In Oslo, Norway, on Friday, dignitaries from around the world gathered to celebrate the awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Filipina journalist Maria Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov. But as speeches were delivered and medals presented, voices outside Oslo City Hall were asking whether the most prestigious prize in the world, as many believe it to be, has lost its shine.
In recent decades, the prize has sometimes gone to individuals who, many believe, have failed to live up to the standard articulated by the founder of the prize, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel. His instruction was that it should go to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Perhaps most notably, that includes Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, who was awarded the prize in 2019 for helping to end his country’s long-running war with Eritrea. The prize committee cited his “efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.”
Today, Abiy is conducting a brutal war in northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, in which both sides have been accused of a wide range of war crimes.
In 2019, the same year Abiy won the prize, a fellow laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, appeared before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Suu Kyi, who was the head of Myanmar’s civilian government at the time, was there to insist that the widespread killing and displacement of the ethnic Rohingya people in her country was not a genocide.
Another controversial laureate is former U.S. President Barack Obama, who was nominated for the prize before he had been in office for a month and received the award before he had served even a year. Obama went on to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan during part of his presidency, and he accelerated the use of drone strikes against individuals and groups seen as enemies of the United States.
Controversial awards are nothing new to the Nobel committee. Two members resigned in 1973 when the award was given to then-U.S. national security adviser Henry Kissinger for supposedly helping to arrange a cease-fire in the Vietnam War. Kissinger offered to return the prize two years later, after the fall of Saigon.
In 1994, when Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were given the prize for efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians, one member of the committee denounced Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, as a terrorist and resigned.
Opaque selection process
The Norwegian Nobel Committee is made up of five members selected by the Norwegian parliament. For generations, the committee has been made up primarily of retired politicians. They collect nominations at the beginning of each year and typically announce a winner in October.
All documents and records of the selection process are sealed for 50 years, making it difficult to know exactly what the committee members were thinking during recent deliberations.
This has not made the committee immune from criticism, however.
“The prize is losing credibility,” Unni Turrettini, author of the book Betraying the Nobel: The Secrets and Corruption Behind the Nobel Peace Prize, told VOA. “And when it loses credibility, it loses the potential impact that the prize can have on world peace.”
Turrettini said that populating the prize committee with politicians has led to the impression that its choices are sometimes meant to further the interests of the Norwegian government and its relations with other nations.
“For our country, and as a Norwegian myself, it is in everyone’s interest that we keep the committee independent from Norwegian politics, and that we restore the trust that has been eroded,” she said.
Dispute over Nobel’s intentions
Some believe that the committee has, too often, strayed from Nobel’s original intent.
Norwegian attorney and peace activist Fredrik Heffermehl has been pressuring the committee for well over a decade, insisting that many of its selections have departed so far from Nobel’s instructions, as laid out in his will, that they are effectively illegal.
Heffermehl told VOA that this year’s awarding of the prize to Ressa and Muratov, two journalists who have courageously fought to overcome government repression of the media in their respective home countries, is yet another such departure. While they may be doing admirable work, neither is directly involved in efforts to further what Heffermehl believes to have been Nobel’s ultimate goal: widespread disarmament.
“I’m more disappointed than I’ve been for a very long time,” Heffermehl said. “Very few prizes, particularly the last 20 years, have met Alfred Nobel’s intention.”
Officials associated with the prize committee have vigorously disputed Heffermehl’s interpretation of the instructions for awarding the prize. Olav Njølstad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, has taken to the pages of the country’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten, to accuse Heffermehl of misreading the historical record.
“The Nobel Committee has never accepted this interpretation of the will,” Njølstad wrote. “It does not see that Alfred Nobel has anywhere stated that work for disarmament should be given greater weight than the other forms of peace work to which the will refers.”
An ‘aspirational’ prize
Ron Krebs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, told VOA that it is important to understand that, particularly in the past 50 years, the Nobel Peace Prize has often had an “aspirational” quality to it. That is, it is sometimes awarded to people who are taking early steps toward goals that the Nobel committee sees as furthering the cause of peace in the world.
That could be said of the prizes awarded to individuals working to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and even the selection of Barack Obama, whose campaign rhetoric had focused on reducing conflict.
“These are the Nobel prize committee saying, ‘We wish to encourage them along this path. We wish to bolster their chances, and we will put our moral weight behind them,'” Krebs said.
Krebs said that can lead people to mistakenly believe that the prize is an endorsement of everything the recipient does or, effectively, will do.
“We need to remember that people who are granted the Nobel Peace Prize are granted it for particular accomplishments, or even particular aspirations,” he said. “But that does not mean that they share all those values that the Nobel prize committee espouses.”