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The Nobel Prize dog’s breakfast

18 October 2013

THOSE of us who might be tempted to feel sad that Malala Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Peace Prize last week should not be too disappointed. The Peace Prize is a political dog's breakfast. It was an afterthought of Alfred Nobel, and is thought by some to represent a gesture of penitence for his part in the development of weapons of violence.

Nobel not only invented dynamite, but also helped to transform the Swedish iron and steel company Bofors into one that manufactured armaments. Today, nominations for the prize come from national governments, eminent judges, academics, and perhaps far too many former recipients and members of the Nobel Committee.

The criteria for making the peace award are different from those that apply to other categories. Take the prize for physics, awarded this year to Peter Higgs for anticipating the discovery of the Higgs boson. This is a landmark, and will be important for decades. But the peace prize is always topical, and often awards aspiration rather than actual achievement.

When the winners are announced, one often has a sense that the committee is delivering a heavy nudge to the recipients to continue on a political path that the committee itself approves of. Think of the recent award to the European Union (presumably to reward the fact that the member nations have not gone to war with one another since its foundation); or the award to Barack Obama, before he had actually done anything to justify it; or to Yasser Arafat, Yizhak Rabin, and Menachem Begin - whose main contribution to peace was to serve their own political agendas.

The most notorious award of all was to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho in 1973, during peace negotiations at the end of the Vietnam War. Le Duc Tho honourably refused to accept, on the grounds that peace had not yet come.

The awarding of the prize to those monitoring the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria is a typical Nobel Committee decision, designed to express disapproval of belligerence and to flatter Vladimir Putin for his initiative in finding a way through the crisis. There is nothing wrong with that, except that it would be nice if the money and the status went to people who personally strove for a peace that did more than to defend their own interests.

Malala is not the only potential candidate to be ignored by the committee. Gandhi was never awarded the prize. I don't think Jesus would have stood much chance, either.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

 

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