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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
The Nobel: Dynamite or damp squib?
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

Nobel Peace Prize choices, inevitably, never please everyone. And there have been some controversial selections in the award's 100-year history.

Kissinger has been one of the more contentious choices

The 1972 choice - US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger - had presided over the carpet bombing of Cambodia. But even apparently bland selections, like that of the United Nations three years ago, can cause a stir.

And they often carry a clear political message - or at least are perceived as such.

The selection of Jimmy Carter in 2002, for "decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts" was hardly controversial, but it was seen as a "kick in the leg" to George W Bush, who was issuing military threats against Iraq.

Last year's choice of Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi came after the committee declared it was looking for women candidates - preferably ones from parts of the world where women are exploited. Iran's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, was not impressed - saying that the award was political and "not important".

The committee chose a woman again this year - Kenyan environmentalist and human rights activist Wangari Maathai, who becomes the first African woman to win the prize.

Takes all sorts

Recipients of the prize, established by the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel in his 1895 will and now carrying a cash reward of nearly $1m - tend to fall into three categories.

This first group comprises individuals and organisations which have sought to resolve wars or minimise the potential for conflict.

One such example is US President Theodore Roosevelt, who took the prize in 1906 for drawing up a peace treaty between Russia and Japan; another is the shared joint award to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the then foreign minister Shimon Peres for the now defunct Oslo peace accords in 1994.

Mr Kissinger was rewarded on the same grounds in 1973 for securing the withdrawal of US troops from South Vietnam.

Shirin Ebadi
The prize brought Ebadi international attention

It was not however before the illegal carpet-bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1970, killing, according to some estimates, perhaps as many as 800,000 civilians.

Some commentators have wryly noted that winners such as Kissinger and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, who won in 1978 and ordered Israel's bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982, are about as peaceful as the founder himself. Alfred Nobel made much of his money, after all, through his invention of dynamite.

But this is perhaps rather uncharitable - not least to Nobel himself.

He had hoped that with the existence of dynamite, war mongers would have no choice but to seek peace with one another - or see their armies being blown instantly to smithereens.

Helping out

The 20th Century did not however pan out quite as Nobel had wished, leaving an opening for the second category of recipients - those who have tried to bring humanitarian relief to others caught up in conflict.

The founder of the Red Cross won the first peace prize in 1901, and the organisation would win it again on several occasions over the following 100 years. Medecins sans Frontieres - the medical charity - was also recently awarded the accolade.

Those who have sought to further the march of democracy and human rights have formed the key third category of recipients.

Ms Maathai and Ms Ebadi come under this umbrella, as does the 1991 winner - Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi - and rights group Amnesty International, which took the prize in 1977.

But does it matter

But whatever category they fall in, do the awards really make a difference, or are they, as President Khatami said, really "not important"?

Aung San Suu Kyi
It has been argued that the prize has protected Aung San Suu Kyi

It could hardly be credited with ending wars, nor has it guaranteed the future success and the continued accomplishment of its recipients.

Kim Dae Jung, who won the peace prize in 2000 when he was president of South Korea, has since been rejected by his own electorate, and his peace policy with Pyongyang is in tatters.

North Korea, apparently unmoved by the Nobel committee, secretly continued with its nuclear weapons ambitions despite Kim's Sunshine Policy.

The Middle East peace process, honoured in 1994, now also lies in ruin, and Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, remains in exile 15 years after his award.

But Jimmy Carter is pleased with his - telling the Associated Press in a recent interview that it had brought him and his foundation "much needed recognition".

It cannot be denied that the prize provides recipients with world exposure, sometimes bringing activists and their causes to international attention.

East Timor independence and democracy campaigners Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta are frequently cited as examples.

It has also been argued that the prize confers a level of protection. Aung San Suu Kyi for instance may remain under house arrest in Burma, but the military regime have not simply eliminated a troublesome opponent.

And perhaps above all, despite the controversies, the Nobel tag has retained its prestige down the years - a sign, some say, that the secretive committee which makes the choices must be doing something right.

Peace award divides Iran
10 Oct 03 |  Middle East
Shirin Ebadi's peace prize citation
10 Oct 03 |  Middle East
Bookies tip Pope for prize
09 Oct 03 |  Europe
The Nobel Peace Prize
12 Oct 01 |  Europe

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