its own end. It is in a position right now that is completely political, completely ideological,” the president said, adding that in his opinion, the Nobel prizes have no value at all.

“As Turkey, we will not participate in the ceremony. We also called all our friend countries to not participate as well because participating in such a thing would be acting jointly with the oppression. By giving a prize to such a cruel person, Nobel has become partners with him and his cruelty. There is no way that we would be okay with such a move,” Erdoğan expressed.

He further underlined that by giving prizes to someone who is praising people like Milosevic, who has already been convicted, there is something wrong with the system.

“They have done similar things with previous awards as well, and they will continue to act in a similar way in the future,” he added.

Croatia’s Defense Ministry also stated on Monday that the prize is being given to someone who supports “defenders of genocide policies” while adding that the literary value of Handke’s work remains pointless in the face of such ideas.

Behgjet Pacolli, Kosovo’s deputy foreign minister, on the other hand, not only announced that they will boycott the ceremony but also called on the Albanian envoy to act in the same way.

Shortly after, Albania also condemned the crime in solidarity with Kosovo, expressing that they will boycott the ceremony, the country’s deputy foreign minister, Gent Cakaj, announced Monday.

Kosovo was part of Serbia until 1999 when NATO intervened to stop Milosevic.

Intellectuals react

Intellectuals worldwide also reacted to the decision, stating that there are much more qualified candidates than a genocide defender to be considered for such a prize.

Aleksandar Hemon, a Bosnian-American author, pointed to the fact that Milosevic loved Handke so much that he knighted him with the Serbian order of knighthood. In Hermon’s opinion, there is no doubt that Handke is a defender of war crimes since he supported Milosevic with passion, even after hundreds of thousands of documents proved his crimes.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Krug 99, the Independent Intellectuals Union, on the other hand, said that giving Handke a Nobel Prize is a new form of exhibitionism.

“There was a picture of a series of coffins in green that belong to the martyrs of Srebrenica. I put that picture near the entrance of my office for five years so that I can remember this genocide every day,” said Aziz Sancar, a Turkish scientist and Nobel laureate, adding that this is all he had to say on the issue.

Ayşe Kulin, a Turkish writer on the other hand, said that as someone who witnessed the sorrows of the Bosnian genocide just after the war, the Nobel Prize has lost all its dignity in her opinion.

In Slovenian thinker Slavoj Zizek’s opinion, Handke is a defender of war crimes and giving a prize to him shows the corruption of modern Sweden.

“It is not suitable for an author like Handke to openly defend genocide. If I was on the jury of the Nobel, I would not give him the prize. It is not good for the literary world to award a guy like this who supports genocide,” Haydar Ergülen, a Turkish writer said.

British novelist Hari Kunzru, on the other hand, said that the decision as a whole is a bad move for the Nobel Committee, which is in a recovery period, referring to last year’s child abuse claims on the committee’s choice of author.

“In my opinion, the Swedish Academy made a scandalous decision by giving the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature to Peter Handke. Handke, actually an important writer, claimed that it was the Serbs who faced genocide, not Bosnians. This irrational claim received a huge reaction and anger from the culture and literature world. The Swedish Academy now is accused of ethical blindness by many important writers,” said another Turkish writer Beşir Ayvazoğlu.

It is not the first time that the Nobel Committee decided to honor a controversial figure.

The awards given to the EU and former U.S. President Barack Obama were among the controversial decisions taken by the committee in the past. In 2012, the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize for its determined fight for human rights and peace in Europe for 60 years. This decision was criticized because of the EU’s role in arms sales.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama received the same prize in 2009, nine months after he started his duties in office. At the time, the decision also shocked Obama, who said, “I was not expecting such a decision.”

Obama’s policies regarding Iraq and Afghanistan justified people’s criticisms about the decision.

The committee also has become the main topic of discussion last year because of sexual abuse allegations. No Nobel Prize for literature was given last year, following a scandal over sexual misconduct allegations that have seen a string of board members resign from the board of the Swedish Academy that awards it.

The decision was made due to the "currently diminished academy and the reduced public confidence in the academy," a statement read.

“The Nobel Prize in Literature has become controversial in recent years. You know, the Nobel became the main topic of conversation with accusations about child abuse last year, and the prize was not given. Giving the prize to Peter Handke is the same,” said Ahmet Ümit, a Turkish novelist.

*Contributed by Eralp Yarar

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