The dubious history of the Nobel Peace Prize

Nobel-minded: Arafat’s co-winner, Israeli politician Shimon Peres, was key to Israel developing nuclear weapons.

Is the Nobel Peace Prize worthless? Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad have won the prize for their work campaigning against sexual violence in war. Some say past winners have debased the award.

“To the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations.”

So goes the lofty criteria for the winner of one of the world’s most prestigious awards: the Nobel Peace Prize.

But has the prize really lived up to these noble aims?

In 2009, there was a roar of disapproval and confusion when US President Barack Obama won the award less than nine months after taking office.

The prize was given to the European Union in 2012 amid the Eurozone crisis, when critics said its austerity measures were pushing Greece into destitution.

Other decisions have been criticised for more than questionable timing. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was credited with reaching out to the West and ending the Cold War in 1990. A year later he sent tanks into the Baltic nations to suppress independence.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was a revolutionary hero to his allies, but his critics regarded him as “an unrepentant terrorist with a long legacy of promoting violence”. He won the prize for his role in a largely symbolic Israel-Palestine peace deal in 1994. Today, the conflict is still claiming lives.

Most recently, there have been fierce calls to withdraw the 1991 award won by Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi for promoting democracy. She is accused of being complicit in the murder and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims by the military.

And the pattern stretches further back. US politician Cordell Hull, who won the prize in 1945, was responsible for turning away a boat of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. A quarter of those on board died in the Holocaust.

The most notorious winner of all was another US statesman. In 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was recognised for his role in ending the Vietnam War, despite carpet-bombing Cambodian civilians. Vietnamese Communist leader Le Duc Tho refused to share the prize in disgust.

These scandals may not be such a departure from the prize’s origin. It was founded in 1901 by scientist Alfred Nobel to salvage his reputation as the inventor of dynamite.

Is the Nobel Peace Prize worthless?

Hollow victory

It’s a “farce”, writes journalist Arwa Mahdawi. “Its recipients constitute a who’s who of hawks, hypocrites and war criminals.” The prize is “so tainted” and so devoid of moral reasoning that many activists want nothing to do with it. Alfred Nobel founded it as “an exercise in PR”, and so it remains to this day.

You’ve got it wrong, respond others. From Mother Teresa to Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize has celebrated many figures who have done the most for the good of humanity. Besides, it draws international attention to good causes and acts as an incentive for leaders to work towards peace.

You Decide

  1. Should we scrap the Nobel Peace Prize?
  2. Which Nobel Peace Prize winner do you most admire?


  1. Does the Nobel Peace Prize help bring world peace? Write two reasons why it might and two reasons why it might not, then discuss your answers with the class.
  2. Choose a past Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Research why they won and their contributions to peace. Produce a timeline of their life, accompanied by a paragraph evaluating whether they deserved their award.

Some People Say...

“The illegal we do immediately. The unconstitutional takes a little longer.”

Henry Kissinger

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Nobel Peace Prize 2018 has been won by Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their work campaigning against rape being used as a weapon of war. Before the announcement, favourites included US President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Kim Jong-un for their roles in thawing relations between North Korea and the West. The winner of the prize is selected by a committee of five respected Norwegian figures, mostly ex-politicians. There have been numerous controversies in the prize’s history.
What do we not know?
How much good the prize actually does. Some argue that by recognising efforts to make peace, even if they have not yet been successful, the prize encourages leaders to keep efforts on track and push forward.

Word Watch

Eurozone crisis
The global recession triggered a crisis of debt in several countries using the Euro such as Greece, Ireland and Italy in the years after 2009.
Cold War
A period of high tension between Western nations, particularly the US and the Soviet Union, between the end of the Second Wold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Largely symbolic
The Oslo peace accords failed because both sides argued the other had violated the terms of the deal. Both Israel and Palestine accuse the other of illegally occupying territory in the Middle East.
Rohingya Muslims
In August 2017, Myanmar’s military started destroying villages belonging to the Rohingya Muslim minority and killing villagers under the guise of cracking down on terrorism. Around 700,000 Rohingya have since fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Heavy bombing. American bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War is believed to have killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Public relations. The purpose is to represent something positively to the public.
Desmond Tutu
A South African bishop known for his anti-apartheid work.

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