Nobel Peace Prize 2010: How Obama award shapes this year's choice

After giving the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama last year, the Norwegian Peace Prize Committee may opt for a more conventional winner this Friday.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama looks at the Nobel Peace Prize medal at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009.

The Norwegian Peace Prize committee has a dilemma this year: how to top last year’s surprise award to President Obama.

The prize aroused criticism for being awarded just nine months into Mr. Obama's presidential term and while the US was heavily engaged in two military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The committee granted him the prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

The controversial selection will probably compel the committee go for a more traditional choice on Friday – such as human rights campaigner or pro-democracy organization – which could have an impact on the political process, according to Kristian Berg Harpviken, director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

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“In some ways it has put them in a dilemma,” says Mr. Harpviken. “They have to be attentive to the risk of how a similar prize that presents criticism would affect the reputation of the prize.”

“It doesn’t necessarily suggest a safer candidate that demands worldwide consensus, but a candidate that more likely represents what the Nobel Peace Prize represents,” he says.

Who are the top candidates?

Harpviken's top three picks for the award are Sima Samar, a female Afghan human rights advocate with a strong focus on women’s rights and leader of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, followed by the diaspora-based news agency Democratic Voice of Burma and the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Ms. Samar was on Harpviken’s top-three list of possible winners last year, as well. He feels she has a stronger chance this year because of the 10-year anniversary of UN Security Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security.

Samar is not one of the 18 confirmed nominations out of the record 237 candidates – 38 of which are organizations – that have been submitted for this year’s prize. But nominations are normally kept secret unless nominators choose to publicize their choice.

One of the confirmed nominations is Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese poet and literary critic who was sentenced last year to 11 years in prison by a Beijing court and an additional two years’ deprivation of political rights for “inciting subversion of state power.”

The “so-called incitement” was a call for political reform and greater human rights in China, said Kvame Anthony Appiah, processor at Princeton University and president of the PEN American Center, in his nomination letter.

Mr. Liu has been listed as the top pick for the prize, according to online betting website PaddyPower. He has also received support recently from former Czech President Václav Havel through an open letter in the International Herald Tribune backing Liu’s candidacy.

Separately, Chen Guangcheng and Gao Zhisheng have also been nominated with Liu by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the US House of Representatives, including Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey, senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Controversial nominations

But the nominations of Chinese dissidents are seen by some as controversial, despite the political independence of the Nobel committee.

Harpviken said it would be problematic for the prize to go to Liu or any Chinese dissident because of the political tensions it could cause between Norway and China. Geir Lundestad, Norwegian Nobel Institute director, recently told Norwegian national television NRK that China’s deputy foreign minister warned them this summer not to award the peace prize to a Chinese dissident.

Kjell Magne Bondevik, foreign minister at the time the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, recalls the diplomatic tension that ensued. He said he received “a very clear message” from both the Chinese government and embassy about their displeasure over the selection. He believes giving the award this year to a Chinese dissident could result in a similar diplomatic reaction, but would not affect economic relations between the two nations.

“I am doubtful whether China will react by reducing economic arrangements with Norway, because they know there will come an international reaction,” said Mr. Bondevik, who currently serves as director for The Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights and was a former Norwegian prime minister. “That’s not in the interest of China.”

China is Norway’s most important trade partner in Asia. The two countries are currently negotiating a possible bilateral free trade agreement.

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