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Terms of a will

Dagmar BreitenbachOctober 12, 2012

Nobel Peace Prize laureates have included statesmen, international organisations, peace movements and human rights advocates. And now the EU. Critics say the prize often fails to adhere to Nobel's original intentions.

FILE - In this undated portrait, Swedish chemist and industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) is shown. Guessing the Nobel Prize winners is a bit like forecasting the stock market: the sages don't seem to do it any better than the layman. So when you hear scholars and pundits predicting the Higgs boson particle will be the theme of the physics prize next week, or that an American writer, finally, is due for the literature award, it's good to keep their track record in mind. "My top candidate has never won, and it's the fourth year I've been doing it," admits Norwegian peace researcher Kristian Harpviken, one of the most frequently cited commentators on the Nobel Peace Prize. (Foto:AP/dapd)
Image: dapd

Henry Kissinger and the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Willy Brandt and Mother Teresa are Nobel Peace laureates. So are Mohamed elBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Others may deserve the prestigious international award but were never chosen. Quite a few awards, such as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for US President Barack Obama, have been the subject of intense controversy. This year's decision to award the prize to the European Union is regarded by some as equally questionable.

So what are the criteria for deciding the most worthy recepients of the Nobel Peace Prize?

Critics argue Alfred Nobel wanted the award to recognize leaders working on disarmament, rather than the diplomats, environmentalists and human rights advocates who were laureates in recent years.

The purpose of the Prize

Fredrik Heffermehl is an outspoken critic of the Nobel process and the committee that awards the annual prize. In his 2010 book "The Nobel Peace Prize. What Nobel Really Wanted," the Norwegian lawyer takes a thorough look at the history of the industrialist's will of 1895 and evaluates his intentions. "I even found where Nobel picked his exact words from, which is a very good evidence of what he had in mind," the writer told Deutsche Welle.

The prize is about a vision of a completely new type of interaction between nations, Heffermehl says. "Very few of the prizes have really honored this idea," he adds.

Jay Nordlinger, (www.weforum.org)/Photo by John Cole/still-images.net
Jay Nordlinger, a "temperate critic"Image: CC BY-SA 2.0

Other experts say the prize committee should allow itself some leeway. The primary criterion of Alfred Nobel's will is "fraternity between nations," says Jay Nordlinger, author of "Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World."

While that should certainly be the committee's guiding principle, it "would rule out all the freedom and human rights awards, and people struggling for human rights in their own country," the US writer told DW. "You could never give the prize to Andrei Sakharov, or Aung San Suu Kyi or Liu Xiaobo of China."

(Mis-)Interpreting Nobel's words

Of course, many people are worthy of a peace award, Fredrik Heffermehl says - but not the Nobel. In a world filed with "nuclear weapons ready to wipe us all off the globe," nothing is more important than "reining in this development and pursuing the global peace order Nobel had in mind and that he described precisely."

The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted [Englisch] [Gebundene Ausgabe] Fredrik S. Heffermehl (Autor) Gebundene Ausgabe: 239 Seiten Verlag: Praeger Frederick a (19. August 2010) Sprache: Englisch ISBN-10: 0313387443
Defining peace work: Heffermehl's most recent bookImage: Praeger Frederick a

Heffermehl makes it clear he is fully in favor of a broad definition of peace work - but not in this particular case: "The Nobel Peace Prize is about the Nobel idea of how to create peace on earth," he says, and Nobel's main intention was to abolish the military and get rid of the infrastructure of war.

"This is not a prize for peace but a prize for the champions of peace," Heffermehl concludes.

The Swedish Foundations Authority in March concluded a formal investigation into Heffermehl's complaints and required that the Nobel Foundation board of directors review the purpose of the will and make sure the awarders comply in the future.

'It is their prize to give'

"Nobel's will is a little like the US constitution: there are people who interpret it strictly, and people who interpret it liberally to mean whatever they want it to mean," Nordlinger argues.

People complained about departures from the will as early as 1901, he says. The first Nobel Peace Prize was divided and went in part to Frederic Passy - "an expected winner as he was a leading pacifist in Europe." The other laureate that year was Henry Dunant, the father of the Red Cross. "The peace movement people were upset because Dunant was a humanitarian and was in no way involved with the prevention or abolition of war," Nordlinger says.

The Nobel Committee received nominations of 231 different individuals and organizations for this year's Peace Prize. The prize will be awarded during a ceremony in the Oslo City Hall on December 10, the date on which Alfred Nobel died.