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OSLO, Sep 6 2010 (IPS) - There never was a greater gift to the world. None of Nobel’s five prizes could have conferred more to “the greatest benefit of mankind”. It is the world’s most prestigious and coveted award. And yet, the Nobel peace prize today has little to do with the deep reform of international relations that Alfred Nobel intended it to bring about.
Today the prize is Nobel’s in name only. In reality it is the peace prize of the Norwegian parliament. Nobel’s vision was to support the peace movement’s struggle to break a vicious circle and to replace distrust, arms races, and military power games with cooperation, justice, and international law.
The sad truth is that despite the impressive roll call of recipients, Nobel’s prize has been sadly mismanaged. The more the cash award grows, the more famous and pompous the winners are, the less the prize will accomplish to stop militarism and prevent wars. Nobel’s idea is in ruins. The Peace Prize no longer seeks to change the world.
In a just-published book on its history, “The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted” (Praeger, 2010), I have interpreted Nobel’s will in what is apparently the first legal analysis ever of its content. My clear conclusion is that the intent of the will was to support the pro-peace ideas that were powerful in European politics at the time, with Norway leading the way. To Nobel, the Norwegian parliamentarians must have seemed like the best allies he could find. How wrong he was!
To construe a will is not a matter of literal reading and legal quibbling over words. In a contract between two parties the words are all-important. Wills, however, are one-party instruments where all that matters is the intent of the testator. If the words conflict with the testator’s demonstrable intention, the latter wins. Amazingly, the Nobel Committee has never heeded even the most elementary principles of interpretation.
Most Norwegian politicians are defense-friendly and NATO-loyal and supremely unsuited to award a prize for peace activists, having spent their entire lives fighting for the opposite side. Rather than having a beneficial influence on Norwegian foreign policy, Nobel’s prize has been used to serve Norwegian political and, since the 1990s, commercial interests.
Nobel used the expression “champions of peace” to indicate the intended recipients. The Nobel Committee has thus committed a major blunder by awarding the prize for “peace” in general. Both the Swedish word that Nobel used for peace (fredsforfaktare) and the three other expressions he chose -“the confraternisation of nations, the reduction or abolition of standing armies, and the promotion of peace congresses”- clearly point in the direction of members of the peace movement as the legitimate recipients of the award.
Like this movement, of which he was a member, Nobel wished to attack the core of the problem by cutting the heart out of the war machine. His prize was meant to curtail and end militarism.
Nobel’s idea may seem utopian in today’s world, in which all live beneath the scourge of one massively-armed and belligerent superpower, but we do not have to go far back to find a time when Nobel’s dream was still alive. Swedish premier Olof Palme many years later promoted Nobel’s idea in his concept of “Common Security”. The United Nations (2001) was a most deserving laureate. Some 30-40 years ago the concept of “general and complete disarmament” was alive in diplomatic discourse, though not much encouraged by the NATO-loyal Norwegian politicians on the committee.
In what I would consider a properly-functioning democracy based on the rule of law, my first newspaper article critical of the peace prize, in August 2007, should have sufficed to stimulate change. But, it is not easy to challenge sacrosanct national pride, especially when parliamentarians unite across party lines to defend a common interest. Who can then stop them, and how? Instead of heeding my appeal to respect the will, the Nobel committee and Norwegian parliament stonewalled my arguments.
The fact that the majority of Norwegian politicians denied the peace movement -a dissenting political view- and misdirected the money and honour that Nobel intended to give them is a serious matter. If the executors of any ordinary will did this, they would be either sued or prosecuted, Bruce Kent, a leading British champion of peace, said recently.
This is a matter of democracy. The new book analyzes the battle over the peace prize as a case study of the chances of a struggling minority (pro-peace) to prevail against an overwhelming political power (pro-military).
For a democracy under the rule of law it is vital that those elected to office listen and respond to criticism. Democracy cannot function without a certain level of truth-seeking and honest debate, based on facts, fair argument, and a will to draw necessary conclusions and to act upon them.
If we allow the political debate to be distorted by manipulation and spin, democracy is finished. One of the first things I learned as a law student was that in ancient Rome, one of primary demands of the people was written laws in order to prevent arbitrariness and abuse. Today we have all sorts of written law, but when politicians develop a flexible attitude to it, the result is arbitrariness and the denial of justice.
The present chair of the Nobel committee, Norwegian Thorbjorn Jagland, is also the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, where his main function is to promote democracy and the rule of law. He should be the first to understand how irreconcilable his management of the Nobel Peace prize is with principles of fair governance. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
(*) Fredrik S. Heffermehl, a lawyer and peace activist, is author of The Nobel Peace Prize.
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