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A Brief History of the Nobel Peace Prize

February 2, 2008

Washington DC – On the 12 of October 2007, Professor Ole Danbolt Mjøs, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, announced the Peace Prize winners at a press conference in Oslo. Speaking in the hall of the Nobel Institute crowded with journalists, Mjøs said; “The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 is to be shared in two equal parts between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold Gore Jr., for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” The prizes were awarded, as tradition prescribes, on December 10th, on the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Institute.

“I was really surprised by the Gore’s prize,” said Helge Pharo, Professor of International History at the University of Oslo and one of the only four advisors to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, referring to the politics behind the selection of the laureates. “There is such a strong strain of anti-Americanism in Norwegian left wing politics that I didn’t expect it to go to an American,” he continued. Professor Pharo spoke on Tuesday at an event organized by the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies of the George Washington University in Washington DC.

The Nobel Peace Prize is meant to recognize the outstanding work of an individual or organization that promotes good will among nations and the brotherhood of men, organizes peace conferences, and/or advances an agenda for the reduction of standing armies. It is the responsibility of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to interpret these criteria and to select the laureates. In any case there has to be a direct link between the activism of the awardees and world peace, although “sometimes the distance between these two points is quite considerable,” Professor Pharo noted, as it might have been in the case of Al Gore, and even in that of Mother Theresa, who won the prize in 1979 for the work she did with the poor and the sick in Calcutta, India.

The Nobel Peace Prize was first awarded in 1901 to Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, and Frédéric Passy, a leading international pacifist of the time. They shared a prize amount of 150,782 Swedish Krona (approximately $24 US). Today the sum is of 10 million Krona, or about $1.6 million US. Since the days of Dunant and Passy, 95 individuals and 20 organizations have won the prize. The Red Cross was awarded it three times, in 1917, 1944 and 1963, more than anyone else. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees won it twice, in 1954 and 1981.

The most controversial peace prize was probably the one that went to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973 for having contributed to bringing to an end the War in Vietnam. “Many people think that that choice was outrageous,” Herge Pharo pointed out. The “missing Laureate” is certainly the Mahatma Gandhi, who never received the prize despite being considered possibly the most powerful advocate for peace in history. He was nominated several times, in 1937, 1938, 1939 and 1947, and also in 1948, just a few days before being assassinated. The official website of the Nobel Prizes writes that “the omission has been publicly regretted by later members of the Nobel Committee; when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989, the chairman of the committee said that this was ‘in part a tribute to the memory of Mahatma Gandhi.’” However the members have never offered any official explanation as to why the Mahatma was not selected.

Alfred Nobel’s will, which also set up the Nobel prizes in Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and the Prize in Economics, instructed that Norway was to appoint five members to the committee for the Peace Prize. Since its inception, the selection process developed along lines of secrecy and elitism that seem surprising for an award that is meant to promote peace and the equality of all men.

The Storting (the Norwegian parliament) elects the five committeemen to a 6-year renewable term, in proportion to the political composition of the running legislature. The nominations are staggered so that this year, for example, three members will be replaced. The members have always been exclusively Norwegian and for a long time they were simultaneously standing members of the Parliament. This changed in 1977 when a rule was adopted barring members of the Storting from election to the Nobel Committee. “Today they are mostly former fairly top level politicians,” Professor Pharo explained. “The appointment has now become a recognition for services these politicians rendered in the past,” he continued.

The committee receives about 200 proposals each year, from professors, politicians and organizations around the world, advocating the viability of different candidates. Out of those hundreds of names, the members draw a short list of around 30. The advisors, and among them Helge Pharo, are then tasked with conducting extensive research on these finalists and with writing a report for the use of the committee profiling each of the contestants. The advisors are, normally, historians and political scientists and their role is that of “preventing committee members to make fools of themselves,” Professor Pharo joked as he explained that “committeemen are seasoned politicians but by no means international affairs experts.”

Contacts between the members and the advisors are kept to a minimum. Other than receiving their research assignments, the advisors don’t interact with the committee and are rarely even given any feedback on their work. This is part of the secrecy that characterizes the working of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. No minutes of the meetings are recorded and the members are not allowed to keep diaries and never have (with the two famous exceptions of Halvdan Koht, who was a member from 1919 to1937, and of chairman Gunnar Jahn in the period 1945-1966). The names of the candidates other than the winners are never published and the reports of the advisors are classified for 50 years after they are submitted.

Hence, the selection of the laureates is strictly guarded in the hands of a few, which can explain why there has never been any major leak on the names of the winners, but only many more or less successful speculations. The secrecy is also meant to shield the work of the members and of the advisors, especially when they must research and discuss openly aspects of the various candidates that might be controversial and politically incorrect. “They don’t keep minutes so that whatever one member says in a meeting can’t be held against him the night after,” Professor Pharo explained.

Supposedly, in deciding the year’s Laureate, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has to reach an agreement among its members, or the prize amount is reallocated to the Nobel Prize fund. However the last time this happened was in 1972, “although I doubt this is because the committeemen have since then always unanimously agreed,” Helge Pharo said. According to the Professor at the University of Oslo, the reasons behind the uninterrupted selection of laureates might be two others; “the committee has embraced a more activist approach and wouldn’t give that activist role up by renouncing to award the prize.” Furthermore, the Nobel Peace Prize has become such an important annual happening worldwide, with several side events and the media hype that accompanies it, that “by now, the prize simply cannot not be awarded…It’s a machine that’s impossible to stop,” Pharo noted.

The increased activism of the Nobel Committee emerges in another major change that has taken place in the last two decades. The prize used to be awarded in recognition of previous achievements on the part of the candidates, whereas more and more laureates today are engaged in ongoing efforts involving current conflicts. It is a departure that, in the opinion of Pharo, mirrors developments in Norwegian foreign policy, as the country has chosen to become a more active participant in international conflict resolution. The risk of this excessive activism is that the prize might lose its credibility as an independent recognition; “there is a real danger that they might overdo it,” admitted the University of Oslo Professor.

In any case, “if one wants to try to predict who will win the Nobel Peace Prize, one must know who sits on the committee,” Helge Pharo told the audience in Washington DC. It is important to take into consideration the members’ political views. The committee, after all, cannot depart excessively from the mainstream political landscape in Norway, which can be characterized as international liberalism, a left-of-center view of international affairs. Which is why, Professor Helge Pharo suggested, “It is not farfetched to think that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 was given to Al Gore as a way to hit someone else in the United States.”

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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