NDP pushes for Syrian 'White Helmets' to win Nobel Peace Prize

A group of Syrians who put their lives at risk to save bombing victims is receiving international support to win a Nobel Peace Prize. The NDP says Canada should help make it happen.

3,000 volunteers who risk their lives to rescue bombing victims garner worldwide attention

A group of White Helmets volunteers in northern Syria carry one of their comrades during a training session, in Idlib province, northern Syria. (Civil Defence Idlib/Associated Press)

Most Canadians have heard of the United Nations' Blue Helmets, but a little-known group of civilian volunteers in Syria called the White Helmets could find themselves the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize if the NDP has its way. 

The group of some 3,000 volunteers risk their lives scouring through rubble in Syria after bombings to find survivors. They've been credited with saving 60,000 lives, a number that's virtually impossible to verify given the perilous circumstances in which they work.

Now the NDP is asking Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion to throw the country's support behind the bid to see the White Helmets win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Members of parliamentary assemblies, university professors and previous laureates among others are asked to submit candidates for the prize each year. The Nobel Foundation does not publicly release information about who is nominated until 50 years after the fact but the White Helmets' nomination has been widely reported. 

There is a growing international campaign to have the Norwegian Nobel committee give this year's peace prize to the White Helmets. A petition to that end has collected more than 100,000 signatures and dozens of organizations have supported the move, as have celebrities such as George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Alicia Keys.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen said his caucus voted unanimously on Wednesday to support the organization's nomination. He's also written to Dion to ask that Canada make the nomination "an international priority."

A group of White Helmets carry Ilias Mahmoud al-Taweel, a member of Syrian Civil Defence, or White Helmets, during his funeral in in Douma, the suburbs of Damascus. The group's global following say their task is 'the most dangerous job on the planet.' (Feras Domy via Associated Press)

"Canada has a proud and long-standing commitment to human rights, humanitarianism and international peacekeeping. It is surely our place to recognize the selflessness, bravery, and fundamental commitment to human dignity of these brave women and men," reads the letter, which is co-signed by Quebec NDP MP Hélène Laverdière.

One of the original forces behind the campaign was U.K. Labour MP Jo Cox, who was attacked and killed in her riding in June. Cullen considered Cox a friend and said that is one reason why he's taken up the cause.

"What a beautiful way to remember her but … as importantly, honour the work these incredible civilians are doing in an absolute hellhole of trying to keep some hope alive," he said.

The White Helmets describe themselves as "neutral, impartial and humanitarian." In operation since 2013, the group receives funding from international governments, including the United Kingdom and the United States.

NDP call on Liberal government to support White Helmets for Noble Peace Prize

7 years ago
Duration 3:20
MP Nathan Cullen explains the NDP's unanimous decision to nominate the Syrian White Helmets for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Critics of the group, however, have suggested that receiving funding from the U.K. and the U.S. has tainted that impartiality, while others have suggested that the group is aligned with al-Qaeda in Syria. 

A documentary about the group, White Helmets, will be available on Netflix Sept. 16.

According to the Nobel Foundation, 376 candidates have been nominated. The previous record of 278 was set in 2014.

A five-member committee decides from among the candidates. This year's Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Oct 7.