Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

On the Nobel Peace Prize

Note: I removed my post about GOP “family values.” I agreed with Emily Hunter Gowen that the situation is sad, but I also thought my point was just too obvious to waste space on this blog. So, repenting, I removed it.  On to more uplifting topics.

Although I have usually admired the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, I have wondered at some choices (e.g., Henry Kissinger, Le Duc Tho; Yasser Arafat, Yitzak Rabin, & Shmon Peres). Others have contended that every Nobel Peace Laureate was controversial to some person or group: e.g., Mother Theresa of Calcutta, though widely admired, had seemed to many to have never done anything for peace.  When Linus Pauling, American chemist and physicist and a leading scientist critical of nuclear buildup and the Cold War, was awarded the Prize, high-ranking U.S. politicians called it “a weird insult from Norway.” When Martin Luther King, Jr. was awarded in 1964, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (a racist who had bugged King’s phone and motel rooms without warrant), who had always coveted the prize and was alway nagging politicians into nominating him, flew into a rage.  The apartheid government of South Africa had an even bigger fit when Archbishop Desmond Tutu (whom Jerry Falwell called “a phony”) was awarded the prize in 1984. 

So, over the years, I have researched the Nobel Prizes, especially the Peace Prize, to understand how they are awarded.  Alfred Nobel, industrialist and inventor of dynamite, was one of the wealthiest people of the 19th C.–the Bill Gates of his day.  A self-made multi-millionaire (in an age before billionaires), Nobel believed that inherited wealth corrupted those who inherited it.  He did not want to leave his fortune to anyone in his family.  A strong believer in education, he dreamed of endowing a series of prizes that would encourage progress in various fields:  Physics, Chemistry, Medicine/Physiology, and Literature. (The Prize in Economics was added by the Nobel Foundation later.) Although, he had lived abroad in several countries, he was proud of Sweden, where he kept his citizenship, and wanted Swedish institutions to award the Prizes and spelled out which institutions in his will:  The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for the Prizes in Chemistry and Physics; the Karolinska Institut (then, as now, one of the great medical universities) for the Prize in Medicine or Physiology; the Swedish Academy for the Prize in Literature.  (In 1968, the Sveriges Riksbank, the national bank of Sweden, created the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics in Memory of Alfred Nobel, and designated the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to select and award it.)

At first, Nobel did not envision a Peace Prize, any more than he had one in economics.  Although he had invented dynamite as a mining tool, he had become wealthy over the use of his invention in munitions and had founded many arms factories.  Originally a “peace through strength” man, he initially viewed the beginnings of the 19th C. Peace Movement in Europe with suspicion, proclaiming that his munitions would do more by making nations too afraid to declare war.

Two things happened to (partially) change Nobel’s mind. One, was the increasing savagery of warfare–which showed no inclinations at stopping or even slowing thanks to more powerful weapons, as he had first supposed.  Second, Nobel aquired a new secretary, Bertha von Suttner, who was very active in the burgeoning peace movement.  She soon left Nobel’s employ and founded a peace journal. A novelist, this former aristocrat wrote a famous novel about war and peace (in translation, the title is Lay Down Your Arms), which became a clarion call for peacemaking throughout Europe.  Suttner eventually was elected chair of the Permanent International Peace Bureau in Berne, Switzerland.  When she heard that Nobel was thinking of endowing a series of prizes in his will, she persuaded him to include a Peace Prize.

Nobel did some peacemaking of his own in setting up the Peace Prize. At the time, Sweden owned Norway as a territory, but Norway wanted independence, wanted a return to its ancient (constitutional) monarchy, and wanted Sweden to quit interfering in the election of its Parliament (the Storting). Some hotheads in Sweden were ready to go to war to stop Norwegian independence while others were prepared for a peaceful separation.  Nobel decided to do what he could to support the peaceful achievement of Norwegian independence:  The Nobel Peace Prize would be selected and awarded not by any Swedish institution (as with all his other prizes), but by a Norwegian Nobel Committee, selected by the Norwegian Storting (Parliament), though not including any sitting politician.  The Peace Prize would be awarded in Oslo (not Stockholm) in the presence of the Norwegian monarch (but not by him, as the other prizes are awarded by the Swedish monarch).

There were problems: Nobel didn’t trust lawyers and drew up his will himself. He died before it was complete.  Attorneys for the estate had trouble figuring out which country should even decide the probate and if the will was legal.  Nobel’s heirs fought the will and tried to get Nobel’s money for themselves–something he strove to avoid. They tied up the probate for some years.  And, specifically for the Peace Prize, the outlines of criteria for the Prize were vague–allowing for several different models of peacemaking by recipients (and explaining the wide range of Laureates).

The Nobel Prizes were first awarded in 1901.  Focusing just on the Peace Prize: There are now many prizes for peacemakers and human rights activists.  The Nobel is the most prestigious (despite controversial Laureates) both because of its age and the amount of the prize–currently about $1.6 million in U.S. dollars. (Nobel’s trustees have invested the funds from his will REALLY well over the years.) From the very first year of the Nobel prizes, the Nobel Committee wrestled with 2 different models of “peacemaker”– humanitarian efforts to relieve the effects of war or efforts to end or prevent wars through international arbitration. (The first Prize was shared by Henri Dumont of Switzerland, founder of the International Red Cross and originator of the first Geneva Convention standards for the treatment of POWs and wounded soldiers; and Frederick Passy of France, a major leader in the international peace movement and founder of the first French Peace Society, Société française pour l’arbitrage entre nations.)  There also quickly became a tension between focusing on political leaders who worked for peace in a particular case (starting with U.S. Pres. Teddy Roosevelt’s mediation that ended the Russo-Japanese War) and citizen peacemakers who act apart from government sanction.  After World War II nonviolent human rights activists were added to the mix.  And, in recent years, nontraditional work such as environmental or anti-poverty work that connects with global conflict has been added.

Some stats:

In addition to the individual winners, 20 organizations have won the Nobel Peace Prize.  The International Committee of the Red Cross has won 3 times (1917, 1944, 1963) and the League of Red Cross Societies once (1963).  The United High Commission for Refugees has won twice (1954, 1981).  The other organization winners are:

  • Institute of International Law (1904)
  • Permanent International Peace Bureau (1910), now called simply the International Peace Bureau or IPB, many of its presidents have also won.
  • Nansen International Office for Refugees (1938), a predecessor to the UNHCR.
  • Friends Service Council (U.K.) and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)(1947), representing the work of Quaker peacemakers everywhere and across the centuries.
  • United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) (1965)
  • International Labor Organizations (1969)
  • Amnesty International (1977)
  • International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (1985)
  • United Nations Peacekeeping Forces (1988)
  • Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (1995)
  • International Campaign to Ban Landmines (1997)
  • Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) (1999).

  • United Nations (2000)

  • International Atomic Energy Agency (2005)

  • Grameen Bank (2006)

  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007).

12 women have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Far more deserved it, but the Nobel Committee was entirely male in composition until the 1970s.  Sexism definitely has played a role.  But the 12 women Laureates are all amazing people:

  1. Bertha von Suttner (Austria), author, editor, and peace campaigner (1905)

  2. Jane Addams(USA), pioneer social worker, feminist, pacifist, and one of the founders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) (1936).

  3. Emily Green Balch(USA), pioneer social worker, sociologist, feminist, pacifist, and head of the U.S. chapter of WILPF (1946).

  4. Betty Williams (Northern Ireland), homemaker, secretary, and Protestant co-founder of the Irish Peace Movement (now called the Community of Peace People). Later moved to U.S. and continued work for peace and Justice. (1976)

  5. Mairead Corrigan Maguire (Northern Ireland), homemaker, secretary and Catholic co-founder of the Irish Peace Movement (now called the Community of Peace People), where she has remained and now works for peace and human rights throughout the world. (1976).

  6. Mother Teresa of Calcutta (originally from Prague, then part of Austria, then India) for her work with the poor of India (1979).

  7. Alva Myrdal (Sweden), former cabinet minister, diplomat, economist, writer (1982).

  8. Aung Aun Suu Kyi (Burma/Myanmar), leader of nonviolent movement for democracy and human rights in Burma (1991).

  9. Rigoberta Menchú Tum (Guatemala), indigenous Mayan leader for human rights and democracy in Guatemala (1992).

  10. Jody Williams (USA), Founder and head, International Campaign to Ban Landmines (1997).

  11. Shirin Ebadi (Iran), attorney and former judge, activist for human rights, especially for women and children (2003).

  12. Wangari Maathai(Kenya), veterinarian, biologist, environmentalist, educator (first woman from Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. in sciences), for her contribution to democracy and peace through sustainable development and ecology (2004).

Clergy/Religious Leaders who are Nobel Laureates:

  1. Nathan Søderblom(Sweden), Lutheran Archbishop of Sweden, major leader of the ecumenical movement. (1930)

  2. John R. Mott (USA), Chairman, International Missionary Council; President, World Alliance of Young Men’s Christian Associations (1946).

  3. Albert Schweitzer(Germany/France/Gabon), Reformed minister, distinguished New Testament scholar, and missionary surgeon and founder of several free hospitals in Lamborene, Gabon (1952).

  4. Georges Pire (Belgium), Dominican priest, Leader of l’Europe du Coeur au Service du Monde (a relief and refugee organization) (1958).

  5. Martin Luther King, Jr. (USA), Baptist minister, founder and leader of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1964).

  6. Mother Teresa (India), Catholic woman religious, founder of Missionaries of Charity, Calcutta, India (1979).

  7. Desmond M. Tutu(South Africa), fmr. General Secretary, South Africa Council of Churches; at the time of the Nobel, Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg; later, Anglican Archbishop of Capetown. A leader in nonviolent movement for multiracial democracy and human rights in South Africa. Later, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

  8. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama(Tibet), in Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is both the spiritual and political leader of Tibet.  He was awarded the prize both for his continued efforts to restore Tibet’s independence from China and for his efforts globally for human rights, democracy, and peace.

  9. Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo(East Timor), Catholic priest, for his efforts in the nonviolent movement for East Timor’s independence from Indonesia and for his efforts at a peaceful transition to democracy (1996).

For other fun facts about the Nobel Peace Prize, see The Nobel Foundation.



October 13, 2007 - Posted by | peacemaking


  1. Strange that President Reagan is not on that list. He contributed to world peace by opposing Communism and ending the Cold War. Good thing that there are at least some winners who were anti-Communist (Dalai Lama) or conservative on some issues (Mother Theresa, who is anti-abortion), or I’d think the whole thing was rigged.

    Comment by James Pate | October 13, 2007

  2. James, if you read over the entire list from 1901 on, you will find many conservatives on many issues. And several anti-communists: not only Henry Kissinger, whom I believe didn’t deserve the Prize, but Andre Sakharov (1975), Lech Walesa (1983), and Reagan’s friend, the novelist and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel (1986). Muhammed Yunus(2006)is an economist who touts transforming the market through social businesses and whose Grameen Bank helps turn beggars into small business owners.

    In a different meaning of “conservative,” John R. Mott (1946), was famous as an evangelical Christian, missionary, and missiologist.

    Nor was Mother Teresa the only pro-lifer on the list: Mairead Corrigan Maguire(1976); Sean MacBride (1974); Adolfo Perez Esquivel (1980); Lech Walesa, again; David Tremble (1998); Fr. Carlos Filipe Ximenese Belo, again (1996); Fr. Georges Pire (1958); to name only those I know.

    I think the Reagan-ended-the-Cold-War belief is a conservative myth. I will show why in one of my future entries in my “conservative myths” series. (It’s been awhile since my last entry.) However, Reagan was nominated on that basis.

    There are many people who believe that the Nobel Committee overlooked many worthy of the prize–something that cannot be rectified because Nobel’s will does not allow posthumous awards. (Dag Hammerskjold was an exception because he was already on the short list for that year when he died under mysterious circumstances.)

    Among those regularly cited as “missing Laureates” are Mohandas K. Gandhi (who died while the committee was trying to decide if he sanctioned the violent partition of India and Pakistan–he didn’t); Pope John Paul II (regularly nominated by Lech Walesa); Philip Berrigan; Eleanor Roosevelt.

    From another perspective, you are right: it’s rigged. It just is not rigged as you think–against “conservatives.” The Nobel Peace Prize, per Nobel’s will, is chosen by 5 very secretive people without clear guidelines. Those people were chosen by the Norwegian Parliament. The Prize was ALWAYS influenced by world political events–and by the politics of those on the Committee, who have varied over the years. It is NOT chosen in any kind of democratic process. Other prizes do that.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 13, 2007

  3. I agree, Lech Walesa was a huge oversight on my part. As for Kissinger, well…I agree on you on that one, though probably for different reasons.

    Comment by James Pate | October 13, 2007

  4. At 30, James (yes, I read your profile), you might not remember Andre Sakharov, but he was a bigger oversight for your anti-Communist list than Lech Walesa. Sakharov was a nuclear physicist, but was also a leader of Jewish dissidents in the old Soviet Union–which got him sent to Siberia. The global “free Sakharov” movement, aided by the Nobel (which the USSR refused to let him go to Oslo to receive), put much pressure on the USSR. It led to an easing of restrictions throughout the Warsaw Pact which, in turn, gave more space for indigenous organizing against Communism.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 13, 2007

  5. I’m glad he made that contribution. I read on the wikipedia article that he was a socialist, which is not overly surprising. Even a lot of socialists disliked the Communist totalitarian system.

    Comment by James Pate | October 14, 2007

  6. Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War?

    Well, I suppose he did make a contribution, by founding and arming the Taliban.

    Comment by Steve | October 16, 2007

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