The Nobel Peace Prize must update its definition of peace for the 21st century

On Oct. 7, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the country’s 50-year-long civil war. The choice immediately sparked debate, not least because the peace deal Santos helped to produce has already failed.

But the Nobel Peace Prize will always be controversial. That is as it should be. Any prize honoring dissidents—people who challenge the status quo and work for peace against the interests of those who benefit from conflict—is bound to spark debate. The problem occurs when the prize is controversial for the wrong reasons.

Questionable recipients have included the likes of former US president Theodore Roosevelt, whose motto “Speak softly and carry a big stick” reflected his willingness to use military force to support diplomacy. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, another laureate, was behind the brutal bombing of Cambodia. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was viewed by some as a promoter of peace, but regarded by others as supporting anti-Israel terrorism. More recently, US president Barack Obama received the award in 2009—a decision that was criticized as premature, particularly given that his administration had only days before sent 30,000 more US troops into Afghanistan. It can be argued that such recipients have made more noteworthy contributions to conflict than to peace.

Why does the prize, first awarded in 1901 to honor the will of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, sometimes miss the mark? Nobel wanted the award to recognize the person who “shall have 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.” But throughout the history of the prize, there has been a lot of disagreement about what promoting peace really means.

One issue is that, as the wars of the 20th and 21st century have evolved, so has our understanding of peace from a practical, diplomatic, philosophical and academic perspective. Peace went from being seen as an official agreement reached in treaties between nations (as with the Treaty of Versailles) to an achievement that has to be built over time through a complex, multifaceted process involving all levels of society.

Michael Nobel, a peace activist and great-grandson Alfred Nobel, laid out a related criticism in a 2011 op-ed for the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. Nobel argued that the committee has wrongly expanded its definition of “peace” to include the promotion of human rights or environmentalism, resulting in laureates such as activists Tawakkol Karman, Al Gore, Malala Yousafzai, and the group The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But Nobel’s criticism fails to recognize that environmentalism and human rights are key components of modern peace-building, interwoven into every conflict.

In fact, it may be more important to be true to the intent of Nobel’s will than to its wording. A more literal interpretation means that the award often goes to international leaders and statesman with the power to both create peace or promote war and destruction, and is sometimes used as an incentive to encourage leaders to choose the former option. (The committee notes that this strategy informed their decision to award Santos for a peace accord that didn’t go through, for example.)

It’s worth noting that the Peace Prize not all doom and gloom. It has, in the past, also worked as a protective shield by making visible people who otherwise would be in danger. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar, for example, may well have had her life spared from Myanmar’s brutal military regime because of her heightened profile after she received the award, which in turn may have contributed to the continued growth of democracy in that country.

The selection of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate should always stir debate—and provoke discomfort amongst those who feed and fuel the wars and conflicts of this world. But the time is ripe for shifting the selection process away from political calculations, and replacing it with a broader agenda for peace.

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