The big buzz nowadays is the announcement of the Nobel Prize Winners, an honoured tradition for the highest standard of achievement, for over a century.
While the monetary reward is significant, almost $1 million, it is the prestige and honour that has become equivalent to a royal title in academia. A Nobel laureate commands respect, admiration and reverence.
The award itself is shrouded with obscurity, as it was bequeathed by a man who invented dynamite and other explosives, amassing a fortune that made him one of the richest men in the world.
Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896), a Swedish chemist and inventor, studied in Russia and the US, set up artillery factories around the world, bought the Bofors armament plant in Sweden, worked on synthetic rubber and artificial silk among other patented products.
He suffered from a feeling of guilt at having created a substance that could be used for war, when he had intended it for peace, transforming nitro-glycerin, a dangerous substance, into a safe and useful explosive.
Before his death in 1895, he left most of his estate, 31.6 million Swedish crowns, ($450 million), to a Prize Fund, the interest of which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes, for those who “conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”. A quaint act of atonement perhaps as his final legacy to mankind.
The will specified the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.
Later, the Swedish Central Bank established the Nobel Prize for Economics.
The Peace Prize was closest to his heart, and it is puzzling why he chose Norway for the presentation on 10 December, his birthdate, instead of his home, Sweden, with the rest.
At that time the two kingdoms were united and it may have been a gesture of solidarity.
His specified that it be awarded “to the person who has done the most for fraternity between nations…and… spreading peace organisations”. His will declared that a committee of five persons selected by the Norwegian Parliament would decide on the winner.
At first the Peace Awards stuck fairly closely to Nobel’s stated rubric, but through the years the formation of the committee was forced to change.
The first members were the prime minister, foreign minister, etc. Finding it too political, the format changed and kept changing but strayed further and further from the instructions.
The tacit inclusion of activists or campaigners of human rights was not Nobel’s intentions.
While worthy individuals such as Lech Walesa, Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa, Shirin Ebadi, Andrei Sakharov, Desmond Tutu among others, could hardly be said to have played a significant role in bringing peace between nations.
We all fell in love with young Malala Yousoufzat, who fought for women’s rights, but what did she do for peace among hostile nations? She was a women’s rights activist, an admirable principle and so were others who were also rewarded with a Peace Prize.
By the late 20th century the prize was transformed further into a general international award for efforts to spread greater knowledge about man-made climate changes. In 2007 Al Gore and the International Panel for Climate Change, received the Peace Prize. It produced a few guffaws, especially in scientific circles.
It made sense that Anwar Al-Sadat and Menachem Begin working for reconciliation between two hostile nations and ending three bloody wars to be awarded in 1978, but Shimon Perez, Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat a Peace Prize in 1994 made no sense.
Among the worst choices is awarding one considered Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho of Viet Nam simply for negotiating a truce in 1973. Le Duc Tho declined believing nothing was accomplished. Kissinger, considered a war criminal by many, accepted.
The fact that Kissinger won a Peace Prize, surely takes the “peace” out of the formula. He is responsible for the death of 50,000 to 150,000 Southeast Asians, helping Pol Pot of Cambodia, and more “killing fields”.
This pinnacle of recognition, the Nobel Peace Prize, has been ridiculed among knowledgeable circles for its biased choices.
How did Kofi Anan, recipient of the 2000 Peace Prize, work for a better and more peaceful world?
Only nine months after becoming President, Barack Obama was awarded the Peace Prize. He had done nothing but conduct a brilliant campaign full of hope and empty promises. In fact, he was the first US president in history to oversee his military forces at war for all his eight years in office, fighting in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Pakistan.
He committed other gaffes in the foreign political arena.
Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize for: Nothing.
The Swedish Committee is not guiltless. One of its calamitous errors is awarding Egaz Muniz of Portugal, the Medicine Nobel Prize in 1949 for one of the most maligned surgical procedures: Lobotomy.
They gave Bob Dylan, a song writer, a Prize for Literature. He writes songs to be sung. They are often meaningless — as meaningless as a Nobel Prize.
Bookmakers widely considered Swedish teenager Greta Thumberg, an activist for climate change as winner of the Peace Prize for shouting “How dare you” at everyone.
Fortunately, the committee selected Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali to receive a Peace Prize for starting negotiations with neigbouring Eritrea after 20 years of wars.
However, do not be surprised if the name of Tom Cruise pops up for his indefatigable efforts for peace in Mission Impossible.
“When they make a desert, they call it peace.”
Tacitus, Cornelius (c 55-117)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.