With Barack Obama becoming the latest recipient, Emer Sugrue argues that the Nobel Peace Prize has fallen into folly
The Nobel Peace prize has always differed from the other Nobel Prizes. The awards in the scientific disciplines of physics, chemistry, and medicine require that the significance of achievements being recognised be “tested by time”. The reason for this was that in the early days of the prizes, the award had to go to a discovery made in the last year, resulting in the embarrassing discrediting of some awarded ideas. This typically means that around twenty years will pass between discovery and prize to prove to the world its success.
If only the Peace Prize took such care – a glance at the list of peace prize laureates reveals a dismal lack of peace being created. The winners of the Nobel Peace Prize can usually be broken down into two categories: those who failed to bring peace, and those who brought peace only because they stopped being the source of war. The latest controversial winner, President Barack Obama, is only a departure from form because he hasn’t had time to do either of those things.
The first category of failed peacemakers may have had good intentions but ultimately had little effect. The winners could arguably be justified for their efforts, but it’s not the Nobel Prize for trying, is it? If you tried and failed to do Physics, you would get nothing except a letter from your college asking for your funding back. As Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons said, “There’s no Nobel Prize for Attempted Chemistry”. Yet the list of laureates is littered with those with no discernable achievements. These noble losers include Al Gore, who won for making a film about climate change, and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines who succeeded in getting countries to sign a treaty banning landmines, sadly not including any countries who actually make or use them.
The second category is more controversial: the warmongers who gave up mongering. Most of these laureates won prizes for signing peace treaties for wars they themselves started. Do the two not cancel each other out? In 1994 the award was shared between Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for creating peace between Israel and Palestine. We didn’t even need the twenty years to discredit that one. In 1973 Henry Kissinger claimed the prize for brokering a ceasefire in the Vietnam War, a conflict during which he had been accused of perpetrating war crimes. American humorist Tom Lehrer declared upon Kissinger’s nomination that political satire was dead; one can’t help but feel the same sense of despair and disillusionment.
Even more glaring are the world-famous omissions from the list. Mahatma Gandhi was nominated five times, but never won. In 1948, the year that Gandhi was assassinated, the prize was not awarded at all: the committee decided that there were no suitable candidates. This decision has caused continued controversy. The major flaw is that the award cannot be given posthumously, yet many who dedicate their lives to peace have lost them in the process. Surely these people are more deserving than multi-millionaires in mansions, making documentaries about climate change.
So what is the point of the Nobel Peace Prize? Nobody seems to know any more. There are no firm guidelines for what qualifies someone to win (aside, of course, from their being alive). It seems that nominations are drawn from reading the newspaper of the day, and noting the first names to pop up. How else are we to explain the award going to Barack Obama – the first speculative peacemaker? Far from having made peace, President Obama is actively involved in wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Perhaps when these conflicts have been abandoned he will win another prize for bringing peace to the Middle East. The number of awards for bringing peace to that region far outweighs the peace itself.
For those who have won and are deserving, it hasn’t done them any good at all. Aung San Suu Kyi won in 1991 for “her efforts to secure democracy in Burma”. In real terms, though, this translates to the fact that her party, the National League for Democracy, won an astounding 82 per cent of the vote in the country’s 1990 elections, yet were not allowed to take office. Suu Kyi has now spent most of the past 20 years under house arrest.
It seems that the Nobel Prize in this case acts merely as a balm for our collective consciences; she has been honoured for her efforts, what more does she want? Her detention has recently been extended by another 18 months to prevent her from participating in the coming elections. The international community, again, stands idle.
With such interest in the peace prize, with such potential to reward the struggle of so many, this award will be nothing but a sham until it recognises true peacemakers.