In its 108-year history, the Nobel Peace Prize has been taken home by all sorts of deserving individuals.
On other years, entire organisations have received the coveted award.
Despite its seemingly egalitarian aspirations, Western men have on the whole dominated the prize pool over the years. This year, the prize went to another Western man: US President Barrack Obama. Critics were quick to pounce. “Why should the president of a country at war win the prize?” was the question on many lips. “What has he actually achieved?”, asked others.
To his credit, Obama’s acceptance speech in Oslo acknowledged these points.
“My accomplishments are slight”, Obama conceded, when comparing himself with previous winners.
The issue of the US’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – which Obama continues – were also on the minds of audiences around the world . He met these concerns head on.
“The instruments of war,” Obama said, “do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”
“War is sometimes necessary, and war is at some level an expression of human feelings.”
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For a full list of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, click here.
There have been some worthy winners over the years, taking in the gamut of peace campaigners, refugee advocates, ‘freedom fighters’ and religious leaders.
Obama himself namechecked Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King.
Mandela – who won the prize with South Africa’s last white president, Fredrick Willem De Clerk in 1993 -led South Africa out of apartheid.
Mother Teresa, an Indian citizen born in the Ottoman Empire, beatified by Pope John Paul II, was renowned for her humanitarian work helping the poor and needy. She won in 1978.
And Martin Luther King was the leader of the non-violent African-American civil rights movement in the US. For his work, King was honoured in 1964.
Obama also namechecked 1952 winner Albert Schweitzer, the great missionary surgeon and hospital founder who worked in Gabon.
In its inaugural year, the prize was shared between Jean Henri Dunant, founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Frederic Passy, founder and president of the first French peace society.
A number of organisations have been honoured collectively, including the Red Cross on several occassions, as well as Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontieres and UNICEF.
Many other individual ‘greats’ have taken home the prize in the last half century.
South African bishop Desmond Tutu, The Dalai Lama, former UN Head Koffi Annan and Burmese Opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi have all won.
The Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev arguably played a greater role than any other individual in ending communist rule in the USSR and its satellite states, and was rewarded with the prize in 1990.
Seven years earlier, Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa took home the prize.
People who have played a significant role in helping the poor have often been honoured: Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank most recently pleased the committee for ‘microfinancing’ poor borrowers in Bangladesh.
Honouring leaders with a taste for war
With these previous winners in mind, debate was always going to rage over a first-term president with few achievements under his belt – not to mention the fact that the US finds itself embroiled in two major wars.
But Obama is also far from being the first winner with a questionable approach to ‘peace’.
Way back in 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson won the prize in 1917 for his work in setting up the League of Nations, predecessor to the UN. Yet Wilson took the US to war in Europe in 1917, implemented the draft for the first time since the US civil war, and passed laws to shut down anti-war sentiments.
Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, an emminent Soviet nuclear physicist, worked against nuclear proliferation, for which he was rewarded in 1975. Ironically though, Sakharov had already played a key role in the development of the hydrogen bomb.
In 1973, North Vietnamese military leader and politician Le Duc Tho was jointly awarded the prize with US President Henry Kissinger. Le Duc Tho had led the communist insurgency against the South Vietnamese government, and both men played important roles in bringing about a peace agreement.
Le Duc Tho refused the award, saying that in reality, there was no peace in his country, while Kissinger accepted, and continued to advise succesive US presidents on military policy, playing an important role in subsequent bombings of Laos and Cambodia.
And they weren’t the only formerly warring leaders awarded the prize simply on the basis of discontinuing war – Egypt’s Anwar Al-Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin were awarded the prize for signing a peace treaty between the two countries – after three decades of a continuous state of war. Al-Sadat was assasinated, while Begin went on to authorise the bombing of Lebanon in 1982.
In 1994, many were surprised when the the prize was awarded jointly to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Foreign Minister Shim Pires, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister. Fifteen years later, inhabitants of the region are still awaiting lasting peace.
Obama talks the talk – even if he is yet to walk
But it is worrth considering that for all the criticism, what prize founder Alfred Nobel wanted was the prize to go to the person who had 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.”
In the wake of the announcement, the comment ‘he’s not George Bush’ was frequently given to explain the reasons for Obama’s honouring.
Despite the rise of China, there is still only one superpower with the military might to move mountains, without getting in existential trouble for it.
As such, it seems as if the mere election of a president in that country who talks the talk of peace and reconciliation seems to go a long way with judges in Oslo.
Whether Obama wins again in a few years – once he’s walked the walk as well – remains to be seen.