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Has the Nobel Peace Prize lost its way?

Has the Nobel Peace Prize lost its way?

Nominations for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize closed last week. However, Nobel officials are facing an investigation into the view that their recent awards have lost sight of Alfred Nobel’s original intentions. By REBECCA DAVIS.

The Nobel Peace Prize is sometimes considered to be the most prestigious of the Nobels (the others being awarded for Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine and Literature). It’s never been quite clear why Alfred Nobel wanted to include a peace category at all, although some suggest it was his way of symbolically atoning for the development of dynamite. In Nobel’s will, he specified that the award must be given to the person 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”.

The reason for the current controversy is thanks to a Norwegian peace researcher, Fredrik Heffermehl, who maintains that Nobel specifically intended to reward those who played a role in reducing the militarisation of nations. In recent years, though, the ambit of the prize has been expanded to include those who do humanitarian or environmental work, as was the case when Al Gore and the UN panel on climate change were awarded it in 2007. The secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Geier Lundestad, has dismissed the idea that environmental work should not be rewarded, telling AP: “Fighting climate change is definitely closely related to fraternity between nations. It even concerns the survival of some states.”

Over the years the Nobel committee has made some intriguing choices for its Peace laureates, including US diplomat Henry Kissinger in 1973. Possibly the most controversial award in recent years was 2009’s choice of US President Barack Obama, who was barely a year in office. An MSNBC poll at the time found that 62% of Americans polled did not believe Obama deserved it. Brian Becker, US coordinator of the Act Now To Stop War group, told Reuters at the time: “This is the Nobel committee giving Obama the ‘you are not George W Bush’ award. Unfortunately Obama is continuing many of the same policies of Bush.”

Obama seems to have been awarded the prize ‘aspirationally’, in the hope it would encourage him to work harder for peace. Foreign Policy magazine suggested in 2009 “the committee has increasingly given the peace prize to honour the awardees’ cause, even when their aspirations are not matched by concrete accomplishments”. The magazine pointed out, though, that the 27 aspirational prizes awarded since 1971 have not accomplished much. In some cases they have served to bring a particular cause into the spotlight (as was the case with Aung Sun Suu Kyi in 1991), but in others it has actually had a negative effect. After the Dalai Lama’s 1989 win, the Chinese government cracked down much harder in Tibet, with government officials explicitly charged with condemning the Dalai Lama’s award. 

As well as making some curious decisions about winners, the committee has also had some strange omissions over the years. Mahatma Gandhi never won it despite being possibly the most iconic peace advocate in history. The committee tacitly admitted its mistake after his death in 1948, however, by not awarding the prize that year because “there was no suitable living candidate”. Eleanor Roosevelt also missed out, as did Nigerian activist-martyr Ken Saro-Wiwa.

The Nobel Foundation is now required to respond formally to the charge it has veered too far from Alfred Nobel’s original mandate. The inquiry is being carried out by the Stockholm County Administrative Board, which is responsible for supervising foundations in Stockholm and which technically has the power to revoke award decisions going back three years. That’s unlikely to happen, though, as is any real reform of the award. The committee is notoriously secretive and has historically been unwilling to enter into discussion about its nomination systems. Members will be conscious of the need to choose safely for 2012. Bet on someone relatively unknown or long overdue. DM

Read more:

  • Nobel peace prize jury under investigation on AP.

Photo: Does the Nobel peace prize uphold Alfred Nobel’s vision? The man himself considers this pressing question.


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