Nobel 101: How does the Peace Prize get picked?

A five-person committee selected by Norwegian lawmakers decide the winner of an annual prize that has long generated debate and controversy. 

Michel Lipchitz/AP/File
In 1973, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho were honored for their efforts to achieve a cease-fire in the Vietnam War in what’s become one of the most contentious awards in the prize's history.

The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday morning in Oslo, Norway. Here’s a look at the 114-year history of one of the world’s most celebrated awards:

Q. Who was Alfred Nobel?

Mr. Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, entrepreneur, and a prolific inventor with more than 355 patents to his name. His most famous – and profitable – invention was dynamite, which he patented in 1886. He later built companies and laboratories in more than 20 countries.

Upon his death in 1896, Mr. Nobel left much of his wealth to the establishment of the five Nobel Prizes as instructed in his will. The peace prize was the fifth and final one (in 1968, a sixth prize in economic sciences was added via a donation to the Nobel Foundation). Historians have long debated what inspired Nobel’s interest in promoting peace, but many say it grew from his desire to make up for the destructiveness of his most famous invention. 

Q. How is the prize supposed to be awarded?

A five-person committee chosen by the Norwegian Parliament awards the prize. But Nobel gave only vague instructions on how the committee should select winners, leaving plenty of space for interpretation.

In his will, Nobel wrote the prize 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.”

The award consists of a medal, a personal diploma, and a cash prize of nearly $1 million. It’s presented at a ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.

Q. How has the prize actually been awarded?

While the original intention of the prize – to honor promoters of peace – is largely unambiguous, the award process is not immune to criticism. Its detractors have argued that the prize has been used to endorse particular political agendas since it was first awarded in 1901.

"The Nobel Peace Prize has always been the most politicized of awards – and openly so," Ron Krebs, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota who has researched the prize, told The Washington Post.

Within Norway, a long-simmering debate over the independence of the selection committee erupted last year when the outgoing director criticized the body for skewing too political in its choice of winners, reported The Christian Science Monitor. He blamed the practice of appointing former government ministers to the committee, rather than independent experts.

Q. Who have been the most controversial winners? 

In 1973, the award went to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for his efforts to achieve a cease-fire in the Vietnam War. North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho was also honored for his role in the truce, but he refused to accept the award. Meanwhile, Mr. Kissinger, who many considered an architect of the war, asked the US ambassador to Norway to accept the prize on his behalf. The cease-fire soon fell apart and fighting dragged on for three more years. (Comedic songwriter Tom Lehrer famously said that "political satire became obsolete" after Kissinger won.)

More recently, controversy erupted over the choice of President Obama in 2009. The decision was criticized for being premature at best and political motivated at worst. Mr. Obama had been in office less than a year when the award was announced. Critics said he had won simply for not being his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was deeply unpopular in Europe.

Q. What have been the biggest snubs?

Mahatma Gandhi, whose name is synonymous with non-violence for his role in Indian independence, was nominated for a Nobel Prize five times between 1937 and 1948. But he never won. For what it’s worth, some evidence suggests that Gandhi would have won had he not been assassinated before the prize was announced in 1948.

The Nobel committee also snubbed US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A tireless supporter of human rights across the globe, Ms. Roosevelt advocated for women’s rights, the civil rights of African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and the rights of World War II refugees. She was also one of the key architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a foundational document of both the United Nations and modern international law. President Harry Truman, her husband’s successor, called her the “first lady of the World.”

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