Explained: Why the Nobel Peace Prize is the most controversial award ever (2023)

It’s Nobel season and perhaps the most talked about award, the Nobel Peace Prize, will be announced today.

However, more than a century after Alfred Nobel established the prize in his will to honour whomever accomplished “the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the promotion of peace congresses,” some of the choices for this honour have generated quite a controversy.

As Mohan Guruswamy writes in a column in Rediff.com, “This award has a history of having less to do with actual contributions and more to do with some part of a larger agenda. Some pretty dubious people have received this. Many more were patently undeserving.”

Also read: Not so Noble: How the Nobel Prize has become the most controversial award ever

Let’s take a look at the several controversies that have dogged the Nobel Peace Prize and why some believe that the award has drifted away from peace.

Irony of the Nobel Peace Prize

Perhaps, the biggest controversy of the Nobel Peace Prize is the irony of the award itself. Alfred Nobel, the man behind award, contributed to strife.

Nobel is famously known for inventing dynamite and devoted his life to advancing weapons technologies, including rockets, cannons and progressive powder (a slow-burning explosive).

Although Nobel intended dynamite for constructive purposes such as blasting tunnels and bridge footings, the inventor didn’t hold back when it came to perfecting weapons. It seems ironic that the man who earned his fortunes off the back of wars, bequeathed it to achieve peace.

Explained: Why the Nobel Peace Prize is the most controversial award ever (1)

Graphic: Pranay Bhardwaj

No Nobel for Mahatma Gandhi

That Mahatma Gandhi — the strongest symbol of non-violence in the 20th century — has been passed over for this honour has left questions over the credibility of the honour.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee says that Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947. However, each year, he missed out on the award.

In 2006, the former director of the Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, said the greatest omission in the prize’s history was never awarding the peace prize to Mahatma Gandhi.

According to Lundestad, Gandhi was shortlisted five times, but the committee’s Euro-centric viewpoint and its failure to appreciate the struggle for freedom in colonies kept Gandhi from receiving the award.

“Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether the Nobel committee can do without Gandhi, is the question,” said Lundestad.

Explained: Why the Nobel Peace Prize is the most controversial award ever (2)

Mahatma Gandhi was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize several times, but never won it. Wikimedia Commons

The 1973 Nobel row

In 1973, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese diplomat, Le Duc Tho, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Paris peace accords, which officially brokered a ceasefire to the Vietnam War.

The selection of winners of the award was heavily criticised as Kissinger had ordered a bombing of Hanoi during the negotiation for the truce.

Two members of the Nobel Peace Prize committee resigned in protest of Kissinger’s selection.

Tho, who was the first Asian awarded for the honour, decline his half of the award, saying “peace has not yet been established,” and also said that accepting the prize would be giving into “bourgeois sentimentalities.”

The New York Times called the award the ‘Nobel War Prize,’ since Kissinger, as Nixon’s Secretary of State, had authorised bombing raids on Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese in Cambodia. The war would continue for another year, and in 1975, North Vietnam would invade South Vietnam, and Saigon would fall to North Vietnamese forces. Le Duc Tho was still in government at the time, and Kissinger offered to return the award to the Nobel committee, but the committee refused.

Honour for Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin

When the Nobel Committee announced in 1994 that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had won the award for their work on the Oslo Peace Accords, controversy erupted.

Luke Graham at CNBC notes the award was controversial for many reasons. The Israel-Palestine conflict did not end after the Oslo Peace Accords.

Moreover, there was massive criticism against the awardees itself. Kare Kristiansen, a Norwegian member of the Nobel Committee had said that Arafat was the “world’s most prominent terrorist” because of his support for the terrorism of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

Columnist Jay Nordlinger in The Times of Israel calls Arafat “the worst man ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Explained: Why the Nobel Peace Prize is the most controversial award ever (3)

File image of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, (left), Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres with their medals and diplomas, after receiving the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo’s City Hall. AP

The Nobel ‘mistake’ for Obama

Just nine months into his first term in office, United States’ Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

The decision received massive backlash, with many arguing that the prize was premature. Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times, “Obama’s work on the Middle East, mostly through Senator Mitchell’s efforts, are sensible but haven’t produced any results yet. They certainly don’t match the intensive efforts that Bill Clinton made with his Middle East peace negotiations in the fall of 2000. Likewise, Obama’s efforts on nuclear disarmament/non-proliferation are important, but they are purely an aspiration.”

Brian Becker, national coordinator of Act Now To Stop War and End Racism, had said in a Reuters report at the time, “This is the Nobel committee giving Obama the ‘you are not George W. Bush’ award.”

In 2015, Geir Lundestad, the former Nobel secretary, wrote in his memoir that the committee thought the prize would strengthen the US president, but that it didn’t have this effect.

“No Nobel Peace Prize ever elicited more attention than the 2009 prize to Barack Obama,” Lundestad said in his book, adding, “Even many of Obama’s supporters believed that the prize was a mistake. In that sense the committee didn’t achieve what it had hoped for.”

Explained: Why the Nobel Peace Prize is the most controversial award ever (4)

File image of US president President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. AFP

The EU row in 2012

The Nobel’s decision of 2012 to honour the European Union came under much criticism.

Many complained about the choice, as the European Union was dealing with several pressing economic problems, including the Greek debt crisis. Also, there were arguments about how European countries continued to make huge profits off of selling weapons and fuelling conflicts.

Past prize winners Desmond Tutu, Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire also said the EU did not deserve the award. In a letter to the committee, the trio wrote that the EU was “clearly not part of those protagonists of peace” who Alfred Nobel had in mind in 1895 when he first invented the prize.”

Nobel winner who went to war

The Nobel Peace Prize has also come under criticism for its premature or faulty understanding of peace or for being politically motivated.

One such famous example is of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the prize in 2019 for ending the 20-year conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia by establishing a peace agreement. He was praised outside the country for his reforming zeal.

However, his image was shattered after he launched a civil war in the north of the country in November 2020.

Today, he has been criticised for human rights violations and war crimes committed by his forces in the Tigray region.

With inputs from agencies

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