Peace Prize puzzles

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded this year to Liu Xiaobo, a prominent Chinese dissident who has spent more than 20 years advocating for a freer society marked by greater civil liberties and an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, the government of the Peoples Republic of China not only prevented him or his representative from attending the ceremony today but pressured other nations to boycott it.

In selecting Liu Xiaobo, the Norwegian selectors seem to have confused potential with actual world-class achievement. Potential should get you a football scholarship to Notre Dame, but not a Nobel Prize. However, it was a far stronger selection than some other recent recipients: Two of the Peace Prize awards in recent years were dubious, if not downright absurd. Last year’s, for example, went to Barack Obama, although the nominations for the prize closed on January 31, a mere eleven days into his presidency!

The 2001 joint recipients, the United Nations and its Secretary General, Kofi Annan, were another inexplicable choice. Many of the UN’s programs and policies are economically, socially and environmentally regressive and exert profoundly negative effects on public health. In two important forays into the oversight of biotechnology, for example, the UN’s insistence upon unscientific, debilitating regulation will slow agricultural research and development, promote environmental damage, and perpetuate famine and malnutrition for millions in developing countries.

In Montreal in 2000, delegates to the UN-sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated a “biosafety protocol” for the regulation of international movement of gene-spliced, or “genetically engineered,” organisms. It was based on the bogus “precautionary principle,” which dictates that every new technology — including, in the case of gene-splicing, a refinement, or improvement, of less precise technologies — must be proven safe before it can be used. An ounce of prevention is certainly desirable, but because nothing can be proved totally safe — at least, not to the standard demanded by anti-technology extremists — the precautionary principle creates prodigious obstacles to the development of new products. Precaution, in this sense, shifts the burden of proof from the regulator, who once had to demonstrate that a new technology was likely to cause some harm, to the innovator, who now must demonstrate that the technology will not. Under this new standard of evidence, regulatory bodies are free to arbitrarily require any amount and kind of testing they can dream up.

Thus, rather than creating a uniform, predictable, and scientifically sound framework for effectively managing genuine risks, the biosafety protocol establishes an ill-defined global regulatory process that permits overly risk-averse, incompetent, or corrupt regulators to hide behind the precautionary principle in delaying or deferring approvals.

Another example of the UN’s malevolent influence is a task force of the 165-member Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the UN’s World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization, which has subjected food products to regulatory requirements more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription drugs or pesticides than to genetically improved tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries.

As a seemingly endless collection of UN organizations, programs and treaties have become the regulator-wannabes for a vast spectrum of activities and projects, the functionaries never tire of rhapsodizing over the emperor’s new clothes. Trying to rationalize the irrational, they rely on the bureaucrat’s maxim that something said three times becomes a fact, but scientific consensus has repeatedly condemned their policies.