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A Century of History Underscores the Nobel Peace Prize

Washington — The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to those individuals and groups that have devoted themselves to working for peace among nations or abolishing or reducing standing armies or have held or promoted international peace conferences.

“Since World War II, the Peace Prize has principally been awarded to honor efforts in four main areas: arms control and disarmament, peace negotiation, democracy and human rights, and work aimed at creating a better organized and more peaceful world,” according to the Norwegian Nobel Institute.

On October 9, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in Oslo that it “decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

Obama will accept the peace prize in the Oslo City Hall on December 10, the third sitting American president to be so honored. He will receive the Nobel Medal, a personal diploma and prize money totaling $1 million. The president will donate the money to charity, according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

In making its announcement, the committee said that “for 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman.”

While five Nobel prizes are awarded annually, the peace prize is one of the most widely acclaimed awards in the world, and past recipients have included some of the most highly respected and influential individuals of the past century.

But generally less is known about the founder of the Nobel prizes, a 19th-century Swedish chemist who amassed a fortune from his invention of dynamite, than about those who have received his prizes. The irony of the peace prize bearing the name of the inventor of dynamite has given rise to a myth that Alfred Nobel had a guilty conscience and established the award as an act of expiation.

However, Irwin Abrams, the U.S. author of several books on the Nobel Peace Prize, debunks this myth, explaining that Alfred Nobel was strictly interested in the civil applications of his invention for building canals, mining and commercial construction. As with many scientific discoveries, the military engineers simply found alternative uses for his product.

The establishment of the peace prize was, in fact, not Nobel’s initial intention. As a self-educated inventor without a university degree, Nobel wanted to encourage other aspiring scholars. Consequently, he planned to leave his fortune to Swedish institutions that would make awards for physics, chemistry, medicine and literature.

But late in his life, his friend the Austrian Baroness Bertha von Suttner inspired him to establish a prize for peacemaking. She was a prime organizer of an international peace movement and author of the novel Die Waffen nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!).

Nobel’s will says the peace prize should go to the person “who shall 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.”

On occasion, the prize has been shared by parties who hold peace congresses. In 1973, Henry Kissinger of the United States and Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam were named for a cease-fire agreement that did not hold up. Le Duc Tho refused the award.

But “work for fraternity between nations” is a frequently cited reason for awarding the prize, especially to human rights protectors. The first instance of this was when Albert Lutuli won the peace prize for his civil rights work in South Africa in 1960.

There have been several cases since, including Martin Luther King Jr. (1964) for leading the U.S. civil rights movement, Adolfo Perez Esquivel (1980) for human rights work in Latin America, Lech Walesa (1983) for fighting for workers’ rights in Poland, Bishop Desmond Tutu (1984) for fighting apartheid in South Africa, the Dalai Lama (1989) for his work for rights for people in Tibet, and Bishop Belo (1996) for working to protect the people of East Timor (1996).

The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901, five years after Nobel’s death. Awards are announced each October, the month of Nobel’s birth, and presented on December 10, the anniversary of his death. In some years, the prize is shared between individuals or accorded to organizations. Some years, though, no prize is awarded, as commonly happened during the 20th century’s world wars.

Nominations come from Nobel committee members, members of national governments, members of other official organizations and former recipients. Typically, there are about 150 nominations considered.

The peace prize, always the last of the Nobels to be announced, carries with it a monetary award of $1 million. Presentations were made in a room at the Nobel Institute until 1947, when the event moved to a larger venue in a university auditorium. In 1990, the year Mikhail Gorbachev won the prize, the event moved to Oslo City Hall, where there are more than 1,000 seats. According to the Norwegian Nobel Institute, no one knows for certain why Alfred Nobel wanted the peace prize in particular to be awarded by a Norwegian Committee — or even what prompted him to include Norway in the Nobel Prize proceedings at all.

According to Anne Kjelling, librarian at the Nobel Institute, an important change was made in 1992. Rules had stipulated that the recipient must give a speech outlining his work within six months of receiving the prize. Because the award ceremony was attracting foreign dignitaries and media attention the institute decided the speech should be given that day.

Kjelling recalls that one of the most moving and popular speeches given was that of Elie Wiesel in 1986. Wiesel, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, said that “remembering is a noble and necessary act.”

In the years since the first award, it has become celebrated to a degree Nobel undoubtedly never dreamed of. David Morley, Canadian director of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), said he was awakened by a phone call from a television station at 5 a.m. when his organization won in 1999 and was interviewed on the spot. He said that in Canada, following the publicity of the award, fundraising for MSF quadrupled and that his organization now enjoys greater visibility with government officials.

The prize is often controversial. The five-person selection committee is appointed by the Norwegian parliament, and consequently its makeup is influenced by the relative strength of political parties in that body.

In 1935, Carl von Ossietzky, a pacifist journalist being held by Adolph Hitler, was nominated by friends who wanted to protect him. They did not expect him to get the prize, but he did. A Norwegian foreign minister and former prime minister withdrew from the committee rather than incur the disapproval of the Nazi government.

Since then, no member of the government has been allowed to serve on the committee. In 1977, a rule barred members of parliament from serving as well.

Because committee proceedings are secret, there are always questions about why some recipients are chosen and others left out. Gandhi never got a peace prize; Tolstoy never got a literature prize.

While Nobel originally meant for the prize to go to young people as an incentive, it has often been given to older people in recognition of past accomplishments. The median age for all recipients is 63. More recently, however, the trend has been to choose younger candidates, with the average age dropping to the 50s. The committee may be trying to recognize people young enough to continue their work for some time.

The December 10 ceremony in Oslo will be a gala media event complete with presentation, speech, a royal dinner and a star-studded concert. Former recipient Desmond Tutu reportedly recalls, however, that the most enjoyable moment of his award ceremony in 1984 was when the hall was evacuated because of a security threat. Outside, everyone sang a civil rights song. The bishop said he enjoyed this time the most because he was with ordinary people.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:
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