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Obama and Carter: Two U.S. Winners of the Nobel Peace Prize Compared

What are the differences between the last two U.S. Presidents to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

July 18, 2012

What are the differences between the last two U.S. Presidents to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

The lead interrogator at the [division interrogation facility] had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

Thus wrote Eric Fair in the Washington Post in 2007, regarding his experience as a contract interrogator in Iraq in 2004.

As terrible as his experience was, we now know that even greater abuses against prisoners took place not only in Iraq, but in Guantanamo and all other places holding prisoners from the so-called “war on terror.” Those abuses show human beings at their worst.

Predictably, Fair’s admission drew an equally abusive response. Writing in Harper’s Magazine, Fair mentions receiving the following message, “Eric, I still have a .45 caliber 1911. I suspect you know the firearm. I’d loan it to you gleefully if you get really depressed. And I’d happily take whatever legal consequence might come my way for having done so. You’d be doing the world a favor by removing yourself from the gene pool. With revulsion at the subhuman you and others like you surely are.”

Fair’s testimony makes for painful reading. But it is fundamental for all of us to have a better understanding of what has been going on Iraq, Guantanamo and other places of detention — and what probably will continue to occur.

But it also reveals the consequences for those who carried out the abuses, who don’t remain immune to horror after the experience, a horror they try to overcome with a life of service to their fellow humans. Fair is now a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.

Fair’s admissions are particularly relevant after given former President Jimmy Carter’s recent opinion piece in The New York Times, “A Cruel and Unusual Record.”

A former Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mr. Carter makes a strong criticism of the United States’ human rights policies, particularly of President Obama’s approval of legislation that makes legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces.”

According to Carter, “This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration” (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written under the U.S. leadership). Carter’s criticism follows a similar assessment from several human rights organizations such as Amnesty International (AI), Human Rights Watch (HRW), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

“Despite expressing serious reservations, the Obama Administration has paved the way for legislation that will authorize indefinite detention. The bill places enormous power in the hands of future Presidents, and the only answer the President has is to say ‘trust me,'” read an AI statement that blasted President Obama for signing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) into law last New Year’s Eve.

Human rights groups argue that indefinite detention constitutes torture, particularly because it creates conditions of secrecy and isolation that facilitate abuses and contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibition against “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Former President Carter’s comments place him at odds with President Obama and his human rights policies. It is a sad paradox that President Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize precisely because the Nobel Committee believed that with his actions he would strengthen peace, human rights and the rule of the law. However, the opposite has happened.

Mr. Carter’s comments are a firm rebuttal of present U.S. policies. “At a time when popular revolutions are sweeping the globe, the United States should be strengthening, not weakening, basic rules of law and principles of justice enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends,” concludes the former President.

He at least earned, and deserved, his Nobel Peace Prize — both for his actions in office and afterwards. In the context of their human rights policies, however, the difference to his fellow Peace Prize winner in the Oval Office could not be larger.


It is a sad paradox that President Obama was awarded the Peace Prize because the committee believed his actions would strengthen peace and human rights.

A former Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mr. Carter makes a strong criticism of the United States' human rights policies, particularly President Obama's support for indefinite detention.