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The Nobel Prize: Peace by Piece

Ashutosh enjoys writing on a variety of subjects including politics, current affairs, and social and religious issues.

The Nobel Prize - Front (L) Back (R)

The Nobel Prize - Front (L) Back (R)

The Inspiration

On 27 November 1895, Alfred Nobel signed his last will and testament, giving the largest share of his fortune to a series of prizes, five in total in recognition of academic, cultural or scientific advances that would benefit mankind. Amongst these recognitions, the choice of a peace prize was always considered to be one that was odd and intriguing at the same time. As described in his will, the peace prize was dedicated to "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses".

There is no authentic source confirming what inspired Alfred Nobel to come up with the Nobel Peace Prize. Some attribute it to his close friendship with Bertha von Suttner, a leader of the international peace movement and critically acclaimed author of the anti-war novel Lay Down Your Arms. She also went on to became the first female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. Bertha was believed to have influenced Nobel a great deal. There are others that more convincingly attribute the idea of the prize to Nobel's own guilt. This is supported by the fact that his inventions became the instruments of war and devastation. It's often quoted that when a French newspaper confused his brother's demise with Nobel's and published a headline "Merchant of Death", it made Nobel aware of how much people resented him. And the fact that they were least remorseful towards the news of his demise was perhaps his awakening that became the motivation behind dedicating a prize towards the cause of peace.

The Nobel's 'Not So Peaceful' Controversies

Contrary to what Nobel had intended, the Nobel Peace Prize soon became a symbol of everything but peace. The whole idea of a recognition as worthy as a Nobel Peace Prize became more or less ambiguous. The initial period through the Second World War saw the bulk of the awards go to those who promoted interstate peace and disarmament. However, less than one-quarter of the prizes since then have gone towards solely promoting peace.

There has been a fair share of controversies associated with the peace prize right from the point of its origin, which is the Norwegian committee and the nomination and selection process itself. While the other four prizes are the responsibility of the Swedish committees, the peace prize is exclusively handled by a Norwegian committee. That, of course, isn't the controversy, as that certainly was part of Nobel's will. The committee's composition as well political influence, however, is. In due time, the Norwegian committee has diluted the definition of peace to include a more broader context to correlate it with human rights issues, essentially giving it political flavors. However, what they have strongly opposed is amendment or dilution of the committee itself. The decision of honoring this prestigious award lies in the hands of a five-member committee of the Norwegian Parliament, the Storting. Former Norwegian politicians to even parliamentarians have been associated with the committee. With that said, one cannot assume the existence of an apolitical atmosphere and absence of conflict of interests. Critics have considered the Nobel Peace Prize to be a political tool.

The chink in the armor came perhaps as early as 1906, a year after Norway's independence from the Swedish Union. The Nobel committee, then chaired by Norway's first foreign minister, awarded the peace prize to the president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, for having negotiated peace in the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-5. It certainly sent enough shockwaves across as Roosevelt was never considered an apostle of peace, nor were his actions approving of the same. The New York Times summed it up as, "a broad smile illuminated the face of the globe when the prize was awarded ... to the most warlike citizen of these United States." The man who was entrusted the responsibility to prepare a report on Roosevelt's candidature was Norwegian committee adviser Halvdan Koht, who later went on represent the nation's foreign affairs. Halvdan tabled one of the most comprehensive report, which was mostly seen critical with only a few wins. The report, however, had a little bearing on the outcome. The motivating factor for the committee's unanimous decision, as speculated, was perhaps the current political situation in the country. Norway had just gained independence then, splitting from the Swedish Union and an endorsement of its sovereignty, especially from a world power like the US, which would have been highly favorable in the nation's interest.

As we delve into the historical records, it becomes amply clear that awarding 'statesman' was not the only factor that raised eyebrows among the critics but awarding dissidents was also a concern and was seen as interference into internal matters of the nations. The year 1935 witnessed one such case, although the award was given in the following year but not before creating enough controversy. The recipient was the German pacifist and one of Hitler's strongest critic, Carl Von Ossietzky. At this juncture, the peace prize was already being seen as a symbol against fascism and had completely submerged into politics. In 1935, Ossietzky failed to make the cut and the prize that year was withheld. The following year, however, an overwhelming 86 nominations were received for Ossietzky, signed by hundreds of parliamentarians and scholars from ten different nations. A classic case of strong lobbying perhaps. Halvdan Koht again features in this controversy as he was one of the opposing voices both as a foreign minister and as a committee adviser. A clear case of conflict of interest also becomes apparent here vis a vis Halvdan's political profile and the fact that he was attempting not to irk Hitler. The eventual consequence of this entire episode was Hitler barring all Germans from accepting a Nobel Prize and creating the German National Prize for Art and Science as an alternative. In the years that followed the committee's choices were further questioned as interference by ruling dispensation of various countries. Whether it was the case of Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo that angered the Chinese or that of Al Gore or Aung San Suu Kyi.

Another of the Norwegian Committee's criticized decision was awarding the peace prize to US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger for his efforts towards the Vietnam peace accord in 1973. He was a joint recipient along with Vietnamese politician Le Duc Tho, who declined the Nobel Peace Prize stating he was not in the position to accept the award - The war in Vietnam was far from over and the celebration of peace was irrelevant. Besides one doesn't even have to critically examine the role Kissinger played in the Vietnam war in which around two million lives were lost.

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A rather curious case which has even been acknowledged as an error by the Nobel Committee was the omission of Mahatma Gandhi. He was undoubtedly 20th century's international peace icon, whose non-violent protest against British Colonization became iconic. Though one can only speculate what could have been the reason? Perhaps, Norway did not wish to offend England. Gandhi received a total of 12 nominations between the year 1937 to 1948. That, of course, cannot be a supporting argument either. Jane Addams, another prominent peace activist and founder of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom was nominated on 91 occasions between 1916 to 1931, before finally getting felicitated with the prestigious award. The Nobel Committee, however, did acknowledge Gandhi as a 'Missing Laureate'. Geir Lundestad, Secretary of Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2006 said, "Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize, whether Nobel Committee can do without Gandhi is the question".

The Discourse

Contrary to the other four prizes that are primarily achievement based, the peace prize is often seen as an encouragement for the greater good. Especially when we consider something as tentative as peace. But what happens when the peace prize fails to achieve what it was intended for? Should the committee be held solely responsible? What about the laureate's accountability? That, in fact, brings me to the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, former US President Barack Obama. Someone, who made it to the nominations even before he would have assumed his complete responsibilities in the White House. Leaving aside the whole debate on the controversial nomination, how did he fare as a Nobel Laureate? Well! That doesn't even need any explanation. In fact, the ironical part itself came just weeks before Obama was to travel to Oslo to receive the honor. He had announced sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The Nobel Committee had henceforth been at the receiving end for an award for symbolism or endorsement rather than any concrete achievement. The Nobel laureate himself showed the least interest towards peace and reconciliation - the bombings continued, more nations were added to the list and the legacy just passed on.

Similarly, the 1994 misadventure of felicitating Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East, have achieved next to nothing. The Israel-Palestine peace talks have been in a coma. Was the committee being overly ambitious, hoping for a change to follow? One can only speculate. Undoubtedly, the intentions could have been noble, even if the result was otherwise.

In 2017, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the honor. The organization was recognized for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons. Again, without even being skeptical, what this organization has so far or in the future shall be able to achieve is anyones guess. That despite all the limelight it has garnered with this felicitation. Nuclear threat isn't new nor will it ever get old. 2016 saw North Korea in the lime light with the state trying to enhance its nuke capabilities and testing ICBMs. Amidst all this, how ICAN made the cut and who possibly nominated their candidature would be an interesting find. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait for five decades to find that out.

Realistically, we may agree that there cannot be permanent peace. At least not until, the nations continue to stockpile weapons. For instance, the saber-rattling between the US and North Korea currently is a big threat to world peace. However, it goes without saying that everything otherwise isn't normal and peaceful either. The Middle East fiasco is far over and Afghanistan seems to be heating up again. The peace movements have certainly transformed tremendously from Nobel's times and so has the participation bit, but one thing that has not changed is the realization of peace. Its the same today as it was back then. Only the threat perception has multiplied. That said, as an icon of Peace and the holder of the most prestigious honor in the world, the recipient carries an even greater responsibility for endorsing the same values for which they have been recognized.

Nobel Peace Prize Facts

  • The Nobel Peace Prize has so far (until 2019) been awarded to 131 Laureates, which includes 107 individuals and 27 organizations.
  • The names of the nominators and the nominees for the Nobel Prize, are made public 50 years later. From 1901-1967, a total of 4425 nominations have been received for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Three Nobel Peace Prize Laureates were under arrest at the time they won the honour. German pacifist and journalist Carl von Ossietzky, Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi and Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo.
  • In 1939, Swedish parliamentarian, E.G.C. Brandt nominated Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize. He withdrew, later stating that it was not to be taken seriously. Soviet leader Stalin was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice, in 1945 & 1948.

A Peaceful Vote

References All Nobel Peace Prizes.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Ashutosh Joshi

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