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Nobel Medal

Obama Joins Long List of Controversial Nobel Peace Prize Recipients

October 09, 2009 06:00 PM
by Denis Cummings
The choice of Barack Obama for the 2009 Nobel Peace Laureate has surprised many, including the president himself, and generated criticism. In the 108 years of the Nobel Peace Prize, there have been many controversies and curious choices by the Nobel Committee.

Obama Awarded Nobel Peace Prize

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The Nobel Committee, comprised of five Norwegians appointed by the national legislature, announced Friday that President Barack Obama has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

The Nobel Committee praised the “new climate” he has brought to the White House. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population,” it declared.

Obama is the 97th individual to receive the Peace Prize, which has been awarded 90 times since 1901. He is the fourth U.S. president to be given the award, following sitting Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter, who received the award after he left office.

Opinion: Does Obama deserve the award?

The Nobel Committee has been widely criticized for choosing Obama, who has had few accomplishments during his short time in office. Alfred Nobel stipulated in his will that the Peace Prize be awarded to the person who “shall have done” the best work for peace.

Polish revolutionary Lech Walesa, winner of the 1983 Peace Prize, remarked, “Who? What? So fast? … Well, there hasn’t been any contribution to peace yet. He’s proposing things, he’s initiating things, but he is yet to deliver.”

Many pundits saw the award as a rebuke toward former President George W. Bush, continuing a trend of awarding the Peace Prize to Bush critics and opponents such as Jimmy Carter, Mohamed ElBaradei and Al Gore.

Rarely has an award had such an obvious political and partisan intent,” writes The Times of London’s Michael Binyon. “It was clearly seen by the Norwegian Nobel committee as a way of expressing European gratitude for an end to the Bush Administration, … Instead, the prize risks looking preposterous in its claims, patronising in its intentions and demeaning in its attempt to build up a man who has barely begun his period in office, let alone achieved any tangible outcome for peace.”

Obama himself was surprised to be awarded the prize. “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures,” he said at a press conference Friday.

Writing in Newsweek, Ben Adler and Daniel Stone defend the committee’s decision, saying that we should “see it as an award not for his concrete policy successes but for his personal achievement to be elected the first African-American president, the child of an immigrant and a single mother, with a Muslim name, an Asian stepfather and half-sister, a wife who descended from slaves.”

History of the Nobel Prize

Swedish chemist, engineer and inventor Alfred Nobel wrote in his will in 1895 that his considerable fortune be used to create and endow prizes to honor “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”

The prizes were divided into five categories: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace. The winner of each prize would receive a cash reward for the purpose of “awarding young men of genius the money to carry on their lifework unhampered by poverty,” explained Naboth Hedin in a 1950 book.

The Peace Prize, according to Nobel’s will, is awarded 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.”
Controversial Recipients
The Nobel Peace Prize has honored unquestionably deserving men and women such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Lech Walesa and Nelson Mandela, but there have also been a number of controversial choices.

Harvard historian Donald Fleming wrote in 1966 that, while “the Norwegians have acquitted themselves creditably” in choosing recipients, it was “preposterous to honor the complacently bellicose Theodore Roosevelt as a man of peace in 1906.”

The Peace Prize has been awarded to others who, like Roosevelt, negotiated peace agreements after years of fighting. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was awarded the Peace Prize in 1973 along with North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho for negotiating the accords that ended the Vietnam War. Tho refused the award—the first and thus far only time the Peace Prize has been refused—because he did not believe a lasting peace had been achieved.

Critics protested that Kissinger had played an integral role in intensifying the war, with The New York Times calling Kissinger’s award the “Nobel war prize.” Satirist Tom Lehrer remarked that “political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize.”

Others who won for peace agreements were Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who shared the award in 1979, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who won in 1994.

Famous Non-Recipients
Many renowned peace advocates have been passed over for the Peace Prize, perhaps none more deserving than Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the non-violent Indian Independence movement. Gandhi was nominated in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947 and 1948, the year of his death. The Nobel Committee considered awarding the prize posthumously for the first time, but decided against it. Instead, it decided that there was “no suitable living candidate” and did not award the prize in 1948.

Foreign Policy magazine looks at seven people who were passed over by the Nobel Committee, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Vaclav Havel and Corazon Aquino.

In 2007, the nomination of 97-year-old Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved an estimated 2,500 children during the Holocaust, was made public, raising hopes that her work, which remained relatively obscure for over 60 years, would be recognized. She lost to Al Gore and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sendler died in May 2008.

Fate of Nobel Winners
Winning the Nobel Peace Prize has had negative consequences for several winners. Human rights campaigners Aung San Suu Kyi and Shirin Ebadi faced increased persecution from the Burmese and Iranian governments, respectively, after being honored. Rigoberta Menchu Tum, an advocate for Guatemala’s indigenous people, had details of her autobiography questioned by the international media, harming her efforts n Guatemala.
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