When Worlds Collide #87: Nobel Peace Prize – Saluting peace-makers or stirring political controversy?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 13 October 2013


The Nobel Peace Prize 2013 was awarded on Friday to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.

This Hague based inter-governmental organisation was recognised for implementing — through inspections, destruction and by other means — the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms control treaty in effect from 1997 and singed by 165 countries.

In the past, the Norwegian Nobel Committee – which administers the Prize — has through several prizes highlighted the need to eliminate nuclear weapons as well as landmines. With the 2013 decision, it has lent support to the global campaign to end the production and use of chemical weapons.

There were 259 candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize 2013, 50 of them organizations. These included the Pakistani schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege.

This year marked the highest number of nominations in the 112 year history of the prize, considered to be the world’s most prestigious. The previous record was 241 from 2011.

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel

With the latest announcement, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 101 individuals and 25 organisations. In doing so, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to carry out the last wish of Swedish engineer, chemist and inventor Alfred Nobel (1833 – 1896).

Nobel wrote that it should go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.

The prize includes a medal, a personal diploma, and a large sum of prize money (currently 8 million Swedish Kronas, or US Dollars 1.23 million).

Contentious Selections

The selection of Nobel Peace Prize laureate often stirs more debate than all other Nobel prizes (in chemistry, physics, medicine, literature and economics). The peace prize remains an essentially political one, reflecting the reality that most conflicts — and their resolution — are largely influenced by political considerations.

This prompts a key question: can five unknown Norwegians achieve peace within and among nations of our world – as intended by Nobel?

Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, all Norwegian nationals, may not be too well known beyond their country. Yet their annual selection reverberates around the world.

Five years ago, on a visit to the Norwegian capital, I listened to a talk by Dr Geir Lundestad, a historian who is Director of the Nobel Institute in Oslo and secretary to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. He shared some interesting insights into the legacy and limitations of the prize.

Lundestad insisted that the Nobel Peace Prize cannot claim to have achieved peace on its own. “It’s the laureates who work tirelessly and sometimes at great personal risk to pursue peace and harmony in their societies or throughout the world. We try to recognise, honour and support the most deserving among them.”

For high profile laureates, the prize becomes an additional accolade. For those less known outside their home countries, however, the Prize is akin to being given a ‘loud speaker’ — it helps to amplify their causes, struggles and voices. In today’s media-saturated information society, such an amplifier is sure useful: it allows them to rise above the cacophony of the Global Village.

Dr Geir Lundestad

Dr Geir Lundestad

Rigorous process

Deciding who has done the most to promote peace in a given year is a highly political judgement, and scarcely a matter of cool scholarly judgement, Lundestad admitted. “The task requires the ability — and the will — to view conflicts in the world community as objectively as possible while keeping a strong commitment to certain common moral and political principles.”

The nomination process is neither exclusive nor secretive. In fact, several thousand people worldwide are eligible to serve as nominators, especially after rules were revised in 2003. This includes members of national assemblies and governments; members of international courts of law; university chancellors; university professors of social science, history, philosophy, law and theology; as well as all former laureates.

Being nominated is not such a difficult task, and nor is it particularly significant by itself. Some have been nominated repeatedly; no one is barred from being nominated.

After applications close on February 1, the committee works over several months to narrow down the nominations to a shortlist, which goes through vigorous verification. Various checks and balances are in place so that the prize does not become an instrument of Norwegian foreign policy.

Several expert advisors assist, but the Committee alone makes the decisions. Their choice is announced in early October, and the prize awarding ceremony takes place at the Oslo City Hall on December 10.

Oslo City Hall which hosts Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on December 10 each year - photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Oslo City Hall which hosts Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on December 10 each year – photo by Nalaka Gunawardene

Glaring omissions

Notwithstanding the process, the peace prize does not have a perfect record. It has missed out on some highly deserving individuals, while not all laureates have been universally applauded.

The most glaring omission, of course, was Mahatma Gandhi. He was nominated five times — in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and, finally, a few days before he was assassinated in January 1948.

The prize rules at the time allowed posthumous presentation, but the then committee decided not to do so. This remains a bone of contention among Gandhi followers for decades.

Gandhi’s omission was publicly regretted by later members of the Committee. When the Dalai Lama was awarded the 1989 prize, the chairman said that this was “in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi”.

But nothing can be done now to rectify this historically omission, Lundestad said. It stands as a stark reminder of imperfect human judgement.

The prize has not achieved a good gender balance either. Only 15 out of 101 individual winners are women – more than half awarded during the past 25 years.

Creating peace

The important question, for historians and scholars, is the political and social impact of the Nobel Peace Prize.

According to Lundestad, it is not the prize itself but the laureates who achieve progress in various spheres. “We may have contributed (but) don’t claim to have ended the Cold War or brought down apartheid in South Africa.”

However, the prize’s influence and catalytic effect are indisputable.

For example, the 1983 prize to Polish trade union leader Lech Walesa, triggered a series of events that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union by 1990/91. The last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, became the 1990 laureate.

In another example, there have been four South African laureates over the years: Albert Lutuli (1960), Bishop Desmond Tutu (1984), Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk (sharing 1993 prize). These prizes kept international focus and pressure on South Africa’s struggles for racial equality and justice.

“The prize was part of the wider international support that sustained pressure on the white minority government. In some respects, the 1960 prize to Lutuli was the most significant — it triggered a process that culminated in the early 1990s,” Lundestad said.

He acknowledged that the Nobel Peace Prize has enhanced the profile of key political activists in hot spots like Burma, East Timor and South Africa. It has also helped sustain the media’s interest in other long drawn struggles.

In the past decade, the scope of the prize has been expanded. It has recognised the nexus between peace, human security and environmental degradation through awards to Wangaari Mathaai of Kenya in 2004 and to Al Gore and the UN climate panel IPCC in 2007.

Similarly, the link between poverty reduction and peace was the basis of the 2006 prize awarded to Muhammud Yunus and Grameen Bank of Bangladesh.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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2 Responses to When Worlds Collide #87: Nobel Peace Prize – Saluting peace-makers or stirring political controversy?

  1. arunishapiro says:

    I am still trying to figure out what Barack Obama, 2009 recipient did “tirelessly and sometimes at great personal risk to pursue peace” before 2009 or since then!!!

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