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Commentary: Nobel Peace Prize offers no guarantee its winners create lasting peace

SAN DIEGO, California: The Norwegian Nobel Committee is set to announce the recipient of the annual Nobel Peace Prize on Oct 6, drawing from a pool of 351 nominees.

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg and Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelenskyy are reportedly two of the nominees, among political dissidents, leaders and human rights activists who are up for the prize. The winner will receive a medal, US$994,000 and global recognition.

I have worked in the peace-building field for more than 20 years to support societies as they work to prevent violence and end wars. Each year, I think I should look forward to this moment, when a champion of peace is celebrated on the world stage.

But given the track record of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, I always feel some dread before the peace prize announcement. Will the award celebrate a true peace builder, or a politician that just happened to sign a peace agreement? Will it celebrate a true and historic achievement, or what happens to be in the newspaper right now?

A MIXED HISTORY

Admittedly, the Norwegian Nobel Committee – made up of five Norwegians, mostly former politicians, whom the Norwegian parliament appoints for a six-year term – has made some great peace prize selections over the years.

South African politician Nelson Mandela, for example, won the prize in 1993 for his work to help end apartheid.

And Leymah Gbowee, an activist who helped bring peace to Liberia, won the award in 2011, alongside former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemeni women’s rights activist Tawakkul Karman.

Gbowee brought Christian and Muslim women together to end Liberia’s devastating 14-year civil war by using creative tactics – including a sex strike, in which Liberian women promised to withhold sex from their husbands until a peace agreement was signed.

Despite the prize’s mixed track record – and despite calls by some to stop giving the award – I think the Nobel Peace Prize should continue. War remains one of humankind’s greatest problems, and peace is still a human achievement worth celebrating.

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THE PRIZE CAN BE OFF-MARK

The Nobel Committee, in my view, does not always give the peace prize to people who actually deserve the recognition. And the prize is not a precursor to peace actually happening, or lasting.

Some previous awardees are head-scratchers for peace experts, casual observers and recipients alike. For example, former president Barack Obama said that even he was surprised by the award when he won it in 2009.

The committee gave him the award “based on his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. However, Obama had been in office for less than a year when he got the prize, which is likely not enough time to do either of these things.

Geir Lundestad, a former secretary of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, wrote in his 2019 memoir that he had hoped the award “would strengthen Mr Obama” to pursue nuclear disarmament, but in the end he said that he regretted giving Obama the award.

Other selections, such as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, have proved embarrassing in hindsight.

Just one year after winning the award in 2019, Abiy ordered a large-scale military offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a controversial political party that represents the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia.

The war between the Ethiopian military and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths before it ended in November 2022. A United Nations investigation found in 2022 that all sides in the conflict have committed war crimes against civilians.

Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Nobel award committee, later said in 2022 that Ahmed “has a special responsibility to end the conflict and contribute to peace”.

Unsurprisingly, such statements encouraging peace – alongside the Nobel Prize itself – have had little effect on how prize winners act. The factors that drive war or peace are complex and are unlikely to be significantly influenced by an annual award given in Norway.

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PEACE IS LONG-TERM

Other Nobel awarding committees seem to understand that it takes a significant amount of time to judge whether an achievement truly merits the prize.

Both physicists and economists wait an average of 23 years to receive an award after they achieve their award-winning work.

In contrast, American diplomat Henry Kissinger won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for negotiating a ceasefire in Vietnam that same year. The ceasefire began to falter almost immediately, and Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the North Vietnamese army in May 1975.

Kissinger then unsuccessfully tried to return the prize, noting that “peace we sought through negotiations has been overturned by force”.

Similarly, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli political leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin won the peace prize in 1994, one year after they signed the Oslo Accords, a series of agreements that set up Palestinian self-governance for the West Bank and Gaza.

But by 2000, Palestinians had launched the second intifada, and widespread violence returned to the region.

The Nobel committee tends to award prizes to those involved in current events and doesn’t award prizes long after those events have happened. But some awards have stood the test of time, in part because they were given to individuals following long struggles.

Mandela, for instance, won the prize 53 years after his expulsion from university for joining a protest. This sparked a 53-year-long career in activism and politics that included 27 years of incarceration as a political prisoner by the government he had fought against – and later led as president.

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IT’S ABOUT PEACE

Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel – the founder of the Nobel awards – said the Nobel Peace Prize should go to the person “who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses”.

The language is somewhat archaic, but the message is clear – the peace prize was designed to be about stopping war and promoting peace.

However, in the last 20 years, the peace prize has been awarded to those working on a variety of issues, including freedom of expression, children’s education and climate change.

All of these are important issues that require more support and recognition – but it is not the case that freedom of expression or climate change adaptation directly leads to peace.

In my view, there are more than enough problems and deadly conflicts in the world whose solutions merit the award of the Nobel Peace Prize as a reflection of its original intent – to acknowledge attempts aimed at ending the scourge of war and building a sustainable peace.

Andrew Blum is the Executive Director of the University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.

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