The Fate of Alfred Nobel's Prize: A Peace Prize in the Hands of its Enemies

A committee of the Norwegian Parliament meets every year to decide on the recipients of the world’s most important peace prize. But are they actually following Nobel’s wishes or, for that matter, considering the real-world impact of their decisions?

By Fredrik S. Heffermehl

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo will probably not do much for freedom of expression and rule of law in China. But it demonstrates how little respect the politicians of Norway have for these values.

Nobel intended his prize for “the champions of peace” (meaning the peace movement). I have argued that Norway’s parliament has been disloyal to Nobel; it appoints an illegitimate committee awarding illegitimate peace prizes; and that a political majority is using to its own advantage funds meant for its political opponents.

A book I wrote in Norwegian in 2008 (Nobels vilje) was, I found to my surprise, the first legal analysis of the peace prize ever during its 110-year history. It showed that Nobel wished to support the peace movement in its struggle to develop international law and institutions to a point where it would be possible to abandon national armies. This is the legally binding mandate of the Norwegian Nobel committee of five persons appointed by the Norwegian parliament.

I discovered an indisputable misappropriation of the funds entrusted by Nobel, but the criticism contained in my Norwegian book was ignored and the violation of Alfred Nobel´s will continued as if Norwegian parliamentarians were above the law. This made it necessary to publish, in English, a study of Norwegian politicians, their attitudes to the rule of law, to legitimate protest and to abuse of power—and also examine whether Norwegian media function properly as their watchdogs.

The dismaying results of these studies were published in The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted (Praeger 2010). Creating the critic as invisible and non-existent is an important method I describe in the book, and now this new book, which draws on my experience as a political dissident in Norway since 1980, has also met an almost complete silence which only confirms its conclusions. It seems to me as if the attitude to truth, to discussion based on relevant facts, fair argument and logical conclusion may have declined to a disaster level. Democracy cannot function when the methods of the spin industry invade political life.

In his will Alfred Nobel expressed the wish that his prize should strengthen international law and institutions, creating a global brotherhood of disarmed nations. This is arguably much more imperative today than at Nobel’s time.

What Alfred Nobel had asked of Norway’s parliament was their help in bestowing an award to the “champions of peace” (not for “peace”), further clarified as the “fraternization of nations,” disarmament, and peace congresses. The prize should support efforts for peace through disarmament. In the book I show 200-300 examples of persons and organizations engaged in peace work today who clearly meet the criteria for support outlined by Nobel.

Nobel’s Testament

Nobel’s testament of 1895 not only set clear limitations as to who the legitimate recipients are, this, at the same time, circumscribed who would be the legitimate awarders. The legal obligation of the Norwegian parliament is to appoint a Nobel committee of the five best qualified persons—considering what Nobel wanted to achieve with the price. The parliament almost never appointed such persons—for over 60 years they have used the committee seats as a personal privilege for the parliamentarians themselves.

The present Nobel committee is bound to fail, since the gut reflexes of the members were formed by the military rivalry during the Cold War. Deeply trapped in the logic of militarism and the Western worldview, the committee believes in the direct opposite of the approach to peace and security that Nobel wished to support; it could be asid that they know next to nothing about peace by peaceful means and believe only in peace by military means.

The Troubled 2010 Prize

In 2010 the prize was again illegal, for freedom of speech instead of international disarmament. As if this was not bad enough, the selection of Liu Xiaobo did a lot of unnecessary damage. The committee had a commendable goal, but no understanding of appropriate means. It is always hard to communicate new ideas; you cannot force them on anyone, you first have to create a safe environment, trust, and responsiveness. A slap in the face is not a good start. One speaks not to China, but with China.

Had the Nobel Committee been familiar, as it should have, with modern peace ideas on dialogue and nonviolent communication and conflict resolution, it would have selected a different winner, one that would have encouraged the Chinese to speed up their work on democracy, and freeing Liu, instead of hurting his prospects of freedom. A insensitive committee insensitive to cultural differences, and unaware of how they react to “losing face,” managed to make the Chinese mad at anything having the least to do with human rights and Norway.

After I realized that only outside pressure could help and that I had to write the new book in English my further research turned up a few sensational discoveries. It even proved possible to analyse and publish 12 pages of private diary notes from the discussions inside the secretive Nobel committee. The former committee chair, Gunnar Jahn, appeared to have ignored the prohibition against members revealing anything from the internal discussion:the Jahn diaries provide striking evidence of incompetence and a committee indifferent to its legal mandate and what Nobel wanted the prize to achieve.

My book portrays how the Nobel committee gave false, irrelevant or directly untrue statements about the content of my criticism. Over time there has been an increasingly pragmatic presentation of the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. That Nobel tasked Norway with the peace prize due to the country´s role as peace pioneer in the 1890s and, further, the strong association Nobel had with the peace movement and Bertha von Suttner, were both clear reminders of the real purpose of the Nobel Champions of Peace Prize—and after 1945 both were largely airbrushed away.

There is rich, diverse and convincing evidence to determine what Nobel wanted the prize to achieve. The Committee defends itself with selected expressions, detached from their context, and does not seek the testator’s purpose. For three years I have learned that there are two central questions that the committee (and hardly anyone in Norway) will address: 1) the interpretation of wills is about finding out what the testator wanted, and 2) what Nobel actually wanted.

For years the Nobel Committee has openly revealed that it was under the false impression that it could freely formulate its own idea of “peace.” In the book, this elementary error is documented with a number of clear examples from the past 40 years. This should have led the committee to change its practice, but instead it chose a cheeky line, again and again repeating a false claim that it respects the testament, and Alfred Nobel, every year—and always did so.

When the Nobel committee chair, Thorbjørn Jagland, announced the award to Obama he said this was “in line with the values for which the Nobel Peace Prize has been for the 108 years.” But if this was the truth, what about the statements from Jagland only eight months earlier? As the newly appointed chairman of the committee he stated that none of the prizes in the last ten years could have been awarded if one should have stuck to Nobel´s will.

What we see here is a prize for disarmament that has ended up in the hands of supporters of rearmament, NATO, and the United States. In Norway, the support for these forces is so strong that they—so far—have managed to prevent a real debate about the issues I have raised.

Both the disregard for Nobel revealed by the Jahn diaries, and, more generally, the content of my criticism of the peace prize are still largely unknown to the general public in Norway. The Norwegian Nobel wardens have weeds to remove at home before they throw rocks abroad?

Fredrik S. Heffermehl is author of The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted . A review essay follows on page 12 of this issue.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2011

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2011, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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