This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (known as the OPCW), is so uninspired and dull it isn’t even wrong. Not that we should harbor any malice toward the OPCW: Its work verifying the Chemical Weapons Convention is important. It’s just that the Nobel Peace Prize was supposed to spotlight and inspire human excellence in the cause of peace and this year’s award—-safe but boring — doesn’t. Indeed, if this is the best we can do for 2013, the committee would have been better off taking a pass.
Peace-prizing international bureaucracies and non-governmental organizations, of course, is hardly new. Last year the European Union received the prize for “six decades” of “advancing peace.” In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was the recipient and before that, in 2005, it was the International Atomic Energy Agency, for their efforts to prevent nuclear-weapons proliferation. Over its more-than-100-year history, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 22 international and non-governmental organizations. The first, Institut de Droit International, received the third Peace Prize in 1908.
Beyond being petitioned hard, though, it is difficult to understand why the Nobel Committee should be so willingly to pull their punches and go with an international organization today. Perhaps it’s a desire to avoid embarrassment. Consider the 1973 Peace Prize, awarded to Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (military leader of the Viet Mihn, the Viet Cong, and adviser to the murderous Kampuchean Popular Front). The prize was given for their negotiating the Paris Peace Accords, an agreement whose hasty terms and lax enforcement led to the imposition of oppressive Communist rule over South Vietnam, the mass exodus of 2 million Vietnamese, and untold human suffering.
Then in the mildly goofy category, there’s the 2009 prize that the Nobel Committee awarded President Obama. Granted for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples;” it came but a mere twelve days after Mr. Obama took office — well before he had a chance to accomplish anything, good or bad.
One could go on, but such crankiness begs the question of how one might do better. Here it is worth noting that the Nobel Committee has actually gotten more than a few of its Peace Prizes right. In 1993 it granted Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk the prize for laying the foundation for new democratic South Africa. In 1983 it granted Lech Walesa the prize for campaigning for freedom in Poland against the Soviet Union. Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., George Marshall, and Albert Schweitzer were also recipients.
In each of these cases, personal petitioning was unnecessary. Each of the candidates was internationally recognized as a leader well before they received the prize. All had made personal sacrifices for their cause (beyond pulling paychecks for paid political service). Several also demonstrated personal physical courage of a sort rarely seen in public. All were extremely persistent and dedicated. In short, they all had the stuff of heroes and set highest standards of human excellence worthy of both our admiration and emulation.
The problem with aiming this high for the Peace Prize, of course, is that such people are extremely rare. They don’t come around every year. In fact, the Committee has recognized this: On 19 previous occasions it simply refused to grant a Peace Prize for a given year. Considering this year’s recipient, perhaps 2013 should have been one of them.
— Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia and co-author with Victor Gilinsky of Serious Rules for Nuclear Power without Proliferation (2013).