12 Oct 2012

What is the point of the Nobel Peace Prize?

The Nobel Peace Prize is the most prestigious award of its kind, but after criticism over the committee’s politicisation and questions raised over recent winners, is the prize losing its credibility?

What is the point of the Nobel peace prize?

Pictured: Tawakkol Karman, one of the three Nobel Peace Prize winners in 2011

For many presidents or nation leaders hoping for re-election, a previous Nobel Peace Prize win might form the bedrock of their campaign. But for Barack Obama, who was awarded the prize in 2009, his campaign team would rather it was forgotten about.

Mr Obama was less than nine months into his presidency, and was commander-in-chief of the US army in Afghanistan and Iraq. He went on to approve military intervention in Libya, and under his presidency, there has been a huge escalation in the use of drone attacks, mainly in Pakistan.

The prize was awarded for Mr Obama’s “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” and yet the speech he gave on receiving the prize was a defence of the right to go to war.

“They gave it someone on the premise that he would do great things,” says Iver Neumann, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics which was “a bit of a blunder,” he adds – articulating wider public opinion. Another controversial decision was made in 1973, when Henry Kissinger was awarded the prize for brokering a settlement in Vietnam while the war was still going on.

The prize is awarded by politicians who by definition, do not have the historical and social context you would find in other committees. It shouldn’t surprise us that they awarded it to people like themselves. Iver Neumann, LSE international relations professor

By no means does such controversy surround every winner. Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela are just some of the laureates who are still considered international peacemakers. The three women from Liberia and Yemen who won last year did so because they contributed to the “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights,” said the committee, and the decision was praised for highlighting their work and the plight of both countries.

But the relevance and politicisation of the Nobel Peace Prize has recently been called into question. “It’s a bit stale,” says Professor Neumann. “When you think about the amount of great activity and discourse on war and peace, the Nobel peace prize does not come to mind.

“The committee has obviously decided that isn’t the point of the prize.”

2012 contenders
In a surprise move, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
Below is a selection of the main contenders shortlisted either by the director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo or by Paddy Power bookmakers on 11 October, before the prize was announced:
6/4 Gene Sharp, analyst and author who inspired non-violent uprisings
5/2 Sima Samar, former Afghan Women’s Minister and human rights advocate
16/1 Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder
20/1 Memorial Human Rights Centre, Russia

Politician-filled committee

Part of the reason the prize is not as relevant as it could be, is because the awarding committee is made up of politicians, says Professor Neumann. Alfred Nobel’s will specifies that the committee be made up of five people chosen by the Norwegian government. Under current practice, those put forward are representatives from parties in the government who then chose between individuals or groups recommended to them from across the world.

However critics of this process argue that politicians are not best placed to choose the world’s greatest peacemaker. “The prize does something that none of the other prizes do. It uses practitioners to deal out the prize, rather than experts,” says Professor Neumann, who points to the literature prize as an example, which is awarded by scholars. “The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by politicians who by definition do not have the historical and social context that you would find in other committees. It shouldn’t surprise us that they award it to people like themselves.”

When two members of the committee were replaced last year, there was a debate in Norway over how they should be chosen, but the Swedish government decided not to change the process. Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo which speculates on possible winners, agrees that the prize might be better served if the committee had a different make-up. “It is very often made up of senior politicians who have retired and party membership is almost a necessity,” he told Channel 4 News.

Diplomacy concerns?

This also has implications for international relations, in that although the committee is independent, it is strongly associated with the Norwegian government. So much so that China froze diplomatic ties with Norway in 2010 when the committee gave the prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, accusing Norway of interfering in its internal affairs.

The immense controversy is simply evidence to how much the prize is valued. There is lots of debate in some years but it has been for a long time the world’s prestigious prize. Kristian Berg Harpviken, Peace Research Institute director

While he does not agree with the Chinese government, “the fact that the Nobel committee is such a close reflection of the political spectrum does give some weight to the Chinese argument.” Professor Harpviken told Channel 4 News.

Former prime minister Torbjørn Jagland, the current committee chair, is also secretary-general at the Council of Europe, which represents 47 member countries including Russia, and this has been cited as a possible reason that the growing movement against the erosion of human rights in Russia has not been selected in the past.

Russian contenders

His allegiances may be tested this year however. The list of potential Russian laureates according to the Peace Research Institute includes Svetlana Gannushkina and the human rights centre, Memorial, that she helps to lead, as well as the radio station Ekho Moskvy and its editor Alexei Venediktov.

But despite the controversy and debate that inevitably surrounds the annual prize giving, there is no doubt that the Nobel Peace Prize still garners a huge amount of international attention, and casts the winner into the spotlight – whether they like it or not.

“The immense controversy is simply evidence to how much the prize is valued. There is lots of debate in some years, and considerable criticism, but it has for a long time, and remains, the world’s prestigious prize,” says Professor Harpviken. “I think it’s a prize that has a value, because it does help to shine light on issues or conflicts that are not in people’s attention.”