The Nobel Peace Prize: Past, Present, and Future

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The Nobel Peace Prize is the most prestigious award of its kind in the world, and Asle Toje, a member of the committee that decides who the winners are, gave an IPI audience on September 17th an informative and entertaining glimpse into its history since it was first granted in 1901.

The prize is one of five created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, with the others in the fields of chemistry, physics, physiology, and literature. According to Nobel’s will, the peace prize should be awarded to those who 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.”

Dr. Toje, the youngest member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, is a former Research Director at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, who was educated first in Oslo before obtaining his PhD at Pembroke College in Cambridge in 2006. From 2004-2005, he was a Fulbright Fellow at Columbia University, and in 2008 became a visiting scholar at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris.

Dr. Toje said he believed the prize is so highly celebrated because it “captures the imagination of humans all over the world. The Nobel Peace Prize cuts across all those things that divide us…and points to a deep urge and longing that unites us as human beings—the longing for peace, the wish not to live in conflict,” he said. “I think it says something very nice about us, as a species—that the most prestigious award in the world is a peace prize.”

Dr. Toje touched on the origins of the prize. Alfred Nobel, whom he compared to Bill Gates, had created a business empire and decided to allocate most of his fortune to the five prizes. He established three criteria for the award: peace and mediation, or those who end conflict; arms control, or those who reduce arms, abolish arms, and promote non-proliferation; and fraternity amongst nations, or those who work toward creating the preconditions for peace.

The committee, which under usual circumstances hands out prizes each year, is not obliged to deliver the award annually. There have been 19 occasions where no peace prize has been given, including during periods of world war. In these cases, the prize money rolls over to the next year, he explained.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the peace prize has encompassed a more diverse range of topics than it had in previous years. “We see new agendas,” Dr. Toje said, which include environment and human rights.

Introducing Dr. Toje, IPI President Terje Rød-Larsen noted that the gender balance of former Nobel laureates had been unequal. “You’re right,” Dr. Toje conceded. “When you look at the beginnings, the award for the Nobel Peace Prize predominantly goes to elderly white men with facial hair.”

He acknowledged the historical context of women’s omission. “I think the Nobel Peace Prize is a child of its times. And if you look at other institutions and forums, this is the way the world was, unfortunately. I think we just have to live with that and learn from that: that that’s the way it is, that was the way the world was,” he said.

Another significant lapse has also received criticism: never garlanding Mahatma Gandhi. “No single omission is greater than the failure of Gandhi,” Dr. Toje responded. “There’s nothing I can say other than that the Indian laureate Kailash Satyarthi is a very good friend of mine, and…it’s very good to see how Kailash Satyarthi is inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and seeks to carry forth the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi. And I know this is no great consolation, but it’s at least worth noting.”

Asked whether undue pressure was ever brought on the committee, Dr. Toje gave a brief anecdote of two instances in which international leaders lobbied him aggressively for candidates. One brought him to Disney World, and the other suggested arranging for him to be “taken to a brothel.”

For all its fame and notoriety, can this award itself bring peace? Dr. Toje thinks not. But “it can encourage and try to be a beacon, if you will, to get key actors to strive for peace…Sometimes the first step on the role towards positive peace, is to create negative peace, an absence of people shooting at each other. I hope that the Nobel Peace Prize, in some way, furthered that agenda.”

As for the selection process, he said it is particularly Norwegian. The five members roughly represent the Norwegian parliament’s political parties, and make decisions through consensus. “We don’t vote,” he said, “We try to persuade each other…We try to be reasonable, we try to be charitable, we try to be kind, and it actually works.”

In effect, “The Nobel Peace Prize is not just nice to have a celebration of a jolly good fellow or who’s a jolly good woman. It’s also a prize that reverberates and has effects. And to think seriously about what those effects might be—positive and negative, is also something we take seriously,” Dr. Toje said.

Considering the gravity of the award, the committee discusses its potential impact on the laureate, giving “great weight” to the personal security of the candidates, and likely responses by other actors in various processes, along with whether the Nobel Peace Prize will be uniting or divisive, since, once awarded the prize, “you’re a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for life.”

Dr. Toje said that his favorite laureate was Carl von Ossietzky in 1935. Von Ossietsky was a journalist and critic of Nazi Germany, who was imprisoned for treason against the government when he put in print that Nazi Germany was breaching the Versailles treaty and engaging in rearmament for war. He received the highest number of nominations in history, and yet the Nobel Committee recognized the political divisiveness of this decision. Two foreign ministers left the committee as a result.

This award was the first of the “empty chair peace prizes,” since Von Ossietsky was held in a concentration camp and refused permission to leave for Norway to receive the prize. Dr. Toje’s pride in the selection of Von Ossietsky reflects the fact that the Nobel consultants saw the “inhumane face of the Nazi regime being a threat to mankind itself.” The committee “showed some spine,” even when Norway was sanctioned by Nazi Germany as a result. Shortly after, Von Ossietsky became ill in the concentration camp and died in 1938.

There have always been controversial awards, said Dr. Toje, but none has ever been revoked. “Some laureates have not stood the test of time as well as others,” he said, “That’s how history goes.” One current case, he said, is Myanmar where Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the Nobel in 1991, has been harshly criticized for not doing more to prevent genocidal violence against the Burmese minority, the Rohingyas. But he added: “I read the criticisms against Aung San Suu Kyi, and I noticed that in every single time she is singled off for criticism, the Nobel Peace Prize is mentioned, and maybe that is a point worth mentioning as well.”