Yet another controversial Nobel Peace Prize. How about that? The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The organization has 190 member states and works to deplete global stockpiles of chemical weapons, such as the sarin gas recently used in Syria. This decision has caused protest as the crowd favourite was Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old advocate for female education. Yousafzai rose to fame after surviving a Taliban bullet to the face and has gone on to prominence as a poster child for women’s rights to education worldwide.
Some political commentators have expressed dismay at the Nobel committee’s decision to bestow the award upon the OPCW instead of Yousafzai, such as the president of the University of Winnipeg Lloyd Axworthy, who calls this year’s prize a “lost opportunity.” While the OPCW and Yousafzai have accomplished much in their respective fields, both of their nominations still demonstrate that political influence factors into the Nobel committee’s decisions.
This has been an ongoing problem. The committee, a five-member panel usually comprised of former Norwegian politicians, now looks like a corrupted spectre of its former glory. But that former glory never actually existed.
Despite the prestige these prizes confer, they have always represented an institution dogged by the demands of powerful governments to promote ideologies. The Peace Prize outwardly maintains its status as the most valuable award in the world, but it has always trodden over a layer of politicized bullshit.
The prizes began when Alfred Nobel left his money to a trust fund dedicated to rewarding those who 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.” His legend is an example of posterity’s need for a happy surface story, which distorts the reality circling below.
Nobel was a war profiteer who manufactured armaments and only experienced a moral awakening after a French newspaper, mistakenly informed of his demise, pronounced him a “merchant of death.” The distribution of prizes have since followed a pattern of mingled humanitarianism, confused politicking and affirmation of Western values.
Some of the controversies surrounding recent laureates might seem like evidence that the prize has undergone mangling by time. The choice of Barack Obama in 2009 eroded much of the Peace Prize’s credibility. According to the committee, Obama was awarded the prize nine months into his first term not “for what may happen in the future. We are awarding Obama for what he has done in the past year.” Obama had accomplished nothing. After receiving the award, he sent drones to blow up thousands of occupied tin shack houses within both Pakistan and northern Afghanistan.
The European Union won in 2012. Yes, the same European Union proposing austerity measures, exploiting underpaid workers in areas like North Africa and Latin America and throwing a floundering Greece and Spain under the bus. Not to mention that the concept of awarding the entire European Union the Peace Prize is absurd in itself, since it contributes nothing to specific geopolitical issues or individual accomplishments.
Staying critical of this year’s frontrunners is difficult. The OPCW has experienced success in reducing chemical weapons stockpiles and Yousafzai is courageous for facing down the Taliban on their home turf. However, American influence is evident in the committee’s choices — the U.S. government may yet wrangle with Syria, who failed to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention that the OpcW administrates. The publicity generated by Yousafzai’s nomination implicitly serves U.S. foreign policy as an indicator of the Taliban’s attitude towards women’s rights, propping up justifications for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The committee’s choice of Liu Xiaobo in 2010, a scholar at odds with the Chinese government, also reflects U.S. interests by presenting a rival superpower as dictatorial.
However, there have been bizarre selections before recent times. Al Gore won the award in 2007 for lecturing us on climate change while cruising around in a private jet. Jimmy Carter received the prize in 2002 despite authorizing the same CIA training programs which taught Afghani jihadists like Osama bin Laden how to fight the U.S.S.R., setting events into motion that brought down the World Trade Center. Mikhail Gorbachev won the award in 1990, a pat on the head for essentially kowtowing his trainwreck of a failed state to Western democracies. Henry Kissinger received the award in 1973, during a ceasefire of the Vietnam War. Kissinger served as the National Security Advisor during the war, regularly authorizing thundershowers of napalm and Agent Orange onto areas dense with civilians. Going way back to 1919, the prize went to Woodrow Wilson, who literally hated black people and took steps to prevent them from gaining meaningful civic office.
Political influence is not the only destructive presence at work here. Distributing awards based on current events can look foolish with hindsight and we can never predict the 10-year consequences of a political strategy. But should society grow more humane, our children will look back on our world as a violent mess, something out of Planet of the Apes, and Obama will appear even more ridiculous as a laureate than he does today. The Nobel Peace Prize has changed little, but the tools of examination at our disposal have evolved, and we should use them to reevaluate the forces behind the nominations and the power these awards have to shape public perceptions within the global community.