Written by Jayanta Gopal Borpujari
We are in yet another season of the Nobel Prizes — a season of anticipation, suspense, rumours and social media debates. These prizes, considered the most prestigious honour in their respective fields, generate significant public interest worldwide. Among them, the peace prize stands out tall — for speculations and controversies, for jubilation and heartbreaks, and debates and criticisms. It is understandable. While other prizes are strictly limited to distinct domains, the Nobel Peace Prize is all-encompassing; it touches everyone’s heart, appeals to everyone’s imagination.
No wonder then that the announcement of a Nobel Peace laureate is often followed by waves of disapproval and disputes. Closer scrutiny shows merit in such criticisms. Has the Nobel committee been always right in their choice? Have politics, populism or prejudice played a role in some of their decisions?
The criteria for awards in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine are defined in specific terms. These require the awardee to have made “the most important discovery or improvement” in their relevant field. For the Literature prize, the person must have done “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”.
Meanwhile, the Peace Prize is awarded “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”. A lot is left to interpretation, opening the door to controversy. Further, it refers only to “the most or the best work”, but does not insist on any result.
In the montage of 134 personalities and organisations honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize, many deserve the award beyond any dispute. However, on various occasions, the choices have raised eyebrows around the world. Let’s consider a few examples:
In 1973, Henry A Kissinger and Le Duc Tho received the prize for negotiating a ceasefire in the Vietnam war. Kissinger’s role in world politics is well documented; he was hardly a champion of peace. Le Duc Tho — the Vietnamese general, revolutionist, diplomat and politician – was anything but a messenger of peace (it is another matter that he refused the prize). The truce was negotiated by two badly bruised parties as part of a mutually convenient strategy of war amid severe US public pressure, army desertions and draft dodging.
In 1994, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin received the prize “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East”. Arafat’s record as a Palestine Liberation Organisation leader, Peres and Rabin’s roles in the oppression of the cornered Palestinian population, and the complete failure of their “efforts” are well known. The Israel-Palestinian issue is alive and more complicated today than it was at the time of their failed agreement.
In 2003, Shirin Ebadi was awarded the prize “for her efforts for democracy and human rights. She has focused especially on the struggle for the rights of women and children”. Her record as a lawyer, judge and human rights activist was remarkable. As the founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre in Iran, she led a courageous fight against the oppression of freedom in her country. However, the Nobel Peace Prize? Strong criticism from various quarters that her work did not reflect the goals set by Alfred Nobel for the Peace Prize, and that the award was politically motivated, cannot be ignored.
In 2009, Barack H Obama was awarded the prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. One still wonders what justification the Norwegian Nobel Committee had in honouring the serving US President with the Peace Prize just months into his young presidency. The then Norwegian Nobel Committee secretary Geir Lundestad writes in his memoir, Secretary of Peace: 25 years with the Nobel Prize, that “even many of Obama’s supporters believed that the prize was a mistake” and that “In that sense, the committee didn’t achieve what it had hoped for”. Alfred Nobel’s will did not provide for the Peace Prize to be awarded based on hopes.
In 2014, Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai received the prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”. Satyarthi’s crusade against child labour in India and advocacy of universal right to education are admirable. No amount of praise is enough for Yousafzai’s bravery in espousing right to education for all children. However, one can’t help wonder their relevance to the Peace Prize.
There have been glaring misses as well. Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence and the most revered leader of Indian Freedom movement, was nominated five times, the last one in 1947 after India’s independence from the British rule and months before his assassination. The Norwegian Nobel Committee did not find him suitable on all these reviews, a decision that some later committee members have publicly regretted. No one can be sure about what was deliberated in the committee’s secretive selection process. Their alleged tunnelled view of the world, fear of upsetting bilateral relations with Britain, Gandhi’s ultra-nationalism, unwillingness to be seen as taking sides in India-Pakistan conflict are often quoted by commentators as some of the probable reasons.
It is a Norwegian award, administered by the Norwegian parliament through a committee of five individuals. But it has global stature, admiration and far-reaching implications. The key criteria for the prize — “fraternity between nations”, “abolition or reduction of standing armies” and “holding and promotion of peace congresses” — are essentially international issues that require inclusive representation and global relevance.
The Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded strictly as per the criteria defined in Alfred Nobel’s will in letter and spirit. The secretive selection process should be made transparent. Fair consideration should be given to achievements and not just efforts in lines with the other Nobel Prizes. Due attention should be given to the candidates’ past record as a proponent for peace. A Nobel Peace laureate must be someone revered as a champion of world peace, committed to friendship among nations and the demilitarisation of our planet. Else, the award shall lose its sheen over time.
Borpujari is a columnist and writer based in Muscat, Oman