Nobel Peace Prize committee accused of ignoring what Alfred Nobel wanted

Alfred Nobel's will allocated funds to award an annual prize to the most worthy champion of peace. Activist and author Fredrik Heffermehl and other critics say that's not happening so they are suing the Nobel Foundation.

Prize was meant for 'champions of peace,' but most winners don't fit the bill, critics say

Kaci Kullmann Five, head of the Norwegian Nobel committee, announces the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet as the winner of 2015 Nobel Peace Prize during a news conference in Oslo, Norway on Friday. (Heiko Junge/EPA)

In his will, the wealthy Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel left money to fund what would become among the most famous prizes in the world, the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nobel was unmarried and had no descendants when he died on Dec. 10, 1896. Given the huge sums of money involved, the will was controversial.

However, unlike most such wills, controversy — and legal action — still surrounds Nobel's.

That's because of the prize Nobel wanted to be presented each year to the "most worthy" of the "champions of peace." Nobel wrote in his will that his peace prize should go to "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

On Dec. 10, the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize will be presented to Tunisia's National Dialogue Quartet "for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011."

Wided Bouchamaoui is a member of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, which was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for 'for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia.' (Mohamed Messara/EPA)

The committee's choice, announced on Friday, was greeted with both praise and criticism.

The International Peace Bureau, which won the prize in 1910, says the choice makes a vital contribution "to the building of fair and peaceful societies everywhere" by pushing an alternative "to military intervention, and to terrorist violence."

The IPB likes that this year's award goes to a grassroots civil society organization. "It is a bottom-up prize rather than another top-down one," unlike many previous awards, the IPB said.

However, Nobel Peace Prize Watch (NPPW) says the Quartet "is clearly outside the circle of recipients Nobel had in mind."

What Nobel really wanted

Fredrik Heffermehl, who served as vice-president of the IPB and also is a founder of the NPPW, shares in the latter assessment.

Five years ago the international peace activist and Norwegian lawyer authored, The Nobel Peace Prize: What Nobel Really Wanted.

The Nobel Peace Prize should go to the most worthy champions of peace, Alfred Nobel wrote in his will. (Berit Roald/Scanpix Norway/Reuters)

In an interview with CBC News, Heffermehl said his book includes the first evaluation from a legal standpoint of what Nobel wanted to achieve with his will. After going through Nobel's correspondence, he said, it's clear Nobel wanted the prize to go to people working for disarmament and to abolish militarism, and who were building a peace movement.

He described Nobel as a peace activist during his later years.

Nobel's original intent expressed a "great visionary idea of peace," Heffermehl said, and his vision remains a great idea for a prize today, perhaps more urgently in the era of nuclear weapons.

Many awards 'not justified'

Since the prize was first awarded in 1901, only six times "has the speech for the laureate given express reference to Nobel's intention with the peace prize," according to Heffermehl. The last time was in 1990, when former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev won.

Heffermehl's 2010 book includes a report card on the first 120 peace prizes. He grades 50 awards as "not justified." Since 1963, when the Red Cross won (unjustifiably), to 2009, he rates 37 of the 61 winners as not meeting Nobel's criteria.

Heffermehl is quite critical of the Norwegian Nobel committee, the body that chooses the Peace Prize winners. 

U.S. President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, 11 months into his presidency. He accepted the prize uncomfortably, acknowledging his role as a leader at war while insisting that conflict could be morally justified. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Nobel said in his will that a five-person committee elected by the Norwegian parliament should select the "champions of peace."

However, Heffermehl said, the five members oppose the idea of the will.

"Instead of people dedicated to disarmament — to the idea of Nobel — the parliamentarians are taking the seats for themselves," he said, adding "it's rather corrupt." 

How the winner gets chosen

While the Norwegian committee decides on the winner, it's the Nobel Foundation in Sweden that sends the winner a cheque.

In early 2012, at Heffermehl's request, the authority in Sweden that oversees foundations conducted an investigation which, he said, led to the Nobel Foundation recognizing that they are the ones who "bear the final and ultimate responsibility for all funds being used in conformity with the purpose."

Later that year the committee across the border in Norway awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union, infuriating Heffermehl, who sees the EU as supporting the use of military means as the road to peace. 

Four past laureates — South Africa's Desmond Tutu, Northern Ireland's Mairead Maguire, Argentina's Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and the IPB — joined Heffermehl and others in protesting the choice. They wrote that the "EU is clearly not 'the champion of peace' that Alfred Nobel had in mind when he wrote his will."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande and other EU leaders at the 2012 ceremony to present the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union, a choice that has led to legal action against the Nobel Foundation. (CBC)

An illegal payment?

Today on their website, The Nobel Foundation says it "does not have the right or mandate to influence the nomination and selection procedures of the Nobel laureates."

Heffermehl disagrees, arguing that if the foundation doles out the money to someone outside the scope or purpose Nobel stated, that would constitute misappropriation of funds, an illegal payment for which the board members become personally liable.

He has been pursuing several legal angles and on Sept. 21 in Stockholm, he and his colleagues initiated court proceedings against the foundation's board members over the 2012 prize. In that case they are asking the Stockholm city court to declare the 2012 payment to the EU an illegal use of the foundation's funds.

Heffermehl said they are still awaiting a response from board members.

On Friday, CBC News contacted both the Norwegian Nobel committee and the Nobel Foundation for comment, but neither organization responded.


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