When the Nobel creates a stir

2009-12-08 14:54

Oslo - Throughout its more than 100-year history the Norwegian Nobel Committee has been no stranger to controversy, as this year with its attribution of the Nobel Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama.

The October 9 announcement stunned the world, and the laureate himself.

Many observers were quick to call Obama's prize "premature", and the US leader's decision, just nine days before the glitzy Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo on Thursday, to send 30 000 additional troops to the US-led war in Afghanistan has renewed questions about his worthiness of the accolade.

But while this year's choice sent a gasp through the Nobel Institute's halls - and almost gave the defribrillator that stands next to the committee's meeting room its baptism of fire - it is no more shocking than some of the omissions and scandals that have shadowed the Nobel Peace Prize since it was first awarded in 1901.

"The first controversy arose in 1906 with Theodore Roosevelt," recalled Asle Sveen, co-author of a book on the Nobel Peace Prize.

The US president, whose "Big Stick Policy" paired diplomatic talks with a strong military menace, was considered more of a war-monger than a peacemaker by many historians.

In 1919, the Nobel went to one of Roosevelt's successors, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, despite a committee member's threats to resign over his outrage at the Versailles Treaty, which Wilson was instrumental in shaping and left Germany humiliated, paving the way for World War II.

Controversial choice

In 1935, an anti-Nazi militant jailed by Hitler's regime, Carl von Ossietzky, was honoured with the prize.

That choice caused two Nobel committee members to withdraw from their positions.

The then-foreign minister and one of his predecessors left their seats before the decision was officially taken in order to not give Reich officials the impression the Norwegian government was associated with the choice.

"Hitler was furious and banned all Germans from receiving the award. To not infuriate the Fuehrer even more, the king did not attend the official ceremony," explained Sveen.

According to Geir Lundestad, the current committee secretary, that award was "probably the most controversial of all, but perhaps also the most remarkable".

"A controversial choice doesn't necessarily mean a bad choice," he told AFP.

Sometimes the committee proved as controversial in its omissions as in its choices.

Lundestad said the committee's overlooking of Gandhi was "its greatest sin, by omission".

Fear of violent protests

"He was the greatest peace figure of the 20th century and it is obviously unfortunate that he never got the Nobel," he explained.

The committee considered making him the laureate in 1948, the year of his assassination, but it gave up the idea because it couldn't bring itself to hand out the award posthumously.

The 1973 award, attributed to Vietnamese revolutionary Le Duc Tho and US secretary of state Henry Kissinger for their ceasefire efforts in the Vietnam War, was dubbed "The Nobel War Prize" by the New York Times.

The Vietnamese leader, who had at the time already started planning the 1975 general military offensive, declined the prize, the only laureate ever to do so.

Kissinger did not make the trip to Oslo for fear of violent protests.

"The committee was hoping to encourage a peace process but it turned out to be a total fiasco," Sveen said.

Two committee members resigned. Kissinger offered, in vain, to give back the award.

The choice the following year also gave place to controversy, when Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato was honoured for his alleged efforts against nuclear proliferation.

But Sato was in favour of the American nuclear umbrella, and in reality considered Japanese opposition to nuclear arms "nonsense", according to documents subsequently declassified.

In 1994, the prize recognised the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords agreed in Oslo the previous year.

Again, a committee member resigned to protest the recognition of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, then considered by many a terrorist, alongside Israel's Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.

"Obama certainly isn't as controversial as all of those previous laureates, but the prize does have a polemic aspect that the president's future track record could either muffle or emphasise," Sveen concluded.

But for the moment, a majority of Americans do not feel their president deserves the prize.

According to a survey published in USA Today in October, 61% of Americans feel Obama, who is also commander-in-chief of US troops, did not merit the Nobel Peace Prize.

But as Lundestad put it: "You know, even when the committee agreed on someone seemingly as consensual as Mother Teresa (in 1979), there were many critics."