The categories were chosen by the man after whom the prize is named and whose will established the awards, Alfred Nobel. While his name has become synonymous with the prizes that reward excellence in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature, as well as the best effort put forth to advance the cause of peace, Nobel is also the inventor of dynamite. That fact alone has made him a controversial figure and, periodically, his prize also generates dissent.
Although the awarding of the prizes generates major international news coverage and the awards themselves are still highly respected and coveted, they can also be controversial in terms of those being nominated, the actual recipients, and even the process.
Since its inception in 1901, the best known and most controversial of the awards, the Nobel Peace Prize, has been awarded 98 times to 131 laureates, including 104 individuals and 27 organizations. The laureates were recognized for their efforts toward promoting peace, alleviating human suffering and advocating the dignity and rights of a nation, a specific group of people or the entire human race.
This year, as in many years, the award was given to an organization dedicated to reducing the chances or severity of an armed conflict. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was a safe and popular choice that was widely praised. However, in the days leading up to the announcement, the prospect of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif being given the prize for his role in brokering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which limits Iran’s nuclear activities, raised serious concerns.
Despite the occasional controversy, annual awards are a reminder that there are many people working tirelessly toward making the world safer, more prosperous and more equitable, and our everyday challenges more manageable.
Zaraf’s political savviness notwithstanding, the US, Saudi Arabia and other nations consider Iran to be the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in the world. To reward an official of that government would have been seen as a travesty by many. Nevertheless, that would not have been the first controversial decision by a Nobel committee, although most likely the most egregious.
As the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya once again raises concerns around the world, Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 peace laureate and the current de facto leader of Myanmar, has come under intense criticism for her refusal to acknowledge the brutal manner in which the country’s military has dealt with the crisis. The committee that awards the prize also faced some criticism in 2009, not so much for its selection of then US President Barack Obama, but for rewarding him so early in his first term.
On multiple occasions, the peace prize went to two individuals who had been adversaries for years before becoming key partners in peacefully resolving their dispute. Perhaps the most prominent examples are Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin in 1994, and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk in 1993.
While it should not come as a surprise that the peace prize becomes the subject of scrutiny, controversy and even lobbying year after year, some critics of the Nobel awards in the sciences have maintained that they distort the nature of scientific discovery and breakthroughs by portraying them as solitary endeavors. The reality, these critics argue, is that whatever achievement is being rewarded was most likely the result of teamwork, sometimes including dozens of people or more.
The Nobel Prize will continue to be the subject of interest for years to come and will likely continue to receive acclaim. Despite some controversial nominees and the occasional misstep, they remain a triumph for humankind, for they are a reminder that, despite the crises, tragedies and suffering that continue to define our world, there are many who are working tirelessly toward making it safer, more prosperous and more equitable and our everyday challenges more manageable.
• Fahad Nazer is an international affairs fellow with the National Council on US-Arab Relations. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, CNN, The Hill and Newsweek, among others. Twitter: @fanazer