One of the most coveted awards in human history, the Nobel Prize was created by the last wishes of Alfred Nobel, inventor of “dynamite”. These are essentially personal rewards from his private realm, but have since evolved into something much bigger. All Nobel Prizes are awarded in Sweden with the exception of the Peace Prize awarded in Norway. Alfred Nobel prospered during the Industrial Revolution, when the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway were still together, amassing his fortune by manufacturing military weapons. Some argue that these awards were designed posthumously to improve his reputation.
Nobel prizes are awarded in the fields of chemistry, physics, medicine, literature, and most coveted, the peace prize. In his will, Alfred Nobel called the peace prize to be awarded “to the person who has done most or best to advance brotherhood among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”.
More than a century later, has the Nobel Peace Prize lost its luster?
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, a five-member committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, chooses the recipient. Interestingly, although appointed by Parliament, the committee is a private body responsible for awarding a private prize. Unless the Committee becomes inclusive, it will lose its moral authority in an increasingly divided world.
Russian journalist, Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov, has made international headlines after he auctioned off the Nobel Peace Prize he won last year for a record $103.5 million to help refugees Ukrainians.
In doing so, he demonstrated a level of responsibility and moral leadership that was sadly lacking in the very institution of the Nobel Prize. This auction offers a moment of reflection on the future of the prestigious award.
Since its inception, almost all winners of the Nobel Prize in Science have been “white” men, as almost no female scientist or any other ethnicity has been deemed worthy enough to win this illustrious award. Not only that, but only four of the 200 winners in history of the Nobel Prize in Physics are women. The committee’s nomination and selection processes result in the institution’s lack of diversity, tarnishing the reputation of an award meant to celebrate humanity. This is especially important today because moral leadership is needed more than ever.
In these trying times, as world powers grapple with the climate crisis, terrorism, population growth, food insecurity, the refugee crisis, religious violence, Islamophobia, racism and conflicts like the Russian War -Ukrainian culture and its repercussions on world peace, the Nobel Committee must show moral leadership. And it can only do so by correcting age-old gender and racial disparities against the candidates.
The Nobel Prize committee has been on shaky ground lately. When it comes to war and peace, the stakes are higher. In retrospect, the last two times he chose a head of state were a disaster. In 2009, the committee selected President Barrack Obama early in his presidency. The award was given in the hope that President Obama could change the direction of his country after campaigning for the office as part of his opposition to previous heavy-handed military interventions in the Middle East – notably in Iraq. This anti-war sentiment was what the Nobel committee likely focused on when selecting it for the prize.
Yet President Obama authorized a military build-up in Afghanistan and the invasion of Libya. Libya’s botched invasion did drive out Muammar Gaddafi, but it also helped to destabilize the Sahel region, causing a state of instability and chaos that continues to this day.
The Nobel Committee was on firmer ground when it singled out Muratov along with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a prerequisite for democracy and lasting peace.”
Ressa is considered a brave journalist, but many in the Philippines will say otherwise and even wonder if the prize was awarded in error.
Moreover, in Muratov’s case, it is worth considering whether the undisclosed bidder for his Nobel Peace Prize was, in fact, the Norwegian government. What we do know for certain is that Norway recently handed over €4 million of seized Russian media assets to Muratov.
Cordell Hull, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his role in creating the United Nations, was the same person who turned back Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust by redirecting their ships to the infamous concentration camps. On June 5, 1939, he brought back a ship carrying 937 passengers. More than a quarter of them ended up dying in the Holocaust.
There were also glaring omissions. At least one deserves mention. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most important personalities of our time. Even today, it is synonymous with peace activism. Yet even he did not win the Nobel Peace Prize, despite being shortlisted five times. In 2006, former Nobel Institute director Geir Lundestad said the most significant omission in the history of the prize was ever to award the peace prize to Indian political activist Mahatma Gandhi. However, the Eurocentric inclinations of the committee prevented him from receiving the award.
The sad reality seems to be that the Nobel Peace Prize committee is blurring the lines between an independent institution guided by clear moral principles and an instrument of realpolitik of Norwegian foreign policy. It was not until 2017 that the committee barred current members of the Norwegian parliament from sitting on the committee. However, the members of the commission are currently selected by the Norwegian Parliament and perhaps unsurprisingly include four politicians. Two of them are former government ministers.
As Russia invades Ukraine, China audaciously seizes land in the South China Sea, disinformation is on the rise and many democracies in OECD countries face a populist threat, even putschist, clear moral leadership on the international scene is more necessary than ever.
The Nobel Prize Committee, in this context, should undertake several reforms aimed at making the organization more representative.
First, the organization must clearly establish itself as a civil society organization – not as an arm of Norwegian foreign policy. The presence of former or current politicians on the committee should be limited, if not entirely eliminated. More civil society leaders like human rights experts would go a long way here.
Second, the committee lacks diversity given that it is made up entirely of people of white, Christian and, of course, Norwegian background. Why aren’t representatives of Norwegian immigrant communities or even the Sami ethnicity a key feature of his famous instrument of soft power?
Third, the committee should not be afraid to revoke Nobel Prizes awarded to people who later betray its principles.
Again, these are extraordinary times, and the Nobel Committee is an important institution whose peace prize is watched closely around the world. With Western institutions under pressure, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is an entity worth saving. The choice is Norway’s.