The Nobel Peace Prize Isn’t About Peace
At some point in its history, the Nobel Peace Prize became a lifetime achievement award for human rights — and betrayed its founder’s intentions.
At first, the peace awards stuck fairly closely to Nobel’s stated rubric, going to a series of now-forgotten figures prominent in the international arbitration movement; Bertha von Suttner, perhaps inevitably, won the prize in 1905. The following year, the prize went to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt for his part in drawing up the peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
World War I put an end to the award for a few years, apart from 1917, when it went, collectively to the International Committee of the Red Cross. In 1919, the creation of the League of Nations, the forerunner of today’s United Nations, initiated a series of awards to individuals who played a part in its work, including U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a key influence on its creation, as well as prominent figures in other peace organizations such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
While this has made the Peace Prize, like its literature counterpart, something of a “lifetime achievement” award, particularly when it has been given to pacifist activists, the heaviest focus was on the leading negotiators of international treaties: professional diplomats and politicians carrying out complex, arduous, but also discreet acts of peacemaking.
This indeed caused the first really major controversy in the prize’s history. In 1973, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was awarded the prize for his part in negotiating the Paris Peace Accords, which formally ended the Vietnam War, along with his Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho.
But Tho declined the award, pointing out that the accords had not in fact brought the killing to an end; indeed, it continued for another two years until the final victory of the North Vietnamese. When it was clear that the fighting was far from over, Kissinger decided not to attend the ceremony and donated the prize money to charity. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Kissinger tried to return the award, though this was not allowed by the rules of the Nobel Prizes.
Both Tho and Kissinger had blood on their hands — the Vietnamese recipient as leader of the violent Viet Minh insurgency against the French colonial rulers of Vietnam in the 1950s, the American as the architect of a bombing campaign against rebel supply lines in Cambodia that caused the loss of anything between 40,000 and 100,000 lives. Two members of the Nobel Committee resigned in protest, making the award the most controversial in the prize’s history up to that point.
After the end of World War II, however, the five-person Norwegian committee that decides on the recipient began to depart from the original guidelines. The award of the prize to individuals who had played a part in bringing civil wars and conflicts to an end was at least arguably within the spirit of the founder’s intentions, as with the architect of the end of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, David Trimble, or the man who recently put a stop to the long-running and violent insurgency in Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. But soon the remit of the prize was being extended far beyond even this.
In 1952 it went to Albert Schweitzer, founder of the Lambarene Hospital in the African state of Gabon. However admirable this might have been, it was not a contribution to international peace. Already this change of direction was beginning to cause controversy, since later in life Schweitzer ran into heavy criticism for his patronizing and paternalistic attitude toward Africans, whom he sometimes compared to children.
The tacit inclusion of campaigners for human rights in the remit of the prize took it further away from Nobel’s intention: recipients such as Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Lutuli of the African National Congress in apartheid-era South Africa, the anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu, the Soviet scientist and democracy campaigner Andrei Sakharov, the Iranian democratic campaigner Shirin Ebadi, the nun and later Catholic saint Mother Teresa, the Chinese human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo, the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and the Polish labor leader Lech Walesa could hardly be said to have played a significant role in bringing about peace between nations.