Letter From Oslo:
100 Years of the Nobel Peace Prize

By Scott London

Oslo, December 10, 2001 – When Alfred Nobel established the Peace Prize 100 years ago, he wrote in a letter that he expected it to be awarded no more than 30 years. If the world were not peaceful by then, he said, it would surely revert to barbarism.

The observation seems particularly apt today, as many of the world’s great peacemakers, international mediators, human rights champions, and visionary statesmen gather here to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Prize.

The idea of celebrating a century of peace at a time of escalating war, and in the wake of the barbarous acts of September 11th, begs the question — of what use is a peace prize in a world wracked by war, fanaticism and mass murder?

The roster of invited guests reads like a who’s who of the international peace movement, from the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Kofi Annan to representatives of some 14 organizations that have received the Prize over the last century, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International, UNICEF, and Doctors Without Borders.

The idea of celebrating a century of peace at a time of escalating war, and in the wake of the barbarous acts of September 11th, begs the question — of what use is a peace prize in a world wracked by war, fanaticism and mass murder?

For most of those gathered here, the prevailing wisdom is that the Nobel Peace prize, and awards like it, are needed today more than ever. How else do we measure the progress of peace, how do we support the push toward unity and justice, if not by honoring those who best embody those ideals?

Like most Nobel festivities, the seven-day centennial is long on pomp and circumstance. The programme, which runs a full 26 pages, includes a banquet, an award ceremony, numerous receptions, even a globally-televised rock gala. But the occasion is also marked by a good deal of reflection and soul-searching about our prospects for peace at the dawn of a new century.

By almost any measure, the last century was the bloodiest in recorded history. It was "a century of almost unbroken war, with few and brief periods without organized armed conflict somewhere or other," said British historian Eric Hobsbawm, speaking at a symposium of peace laureates and distinguished scholars yesterday.

What evidence is there to suggest that the 21st century will be any different? Not much, according to Hobsbawm. "The prospect of a century of peace remains as remote as it did a century ago," he said, for while military disputes between nations may have declined, states are no longer the prime movers behind most armed conflicts. As we have seen in places like Angola, Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Chechnya, some of the ugliest and most protracted wars are those waged by extremists of one sort or another.

Princeton University’s Michael Doyle offered a more sanguine assessment. As more and more countries embrace democratic values — and that now includes well over half the nations of the world — the more likely they are to promote peace and human rights. "When democracy and liberalism are joined," Doyle said, "they can make for an expanding world peace."

While that may be true, no amount of democracy can root out acts of terrorism and random violence, cautioned author and peace laureate Elie Wiesel. At bottom, wars are waged by individuals, not states — be they democratic or authoritarian. The work of peace, therefore, is the work of individuals. "Institutions don’t do it for me," Wiesel insisted. "I need a face."

He went on to say that individuals have effected some of the greatest achievements of the last half-century. In South Africa, the end of apartheid can be attributed in in no small measure to people like Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Freedom for East Timor came at the hands of men like bishop Carlos Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta. In the Soviet Union, the actions of a handful of individuals, including Andrei Sakharov and Mikhail Gorbachev, brought down the entire communist empire.

It is this emphasis on extraordinary individual achievement that represents the Nobel Peace Prize’s true legacy, according to historian Irwin Abrams. In his authoritative history of the award, The Nobel Peace Prize and the Laureates, 1901-2001, Abrams argues that the peace laureates serve "as examples for the rest of us, especially young people, to try to emulate." What gives meaning to their stories, he believes, is that they reflect the capacity each of us has for courage, commitment and moral strength.

And that surely is worth celebrating, even, and especially, in a time of war and deepening uncertainty. By spotlighting great peace leaders and their achievements, the Nobel Peace Prize serves as a bulwark against the forces of barbarism — those forces that Alfred Nobel saw only too well as he glanced ahead to the 20th century.