Will this year’s Nobel laureate be deserving enough to restore credibility to the controversial peace award, asks Dani Garavelli
Later this week, in a small room in the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, a silver-haired man will step up to a wooden lectern and announce this year’s winner of the world’s most famous peace prize.
As discussions on the 259 nominations received by the five-strong committee are undertaken in great secrecy and one of the defining characteristics of the prize is its unpredictability, it is hard to second-guess the name of the individual or organisation which will trip from chairman Thorbjorn Jagland’s tongue (though Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taleban and has campaigned to secure the rights of Pakistani girls to an education and Denis Mukwege, a doctor who treats women gang-raped by rebel forces in the Congo have both been tipped for the honour).
Though the award has recognised the achievements of some of the great peace-makers and humanitarians of history – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi for example – it has frequently proved contentious, particularly when it was given to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho at the height of the Vietnam War in 1973, prompting two committee members to resign. But, after last year’s decision to recognise the achievements of the European Union in fostering integration and stability to the region – even as its currency went into freefall and the entire project appeared to be on the brink of implosion – its credibility now hangs in the balance.
While those who support the award say it continues to provide an opportunity to acknowledge the contribution made by activists such as Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and to provide a boost to ongoing peace processes, its critics insist its honouring of the EU, and its decision, three years earlier, to give the award to the newly-elected Barack Obama, have devalued it to such as extent as to render it meaningless. A further dent to its image came last week, when it was revealed president Vladimir Putin had been nominated for this year’s award for “his role in preventing an air strike in Syria”, despite his violent campaigns against Chechnyan separatists and his introduction of a “gay propaganda” ban which is being used to justify the persecution of homosexuals.
Of course, there is no shortage of people carrying out humanitarian work. But even where the contribution being made to the betterment of the society is irrefutable, the committee has been criticised for interpreting the phrase “champions of peace” too broadly. Does campaigning on climate change or food security or social and health issues foster harmony between nations or contribute to the reduction or abolition of armies – the achievements the prize was set up to recognise?
In his book The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted, lawyer and author Fredrik Heffermehl accuses the committee, which is appointed by the Storting (the Norwegian parliament) and comprised of prominent political figures, of ignoring the stipulations of Alfred Nobel’s will and making the award to suit its own agenda. Heffermehl is particularly scathing about the EU award which he says made a mockery of Nobel’s ideals. “The European leaders went to Oslo on the Monday to receive the prize and then, as few days later they travelled to Brussels to adopt a treaty on close military co-operation and making the union’s military forces more efficient,” he says. So can this year’s decision do anything to redeem the prize in the eyes of its critics?
The Nobel Peace Prize has been embroiled in sporadic controversy almost since it was first awarded in 1901, with some of its recipients being accused of being warmongerers, notwithstanding their role in whatever peace process they were involved in at the time. Some might argue that this contradiction was enshrined in Nobel himself. He was after all the inventor of dynamite and ballisite, the precursor to military grade explosives, and was driven, it is said, to set up his prize by a desire to produce a worthy legacy after a newspaper ran a premature obituary on him under the headline, “The Merchant of Death has died”.
As much of an inspiration as the obituary was his friendship with Austrian pacifist Bertha von Suttner, who opposed the popular maxim “If you want peace, prepare for war” and was appalled by the proliferation of arms. While all other Nobel awards are given out in Sweden, it was decided the peace prize should be handed out in Norway. This was because, back then, though separate sovereign states, Norway and Sweden shared the same king and foreign policy. With foreign policy decided in Sweden, Norway was seen as less likely to be influenced by diplomatic concerns. However, by the time the committee made its first contentious award – to US president Thoedore Roosevelt in 1906 – the two countries had undergone an amicable separation. Roosevelt, whose approach to foreign policy was “to speak softly and carry a big stick” was the first statesman to be honoured and some believed the award was being used to further Norway’s political interests. Many were also concerned about Roosevelt’s wider reputation and his imperialist and expansionist policies.
Later, the award was also given to opposing leaders in ongoing conflicts – Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who refused his) in 1973; Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat in 1978; and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.
“The idea [with Kissinger and Doc Tho] was to focus on the fact that war had been terminated and there was a chance of building peace, but it was certainly controversial,” says Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University. “What you see on some occasions, and I think they are rarely successful, is an attempt by the committee to use the prize to recognise something which is actually still in process – to give it an extra boost – and that can be quite tricky.
“You see that with Obama getting the prize in relation to what appeared to be an attempt to open up relations with the Middle East. I think most people would be querying whether that is the best way to proceed because things are so unpredictable in the political field.”
Other awards have been controversial because – rather than fostering good relations between countries – they have involved the internal affairs of one nation. The first notable example of this was when German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who had written articles exposing the Nazi regime’s continued breach of the Treaty of Versailles, was nominated in 1935. The committee members decided against giving him the prize as they did not want it to been seen a symbol against fascism. The following year, they changed their minds, although by this time Von Ossietzky was in a concentration camp. Since then, many awards have been given to recognise work to improve political conditions within a particular country, sometimes at the expense of diplomatic relations – when Liu won, China and 18 other countries threatened to boycott the ceremony.
The secrecy surrounding the prize means this year’s shortlist has not been published, but some of the nominations have leaked out. They include human trafficking activist Susana Trimarco, peace studies scholar Betty Reardon, Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, the Guatemalan attorney in charge of prosecuting former president Rios Montt for crimes against humanity, and Chelsea Manning, born Bradley Manning, a US soldier convicted of treason for leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks.
Heffermehl has identified nominees he says would fit Nobel’s criteria, including professor of international law Richard Falk, disarmament advocate David Kreiger and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and Norwegian ambassador Gunnar Garbo. He says if the committee continues to ignore Nobel’s wishes, the committee should be reconstituted.
But Rogers believes the prize is still playing a valuable role in promoting peace. “Even the EU one is interesting because it was a recognition of the fact that the people behind the European project 60 years ago saw it as a means of preventing a third European civil war. Whatever you think of the EU, that element of it has been pretty successful.”
The winner will receive eight million Swedish krona (about £777,000) which can be sunk in peace-advancing or humanitarian projects. Whoever wins, there are likely to be a few dissenting voices. Peace, like war, is complicated and those who take an active role in promoting it are likely to accrue enemies. The question is whether the committee’s choice will be popular enough to restore its credibility. Rogers is optimistic. “There’s maybe one year in five where the prize attracts controversy, but in the great majority of occasions it is given to people or groups who legitimately deserve it and should be held up as examples,” he says. «