Though they are meant to stay secret for 50 years, nominations for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize have leaked.
It happens every year, granting a sheen of virtue even to those whose nominations fail — an odd list that includes Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Gandhi, Bono and Canada’s own child rights campaigner, Craig Kielburger.
This year, with nominations closed as of this month, fugitive wikileaker Edward Snowden and James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples who has been especially critical of Canada, are up for the honour.
Both seem like long shots (as does, say, Uruguayan President José “Pepe” Mujica, nominated this year for legalizing pot), but given past winners — from Henry Kissinger and Al Gore to the entire European Union — anything is possible. This is a problem, critics say, not only because it strays from the intentions of the founder, but because the idea of “peace” it reflects is so broad it is almost meaningless.
“Not everything worthy of admiration should win the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Jay Nordlinger, senior editor of National Review and author of the 2012 book Peace, They Say: A History Of The Nobel Peace Prize, The Most Famous And Controversial Prize In The World.
The prize committee of Norwegian parliamentarians has at times gone “way too far afield,” he said, with “screwy” prizes to people who might merit a prize for freedom or human rights, but have precious little to do with peace.
“I wouldn’t have given a peace prize to a Kenyan environmentalist [Wangari Maathai, 2004], dear as she was, who planted trees. I wouldn’t give a peace prize to global warming campaigners [Al Gore and the IPCC, 2007]. I think that was just a fashion of the time,” Mr. Nordlinger said. “It’s sort of like a pretzel, you can’t twist it endlessly. A little twisting is OK, but at the end, you have to have some legitimate pretzel.”
Nominating is easy, and requires little more than a sponsor’s letter from a member of a national government, or of an international court, or a university rector or chancellor, or even a mere professor of social science, history, philosophy, law or theology.
As such, nominees have included some strange figures, including Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a founder of the Crips gang, who was executed in California despite five nominations; and George Ryan, who granted clemency to all 167 of Illinois’ death row inmates in 2003 as he was leaving the governorship, and was convicted on 18 corruption charges three years later.
Failed Canadian nominees include former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, for his land-mine eradication efforts; the late bodybuilding magnate Ben Weider; and Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier.
Hitler was nominated in 1939 by a Swedish politician, an anti-fascist who probably meant it as a joke. Stalin was nominated seriously for his efforts to end World War II. Gandhi was nominated five times and never won. With about 200 nominees each year, most are not this intriguing, but some are just as controversial.
“I am absolutely convinced that it’s being misused for Norwegian political purposes, and the convenience and vanity of Norwegian parliamentarians,” said Fredrik Heffermehl, a Norwegian lawyer who once brought a court case under inheritance laws, arguing Alfred Nobel’s will was being ignored. It failed, but sparked a wider investigation.
“The prize has now been misused for so long. Without profile or purpose, it’s being spread out at random and crumbles in all directions. There is an absolute and total confusion of what peace idea it should support,” Mr. Heffermehl said. “It’s not a prize for peace in general.”
In fact, according to the 1895 will of the Swedish industrialist who got rich by inventing dynamite, it is for “champions of peace,” people who advance the causes of “fraternity between nations, reduction or abolition of standing armies, and the promotion of peace congresses.”
Now that nominations have closed, a shortlist will be developed next month, in anticipation of choosing the 2014 winner in October. Giving it to Mr. Snowden, wanted by the U.S. but under asylum in Russia, would be especially provocative, given that he fulfills none of those criteria.
Mr. Nordlinger said the one perfect prize was in 1978, to Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Notwithstanding such giants of 20th century peace-making as Martin Luther King, Jr., Lech Walesa, or Aung San Suu Kyi, many others have reflected a loose and malleable vision of peace.
Often the prize reflects a major milestone: the election of a black American President (Barack Obama, 2009), the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland (John Hume and David Trimble, 1998), the end of South African apartheid (Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, 1993), or the collapse of the Soviet Union (Mikhail Gorbachev, 1990)
Sometimes it reflects ideas and their promotion, such as climate change (IPCC and Al Gore, 2007) or microcredit (Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, 2006). Sometimes it just reflects people whom everyone seems to admire, such as the Dalai Lama in 1989 or Mother Teresa in 1979.
Rarely is it just about peace. Regardless, its cultural power is vast.
“It’s such a prestigious thing, it can be used as a club,” said Mr. Nordlinger, whose book quotes Desmond Tutu (1984) saying the prize made him an “instant oracle.”
When Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica won in 1987, the committee told him privately it was a weapon to use against Ronald Reagan, according to a book by Robert Kagan. Likewise, Lech Walesa told Mr. Nordlinger that, without his prize, Solidarity could not have succeeded in Poland, because it “blew wind into our sail.”
Asked about his own failed nomination in 2007, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told the New York Times: “The Nobel Peace Prize has become hopelessly politicized. I think it cheapens the prize itself. At least they didn’t give Gore the prize for economics.”
This unusually snippy comment from a failed nominee highlights a key distinction between the Peace Prize, which is run by a committee of the Norwegian Parliament, unlike the other Nobels, which are run out of Sweden.
For the science prizes especially, the committee will wait decades to be sure of their choice. The Peace Prize is a more immediate thing, vulnerable to changing circumstance, in which today’s hero can become tomorrow’s villain.
“What they always forget is that it’s not their ideas about what the words can be used for which counts, but what Nobel himself had in mind when he used the words,” said Mr. Heffermehl. “And he wanted to support an idea, the peace idea of the period.”
(By Joseph Brean)