Nobel peace award extends human rights tradition


This year’s Nobel Peace Prize to three women from Liberia and Yemen extends the illustrious award’s tradition since the 1960s of honouring human rights and democracy activists as well as more conventional peacemakers.

Giving the award for human rights and pro-democracy activism naturally expands the concept of peace, according to the Nobel committee, but critics say it strays from the intention of Alfred Nobel, who created the prize in his 1895 will.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, her compatriot Leymah Gbowee and Arab activist Tawakul Karman won the prize for “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.

Fredrik Heffermehl, an author who argues that the five-member committee has ignored Nobel’s intention time and again, said the committee failed to explain how this year’s prizes fulfilled the will.

Nobel stipulated that the prize should go to those “who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
“The Nobel committee has disrespected this for at least 60 years,” Heffermehl, an attorney and peace activist, said. “I am not evaluating the winners, I am evaluating the committee.”

Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said the 2011 award was well within the spirit of Nobel’s will.

If the peace prize were primarily given to peace mediators or signatories to peace treaties, as in the prize’s early decades, women would have little chance of joining the honour roll of laureates, according to Nobel experts.
“There are very few female peace mediators in the world, very few women who sign peace treaties, but a full role for women would include involvement in those activities as well,” Geir Lundestad, secretary to the committee, told Reuters.

He said human rights had to include women’s rights.

Jan Egeland, a former U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian and emergency relief affairs, said peace and human rights were inseparable. “There is no peace without human rights, no human rights without peace.”

The prize created by Nobel, a Swedish philanthropist and inventor of dynamite, was in its early decades often awarded to patrician statesmen, such as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, and arrangers of peace congresses, such as the first woman laureate Bertha von Suttner in 1905.

But with the 1960 award to South African trade unionist Alfred Lutuli, the scope of the prize expanded from its roots in peace-making and disarmament to the battle for human rights.

That paved the way to prizes to many rights and democracy advocates and dissidents opposing authoritarian regimes, such as Andrei Sakarov in the Soviet Union in 1975, Lech Walesa in Poland in 1983, Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar in 1991 and last year’s laureate, Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo.

The fight against poverty and hunger was taken on board with prizes to American agronomist Norman Borlaug in 1970, Mother Theresa of Calcutta in 1979 and Bangladeshi economist Mohammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank in 2006.

The scope of the prize was widened further to encompass environmental protection and climate activism with the awards to Kenya’s Wangari Maathai in 2004 and former U.S. vice president Al Gore and U.N. climate scientists in 2007.

Egeland said the activism of Johnson-Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman was part of a “momentous trend of dictatorships being followed by democracies” since the 1970s.
“That has happened over only one generation, and the Arab Spring follows the Latin American spring and the Eastern European spring, and soon we will seen Central Asian springs and other Asian springs,” Egeland said.