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Does the Nobel Peace Prize ever go to the right person?

04.12.2009 - (idw) Schwedischer Forschungsrat - The Swedish Research Council

Peace is a concept that is hard to define. The Nobel Peace Prize is to be awarded to the person who has done the greatest good for humanity. But how is that determined? It is not strange that the laureate is controversial every year, according to Rebecka Lettevall, associate professor of the history of ideas at Södertörn University in Sweden, who pursues research on the Nobel Peace Prize. Alfred Nobel's will stipulates who should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. According to the criteria, it should be the person or organization "that has made the greatest or the best efforts to bring peoples together and to abolish or reduce standing armies and to establish and disseminate peace conferences."

"Which principle has been applied and how it is interpreted has varied over time," says Rebecka Lettevall, associate professor of history of ideas at Södertörn University, who has been doing research about the concept of peace and the Nobel Peace Prize for many years.

Up to World War I, the prize usually went to individuals or organizations working in peace movements. During the interwar period peace work was revaluated. The prize then went to the League of Nations and its champions. After World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the prize was influenced by the cold war and UN work, often going to statesmen and UN representatives.

After that the Nobel Peace Prize has continued to be awarded to these groups, but also to individuals and organizations that have worked to combat poverty, such as Muhammad Yunus and Grameen bank, for the environment, such as the IPCC and Al Gore, or to the peace mediator Jimmy Carter.

The choice of peace prize laureates has been criticized both for having followed the wrong principle and because someone else might be seen as having done more for peace that particular year. This year's laureate, Barack Obama, has prompted a heated debate.

"It's nothing new for the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize to be controversial," says Rebecka Lettevall. The prize has been awarded since 1901 and has always led to discussion.

The debate surrounding the choice of Back Obama is nevertheless special, according to Rebecka Lettevall. Very many people, at least in the Western world, are fundamentally favorably inclined toward Barack Obama and have great expectations for him and his future accomplishments. When the peace prize goes to Obama and a debate arises, there is a fear that this criticism will be regarded as opposition to him and perhaps even hamper his mission.

Many of those who criticize this year's choice think that Barack Obama received the prize before he had accomplished enough and while the US is still waging multiple wars. But the hopes he inspires are nonetheless very high.

"The Nobel Peace Prize has been criticized for being too cautious and conservative, but this year it's rather radical."

Rebecka Lettevall does not find it strange that the Nobel Peace Prize incites debate. Peace, as a concept, is difficult to define, and definitions have varied over the years. Peace is not the absence of war but something abstract, processes that need to be seen in relation to other concepts. It is also political.

Twelve peace prizes have gone to women. Just like men, women have been awarded the prize for widely divergent reasons. Bertha von Suttner received the prize for her work with peace conferences, Aung Sang Suu Kyi for her struggle for human rights, Alva Myrdal for disarmament negotiations, and Mother Teresa for her work with the poor in India.

"It might seem odd that women have not received more peace prizes, since peace is often associated with womanhood," says Rebecka Lettevall. "Peace is often symbolized by a woman in white clothing. Nevertheless men are awarded the prize much more often than women."

Who the nominees have been, what the reasoning has been, minutes, arguments, and who backed which nominee might have shed light on the rationales. But everything is kept secret for fifty years.

"This means that we can read the archives up to 1958. But the reasoning and interpretations from those times are clearly different from today's," says Rebecka Lettevall, who of course has gone through much of what is available to the public.

Rebecka Lettevall is an associate professor of the history of ideas at the Center for Baltic and Eastern European Research at Södertörn University. She is also chief curator at the Research Section of the Nobel Museum, in charge of research and research mediation in the peace prize field.

She has published a number of articles about the Nobel Peace Prize. In the spring of 2010 she has a book coming out about the idea of peace in which she provides a close look at a number of peace laureates, their conception of peace, and their times.

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