“The Nobel Prize should finally be abolished.” These words were spoken five years ago by the 2019 Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature; Peter Handke. The Nobel committee justification for Handke winning the award was “that with linguistic ingenuity (he) has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”  The Austrian writer is best known in English for his experimental 1966 play Offending the Audience and his 1986 novel Repetition. Handke is famous for writing about alienation, displacement and conflicted identity. He is of Austro-Slovenian heritage and this is the autobiographical subject of Repetition. This link to Eastern Europe relates to the controversy surrounding Handke.  

Handke openly supported and endorsed Slobodan Milošević, the former President of Serbia, who has been tried for war crimes by the UN with charges including ‘genocide’ (and complicity with) ‘deportation’, ‘torture’ and ‘murder’. Handke does not only endorse him as a leader and a person, having spoken at Milošević’s funeral in 2006. He also publicly denounced the UN’s intervention in Bosnia during the Yugoslav Wars as “criminal”. Handke has said that Serbia was the victim of the Bosnian conflict not the perpetrator and even claimed that the massacres were often staged by the other side and blamed on the Serbians. This not only contradicts most historical views of the conflict, but also the CIA findings upon investigating the conflict. These stated unequivocally that nearly all the atrocities were committed by Serbian militants. For obvious reasons, many are outraged at the Nobel Committee’s decision in awarding Handke the prize.

Whether or not the award should have been given to Handke is not the question at hand. The choice of him for such a high honour brings into focus a deeper controversy surrounding all the Nobel Prizes, especially the Peace Prize. This controversy is the question of whether they are legitimate or meaningful at all. All the Prizes from Literature to Physics have had their share of controversy over who should or shouldn’t have received it, but the Nobel Peace Prize is different. The list of winners contains many largely uncontroversial figures such as Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr., Kofi Annan, and the International Red Cross. However there are many recipients whose reputations are more controversial and who have serious allegations from varying sources.

Henry Kissinger was given the award in 1973 alongside Lê Đức Thọ (who refused it) for the Paris Peace Accords, intended to bring an end to the Vietnam War. Kissinger was also, at least partially, responsible for the covert bombing of Cambodia between 1968-75 and Operation Condor, which involved secretly supporting various violent military coups in Latin America. Kissinger being given the prize caused outrage in America and Europe with two members of the Nobel Committee resigning in protest. Kissinger did not appear at the ceremony because of concern over possible protests and in 1975 when North Vietnam invaded the South, he tried to return the award. The Nobel Committee refused. The satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer quipped that “Political satire became obsolete the year Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize”.

Moving onto the early 1990s, the prize was awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, the current State Councillor of Myanmar. She was imprisoned under house arrest between 1989 and 2010 for her pro-democracy activities, being intermittently released then re-arrested. She helped found the National League for Democracy party, which she later became leader of, and was first democratically elected into Government in 1990, but was under house arrest at the time. The military remained in government until her eventual release in 2010, due to international pressure. She was renowned as one of the most remarkable political figures in the world and has been awarded many humanitarian awards outside of the Nobel Prize. Almost all of these, except the Nobel Prize, have been rescinded because of her refusal to give any statement or take measures to address the massacres of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The ethnic violence has steadily escalated to the point of ‘cleansing’ and despite international pressure, Suu Kyi has refused to comment or act. This has damaged her reputation significantly and many now consider her to be complicit in genocide.

These examples show how the Peace Prize has been marred by serious controversy for many years. These controversies must be taken seriously because of the seriousness of the allegations against the recipients. If they are true, they render the Nobel Peace Prize’s credibility almost entirely void. What kind of Peace Prize can be offered to people who create wars, or condone mass killing? 

There is also a philosophical problem underlying this. How valid is an award for peace in the first place? Peace does not seem to be something we should make a competition out of. There is no benefit or logical justification for it. The UN, which is also a recipient, is not tasked with diplomacy in order that it should win anything. It is supposed to act out of duty and in defence of universal human rights. Peace is not something we should attach a value to in the same way we attach it to a medal. Many think of Peace as essential spiritual while others think of it as primarily political. It is an inherently subjective concept. This shows how difficult the idea of ‘Peace Prize’ is when examined. 

There is a dark irony which hangs over all the Nobel Prizes. The famous myth surrounding their founding is that Alfred Nobel created them after reading about his own death in a premature obituary. He was shocked to see the headline “The merchant of death is dead.” a title relating to him being the inventor of dynamite. He was reportedly so upset at this reputation that he decided to create the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded for extraordinary contributions to humanity. The Peace Prize was particularly important to him. However with it heavily tarnished history, Nobel’s arguably altruistic desire may have been in vain. The truly terrible part is that it may never have made sense in the first place.