It is that time of the year again, when all eyes are on the Nobel Prize for the various industries and their winners. However, the Nobel Peace Prize counted for yet another controversy this time, as has been the case for years.
Every year, in the beginning of October, the most elite human rights leaders, economists, scientists and writers are awarded the prestigious Nobel. However, the peace awards have caused more controversy than peace in the past few years. Some of these names etched in history have found themselves in hot soup for the same reason that they were awarded the prize. When the awards have been around for more than a century and winners receive roughly $1 million, it becomes crucial to re-examine who the Norwegian Nobel Committee puts on the pedestal and why.
On December 10, 1896, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel breathed his last and left behind his will stating that his entire remaining estate should be used to endow “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind”. A five-member committee elected by the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament, was tasked to award the laureates, and so the Nobel Prize was born.
Both Nobel’s death and his will made sensational headlines internationally. The name, synonymous with explosives and dynamites, now awarding peace prizes in particular, seemed rather unsettling. Ironically, it was an obituary bashing him as a ‘war profiteer’ that inspired Nobel to bequeath his wealth to create the Nobel Peace Prize.
How The Nobel Prize Makes Headlines For All The Wrong Reasons
Once a controversy, always a controversy.
The prize committee has often been accused of being sexist, racist and eurocentric, which has tainted the selection process. Only 18 women have received the peace prize thus far, including Mother Teresa in 1979, and Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. Surprisingly, Suu Kyi appeared before the International Court of Justice at The Hague in 2019, to strongly assert that the mass killing and displacement of the Rohingya ethnic group in her nation was not genocide. She headed Myanmar’s civilian administration at the time. Do such laureates uphold the integrity of the awards? If yes, how does the prize committee even define ‘peace’ to begin with?
Similarly, former US president Barack Obama’s 2009 accolade was met with much criticism. He received the honour during his first year as president, which some thought was premature. It raised concerns given the Obama administration’s continued engagement in wars in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Yemen.
There is a wide gap between the number of female and male recipients of the Nobel Prize, which has been scrutinised by fellow laureates repeatedly. Per the Guardian, one such reason behind the disparity is that “since Nobel prizes are often awarded to people later in their careers, the honours list reflects a time when laboratories were even less diverse than they are today”.
However, according to Jane Luu, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory, the fields of physics and astronomy have a long and storied history of being male-dominated and struggling with sexism; the gender gap means fewer women working in the field and thus, far lesser of them eligible for awards.
It is more of an excuse than an explanation when it comes to not giving credit where it’s due. Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize was contentious not because she won, but because she almost didn’t, while her male colleagues did. Curie and her colleagues Pierre and Henri Becquerel were nominated in 1902 for their pioneering work on radiation, but they were overlooked that year. Only the Becquerels were nominated the next year. When Pierre Becquerel discovered that Curie had been denied the Nobel Prize, he notified the selection committee that he would not accept the award unless Curie received hers.
The committee flinched, fearful of public humiliation, but they had their quiet payback. Henry Becquerel won a 70,000 franc reward, while Curie and Pierre received one half each of the same.
The Western bias only adds insult to injury. 81 percent of Nobel laureates have hailed from Europe, the United States, and Canada. Since the prize’s inception, there have only been 17 African winners, with just seven from outside South Africa. Among other Asians, only 10 Indians have received Nobel Prizes.
The Nobel Prize is also under fire for failing to recognise other disciplines such as mathematics, computing, artificial intelligence, and environmental sciences. The awards have clearly not stood the test of time, and have stirred more arguments as to whether they will soon be outdated.
What Does Peace Mean To The Nobel Committee In 2022?
In 1973, when Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho jointly won the prize for negotiating an armistice in the Vietnam War, the latter declined the prize stating that peace was not yet established in Vietnam. This moment in history, as dramatic as it was, resonated with the lingering doubts about when the prize is awarded and what truly constitutes peace.
Are this year’s names on the personal list of the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo – Mohammed Zubair and Pratik Sinha – supposedly debunking misinformation in India, symbolic of the evolution of the idea of peace? Previously, the award was given to individuals for their participation in negotiating or mediating settlements, accords, or treaties that marked the end of some kind of conflict. While the duo did not make the shortlist this year, their names found honorary mentions as considerations, possibly to acknowledge that their work is taking place amid an ongoing crisis. This year’s recipients included human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties, as a direct result of the conflict in eastern Europe.
The recipients from the previous year, journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, were recognised for their work for preserving press freedom and exposing abuses of power. This goes to validate the existence of a crackdown on dissent, declining press freedom, and misinformation against minorities; and thus, the work of individuals working diligently to uphold peace through media.
But, this is just a baby step towards change. The Nobel Prize still has a long way to go before it finds its way back to Alfred Nobel’s vision.