Acting against the will of Alfred Nobel

Published on October 24, 2010   ·   No Comments

On October 8th, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a law offender who was convicted by China’s judiciary of agitation aimed at subverting the government. Just as the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson puts it, the Nobel Committee’s decision was blasphemy to and a violation of the principles of the Peace Prize. Norwegian jurist and writer Fredrik S. Heffermehl calls it a wrong decision and a distortion of Nobel’s wishes by politicians. Rebelión, a Spanish newspaper, asks in a commentary: what has peace got to do with opposition groups, which are ever present in all nations? The decision, a brazen challenge to China’s judicial authority which deeply hurts Chinese people’s feelings, raises serious doubts to the motivation, sincerity and credibility of the Nobel Peace Prize – is the current peace prize still the peace prize of what we remember or imagine? What intentions and purposes lurk behind the frequent “surprise” prize winners?

A Peace Prize shrouded in constant skepticism

On December 10, 1896, the 63-year-old Alfred Nobel died of a stroke at Sanremo, Italy, after spending much of his life in disease-afflicted pain. The year before, on November 27, the Swedish chemist and inventor, who won 355 patents, had written his third – and last – will, in which he dictated that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind” in physics, chemistry, peace, physiology or medicine, and literature. On December 10, 1901, the fifth anniversary of Nobel’s death, the prizes were first awarded.

According to Nobel’s wishes, the Peace Prize should be awarded to those 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.” The Norwegian Nobel Committee awards the peace prize each year. It is consisted of five members, whose term is six years. All five members are elected by the Norwegian parliament. Since the peace prize was first handed out, 98 persons and 20 organizations have been awarded.

When Nobel first set up the peace prize, he knowingly moved the award to Oslo, Norway – which was part of Sweden at that time, but far from the political center – to reduce the influence of Swedish political parties in light of the controversy the peace prize might arouse. Over the past century, the prize winners have gained considerable respect from the international community, including the general public in China. However, Nobel would never have imagined that his ingenious plan still could not prevent the peace-promoting prize from degenerating into a political tool. In the wake of the changing international climate during the Cold War, the peace prize gradually took on an ideologically-tainted cover, turning into an instrument of “peaceful evolution” in countries whose political systems didn’t square with those of the West. From Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov to Lech Wałęsa to Mikhail Gorbachev, the change in the peace prize winners is just a reflection of East Europe’s sea transformation, the disintegration of the former USSR, and the end of the Cold War with the West as victors. Mr Nobel’s sincere wish to safeguard peace and ethnic unity has been distorted, and that’s why people begin to doubt the meaning of the peace prize.

As the Cold War ended, the peace prize lapsed further into a sharp weapon for the Western countries to spread their values and development models – under the disguise of “human rights first”. In the last decade, half of the prize winners are “human rights fighters” like Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Iran’s human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi. We could barely see those who fight truly for peace and disarmament during the award presentation ceremony. The peace prize is veering ever further away from what Nobel first intended for. Even the Dalai Lama was awarded the prize in 1989. It is therefore no surprise that the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose Liu Xiaobo today.

It has been 109 years since the establishment of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Because of its selection of peace prize winners, the committee has never failed to draw controversy. In recent years, the Norwegian academic community has constantly questioned the justifiability of committee’s formation, its faithfulness to execute Nobel’s will and its independence.

First and foremost, whether the distribution of committee seats based on party affiliations is true to Nobel’s original intentions. According to Nobel’s will, the Nobel committee should be composed by five Norwegians, all elected by the Norwegian parliament. But the reputation, not the criteria, of the peace prize, won so much over the Storting (the parliament) that it decided to only allocate the committee members seats to the five top political parties in the Storting for the purpose of favoring all the political groups, one seat for each party, thus making five veteran politicians to share the five seats. The distribution of committee seats has made the prize actually a “prize of the Norwegian Storting”.

Second, whether the Nobel committee faithfully carried out Nobel’s will. Nobel made it quite clear in his will as to who should win the peace award. But Norwegian jurist and writer Fredrik S. Heffermehl concludes in his new book The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted that the selection of more than half of the peace prize winners has disregarded what Nobel first intended and run counter to his will. He said Nobel established the prize for “the champions of peace” to support their efforts at disarmament and peace movement rather than for the broadened conception of “peace” best suited to Nobel committee’s political needs. When the award was presented to Liu Xiaobao, Mr Heffermehl reiterated his conclusion that Liu is not the “peace fighter” in Nobel’s will and it is inappropriate to give him the award.

Third, whether the Nobel committee is truly independent in practical operation. The Norwegian Nobel Committee – and the Norwegian government for that matter – has always claimed the committee is independent from the government and the parliament and no one could interfere with its operation. Even under pressure, the Nobel committee could make its own decisions. Yet skepticism never ceased. Thorbjørn Jagland, current chair of the committee, is not only a former member and president of the parliament, the Storting, former Prime Minister for Norway’s Labour Party, former Foreign Minister of Norway, he is also the current Secretary General of the Council of Europe. Deputy chair Kaci Kullmann Five used to serve as Norway’s minister of Trade and Shipping and she is also a former member of Storting and cabinet minister for the Conservative Party. Sissel Rønbeck, the committee’s deputy director, is a former member of the parliament and cabinet minister for the Labour Party. Of the remaining two members, Ågot Valle used to serve as the president of the Odelsting, a legislative chamber of Storting, and Inger-Marie Ytterhorn was a member of Norway’s Election Law Ad hoc committee. As Heffermehl put it, these members all advocate close military ties with NATO and close diplomatic relations with the US, no matter which party they belong to. They are seasoned players in Norwegian politics, with the same system of values and ideology, which means they have no independence whatsoever in the selection of peace prize winners. It is also the fundamental reason why the choice of peace prize winners during and after the Cold War era clearly bears the marks of the US global strategy.

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