The essence of the Nobel Prize must be restored

By PARAG KHANNA

After culling more than 100 nominees during the summer, the five-person Norwegian Nobel committee has come up with a short list of contenders for the coveted peace prize, which will be announced on Friday. Rumour has it that the committee is interested in honouring the cause of non-proliferation - as it did in 1985 with Physicians for Social Responsibility and in 1995 with the Pugwash Convention. Hans Blix, the United Nation's maligned but vindicated weapons inspector, would then get the nod - which would again thumb the Nobel nose at US foreign policy, a not unintended by-product of giving the award over the last three years to Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist.

Members of the committee admit that the prize is political; after all, peace is not an apolitical business. But the committee's track record shows a deeper flaw, one that Nobel himself would surely have considered a violation of his intent. In his 1895 will, Nobel stated that the prize (a diploma, a gold medal and NKr150,000) should be awarded to "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses". Yet most frequently appearing on the roster of prizewinners is an institution - the UN - overshadowing many worthy individual candidates, on average, once every six years: the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (1955 and 1981), the UN Children's Fund (1965), the International Labour Organisation (1969), the UN's peacekeepers (1988) and the UN itself (with Kofi Annan, 2001). Another UN secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjoeld, won posthumously in 1961. On merit alone, some agency of the UN probably deserves to win the prize every year but to honour an established institution instead of lending prestige to other worthy champions of peace undermines the very purpose of the prize. The European Union is also a favourite this year. Having cemented the end of war between its 25 members, it is as deserving as the UN for providing a model of peaceful transnational governance that it is hoped other troubled regions can emulate. But today it is peace among peoples within and across countries, not just between any two nations, that is of central concern. The prize's individual essence must be restored in order to demonstrate that peace knows no borders or memberships short of humanity itself. Not surprisingly, both Tony Blair, UK prime minister, and George W. Bush, US president, have been nominated again. Representing the UN this year are Hans Blix, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Lakhdar Brahimi, special envoy to Iraq. Martti Ahtisaari, former Finnish president, and the ailing world leaders Vaclav Havel and Pope John Paul II are contenders. But these are all established players. Only when we measure achievement by the visible impact of a single life can we separate the prize from political controversy. For Ms Ebadi, the Nobel confirmed that "the path I am on is the right one" and, as one spokesman of the Nobel committee stated, "it was no choice at all". Other winners also represent the unmediated pursuit of peace and dignity. Who dares argue that the beatified Mother Teresa, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Burma's opposition leader, or Andrei Sakharov, nuclear scientist turned prisoner of conscience, are not inspirations worldwide? If, however, the committee plans to continue awarding the prize to institutions, it should honour social justice groups that could benefit from scaling up. Giving the prize to Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines has inspired myriad similar efforts. Seeds of Peace, which inculcates tolerance and moderation among Arab and Israeli youth, and the International Crisis Group, which shames the international community for its lack of political will, are both worthy actors in the pursuit of lasting peace. It is hard to say whether the rapid increase in annual nominations for the Nobel Prize is an indication that we are moving toward a more peaceful world or simply a more political one. But it is clear that the chain of peaceful change flows from courageous individuals up to our prominent international institutions, not vice versa. The Nobel Peace Prize was intended to recognise this human will, and its moral credibility rests on doing that consistently.