With Alex de Waal

In our summer series exploring the diversity of ways that individuals and organizations work for world peace, we also find ourselves engaged by the question of how the world treats its peacemakers.

Of course, the most famous of prizes for peace is the Nobel Peace Prize, which stipulates that the prize should go to the person most worthy of “who shall have done the most or best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promoting of peace congresses,” further that this person should be selected by the Norwegian Storting (Parliament) and give no consideration to nationality. The language of this mandate, written in Alfred Nobel’s will dated 27 November 1895, reflects the ideas of the peace movement at the time: an emphasis on disarmament, international meetings, and arbitration. Over the years, the prize committee’s decisions have come to reflect a much more expansive definition of peace—honoring Mother Theresa of Calcutta for example, whose activities had little if anything to do with Nobel’s founding directive.

The funds that accompany this award are substantial: 8 million Swedish Krona in 2012 (about 1.2 million USD). They are the fruit of Nobel’s career in armaments. His father was a self-made man, whose fortune improved with the Crimean War (1853-56) when he supplied the Russians military hardware, including landmines and submarine mines. Alfred later worked in his father’s laboratory where he developed safe methods for working with–thereby enabling the weaponization of– nitroglycerine. Mixing the volatile chemical compound with porous siliceous earth, he created an explosive that could be molded, stored and transported: dynamite.

Perhaps it was his friendship with the celebrated German anti-war activist, Bertha Von Suttner that prompted Nobel to include the generous gift in his will to the peace movement. Henri Dunant, founder of the International Red Cross Movement won the first prize in 1901, but von Suttner received the prize in 1905 for her lifelong commitment to the international peace movement, including her book, Lay Down Your Arms (1889). For years, the prize would go those working for international peace through disarmament campaigns, development of international law regarding war, efforts to increase arbitration as a solution to international disputes, and the development of popular attitudes towards peace. A few notable exceptions included political leaders who had spent years conducting war, like Theodore Roosevelt (1906), but it wasn’t until 1949, when Baron John Boyd Orr—the first director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation—won for his work on food policies, that the prize was awarded to people working on a broader range of social issues. Fast forward, for instance, to 2004, when Dr. Wangari Maathai from Kenya won for her environmental work, further exemplifying the changing nature of how we understand the work of peace.

Other recipients have been much more controversial. Henry Kissinger was awarded the 1973 prize along with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho—who refused to accept the award because he reviled Kissinger as an amoral strategist. However, the Kissinger award reflects the reality that those who make peace are often those who wage war and wield power in a world of realpolitik. Similar controversies erupted when the 1978 award was jointly given to Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and in 1994 when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat were honored. The argument in favor of such awards was most forcibly articulated a year earlier when F.W. de Klerk was co-recipient with Nelson Mandela in 1993. Mandela was everyone’s hero, but the peaceful dismantling of Apartheid would not have been possible without the cooperation of one of its leaders—a man whose previous political career would render him liable to prosecution under the Rome Statute’s criminalization of Apartheid.

The 2009 peace price for Barack Obama likewise surprised many. It came only months after the election of the first African-American President of the United States, but perhaps more to the point, after his announcement to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The 2012 prize for the European Union was also greeted with some puzzlement, especially as the EU was at that time in crisis and its foreign policy in Europe’s immediate neighborhood of the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean was a shambles. Nonetheless, the award highlighted the historically stunning fact that, with the exception of the former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus, European nations have not fought one another for two generations.

These awards are all in the Nobel committee’s old-fashioned approach to honoring the ending of major conventional armed conflicts. Alongside this, the Nobel prize has gone to a succession of people who are internationally praised for being beacons of morality, or symbols of resistance to injustice—giving the impression that the Nobel Peace Prize is an award for globally uncontroversially ethical standing. Peacemaking isn’t that: it is morally challenging and usually controversial. Whether we like them or not, whatever we think of their careers, people such as Kissinger, Begin, Sadat and de Klerk did make important peace agreements.

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