There’s no lack of individuals and groups that find fault with the Nobel Prizes, the array of international awards for those who bring the “greatest benefit on mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.
The annual awarding of these prizes is in fulfillment of the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist and engineer who made a fortune from his 355 inventions, the most famous of which is the dynamite.
Money goes with each prize. In 2009, it was the equivalent of US$1.4 million in Swedish currency. If there are two winners in a single category, as is the case with the peace prize this year, the money is split equally in two.
Much more important than the money angle is the prestige that the Nobel prizes bestow on the recipients. They’re arguably the most highly regarded awards that a person can dream of receiving.
That monumental prestige partly explains why the awards are often controversial. There’s no shortage of conspiracy theories about them, including the one about their being an operation of the CIA. In fact, the selection committee for the Nobel Prize in literature has a palpable Eurocentric, anti-American bias.
More serious is the charge that the prizes don’t reflect the stipulations of the last will and testament of Alfred Nobel. For example, it’s said that the peace prize should go to those who contribute to disarmament, to the reduction of armies, and to the direct achievement of peace—because this is what Alfred Nobel wrote in his will. A literal reading of the will supports the view that the Nobel peace prize selection committee isn’t complying with the will. A book has been written about this.
The people in the peace prize selection committee counter-argue that while they reinterpret the letter of Alfred Nobel’s will to fit realities of the times, they’re faithful to its spirit. In this debate, I am with the reinterpreters and not with the fundamentalists.
The controversy arose again this year with the award of the Peace Prize to teen-ager Malala Yousafzai, for her campaign to put girls in school, and to Kailash Satyarthi for his crusade for children’s human rights and to stop the traffic in children. Strictly speaking, neither is a peace worker.
But the Peace Prize this year wields a symbolic power that even a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have been dreamed of.
As pundits must have cited a million times by now: she is a Muslim and a Pakistani, he a Hindu and an Indian. Over the ages, their respective co-religionists have massacred each other. Their countries are in a potentially apocalyptic nuclear arms race. Their military units are now in a bloody confrontation along the borders between Pakistani Kashmir and Indian Kashmir. The death toll was 17 when the award was announced.
And yet she and he are working for essentially the same humanitarian cause that yields the desiderata for peace: emancipation of young people from slavery and quality education that will lift them from the mire of poverty, ignorance, prejudice and hatred. And both are eager to work together.
What more can you ask for? What stronger statement can the Nobel selection committee make to bring India and Pakistan to their senses and persuade them to make durable peace with each other?
OK, there have been Nobel Prize lemons. One recent disgrace was the award of the Peace Prize to US President Obama when he had done nothing yet in office. My favorite lemon is the passing over of Leo Tolstoy for the first Nobel Prize in literature in favor of a now forgotten Victorian poet.
But the Peace Prize this year is no lemon. It’s a refreshing lemonade in a world that thirsts for peace.