Swedish industrial magnate Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), inventor of dynamite, is the man behind the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time of his death, Nobel’s empire consisted of a network of nearly one hundred factories, and he was one of the richest men in the world. Childless and unmarried, Nobel drew up a will stipulating that his factories were to be sold and the proceeds placed in a trust. The interest from the trust was to be distributed each year “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The Nobel Prizes in literature, physics, chemistry and medicine were to be awarded by Swedish institutions, but the honour of awarding the fifth prize, the Nobel Peace Prize, was bestowed upon an independent committee to be appointed by the Norwegian national assembly, the Storting.
There are several reasons why Nobel chose Norway. Sweden and Norway were still joined together in a union when Nobel wrote his will, and the Storting had demonstrated through practical policies its support of modern ideas about peace, such as disarmament and arbitration to prevent conflicts from escalating into full-scale hostilities.
The Storting accepted the terms of the will and quickly set the wheels in motion. The first five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee were appointed in 1897, and in 1901, the Committee selected Red Cross founder Henry Dunant from Switzerland and peace activist Frédéric Passy from France to be the world’s first Peace Prize Laureates.
The Organisation of Norwegian Nobel Activities
The Storting appoints the five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, but the Committee itself operates as a completely autonomous entity. The individuals chosen for this prestigious task usually comprise former parliamentarians or men and women who have otherwise played a prominent role in society.
The Norwegian Nobel Institute was founded in 1904. It is headed by a director who also serves as the secretary to the Nobel Committee. The Institute’s principal task is to procure information about the Peace Prize nominees in order to provide the Committee with the best possible basis on which to make its selection.
The closing date for nominating candidates each year is 1 February, and only a specified number of people are entitled to submit nominations. Immediately after the submission process is completed, the Nobel Committee convenes with the secretary to set up a shortlist of eligible candidates. Thereafter, the Committee’s advisers and other experts compile detailed reports on each candidate. These reports form the foundation for the Committee’s further deliberations.
The Nobel Committee announces the name of the winning candidate in mid-October. The Peace Prize may be awarded to individuals as well as organisations. The Prize may also be shared between a maximum of three candidates, all of whom must be associated with the same cause. The official award ceremony takes place in the Oslo City Hall on 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. The laureate receives a gold medal, a diploma and a substantial monetary award, which in 2004 amounted to SEK 10 million.
The Power of the Peace Prize
The Nobel Peace Prize holds a unique position despite competition from several hundred similar awards. The Oxford Dictionary of Contemporary World History calls it “The world’s most prestigious prize, awarded for the preservation of peace.”
The position of the Peace Prize can be explained by several factors. It is very well established and carries a considerable financial benefit. Moreover, it is part of the entire family of Nobel Prizes, which share a history of high international prestige. The decisions of the Norwegian Nobel Committee reflect liberal, Western values, and only a very few of them have had a negative impact on the international standing of the Peace Prize. In addition, the Committee has maintained a flexible approach to the concept of peace, and has employed a broad interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s testament. In recent decades, the Committee has focused increasingly on ensuring that the Peace Prize is truly global, and has sought to bring together the main parties to a conflict, for instance in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, in an effort to promote the peace process.