Why you should care

Every Miss America wishes for world peace. Nobel laureates are the ones who are supposed to make it happen. 

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’Tis the season when we give peace a chance. Or at least hail, dissect and debate the choice of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, which is expected to announce the 2013 laureate on October 11.

Dr. Denis Mukwege, Director of Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, gestures during a news conference in Stockholm, Sweden, 01 November 2012.

Henrik Montgomery/Corbis

The smart money this year is on Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old education activist. The odds are two to one in her favor at online betting houses like Paddy Power, and she tops the short lists of armchair prognosticators. Should Yousafzai win, she’d be the youngest Nobel Peace laureate ever.

Stockholm, Sweden. 7th December 2012 -- Gene Sharp at the Right Livelihood Award Laureates of 2012.

Rikard Stadler/Corbis

To be sure, Nobel watchers mention other names. Denis Mukwege, whose hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo treats female victims of sexual violence, including conflict rape, has been cited by Nicholas Kristof and others as amply deserving of the prize. Other names include nonviolence scholar Gene Sharp and former President Bill Clinton.

Then again, Yousafzai has lived and accomplished more in her short time on Earth than most of humankind. At 11, she was blogging under a pseudonym for BBC Urdu about life under the Taliban in her native northwest Pakistan, like a modern-day Anne Frank. After her identity was revealed in a New York Times documentary film about her, she became the charismatic spokesperson for an entire generation of otherwise unschooled girls – and a target for extremists. On the school bus home last year, she was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen. Yousafzai survived. Now, at an age associated with brattiness, awkwardness and pimples, Yousafzai is instead a could-have-been martyr – and one of the world’s most revered voices on the right to education.

Guilt-ridden explosives mogul Alfred Nobel endowed the prizes in the late 1800s, mandating that the five members of the peace prize committee are to be elected by the Storting, Norway’s legislature. Nobel’s will doesn’t specify further criteria for committee membership, and currently the Storting divvies out the number of appointments by party strengths.

Still, there’s no predicting what the prize committee will do this year – or any year, for that matter. Alfred Nobel’s will mandates that the five members of the peace prize committee are elected by Norway’s parliament, the Storting. Typically, legislators appoint former Norwegian politicians, which has some crying foul. “It simply weakens the independence of the prize, because it ties it too closely to Norwegian politics,” says Kristian Berg Harpviken, who directs the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO). PRIO has studied the Nobel Peace Prize for many years, and Harpkiven would prefer that human rights experts and non-Norwegians serve on the committee.

“I’m careful to say this, as a Norwegian, but it is quite true: The Nobel is one of the most prestigious prizes in the world,” says Harpkiven, with what we assume is Scandivanian modesty. “And in some ways, contention is part of the process.”

So, just how wildly can the criteria for the prize swing? Consider two of the committee’s biggest misses:

  • Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Indian liberation leader who inspired nonviolent activism around the world, never won. He was assassinated in 1948, and the Nobel Committee does not award prizes posthumously. That year the committee made no award, announcing ”there was no suitable living candidate” for it.
  • Henry Kissinger, on the other hand, did win, even though many think of him as a war criminal. A bunch of militaristic U.S. presidents have won, too, despite Nobel’s aim that it go to someone who has worked toward “the abolition or reduction of standing armies.”

Eligibility for the distinguished prize is murky enough in the public imagination that even figures who have very little to do with peace or human rights get nominated. The current crop of wannabe winners includes:

  • Dennis Rodman: Not likely, but not for lack of trying. The former basketball star and Kim Jong Un’s buddy thinks mightily of himself for “break[ing] the ice” between North Korea and the United States. “If I don’t finish in the top three for the next Nobel Peace Prize, something’s seriously wrong,” he told Sports Illustrated over the summer.
  • Vladimir Putin: Nyet, notwithstanding the Kremlin apparatchiks and Obama haters plugging Mr. Russia ShirtlessEdition for the Peace Prize. The theory? Putin averted missile strikes on Syria by backing a show of chemical weapons.
  • Edward Snowden: The NSA leaker is “out of the question because he was a nonentity at the time the nominations closed,” Harpkiven points out. (Snowden wasn’t a public figure until months after the February 1, 2013, nomination deadline.) “Even if he were the most deserving candidate in the world, he wouldn’t be eligible.”
  • Chelsea Manning and/or Julian Assange: Unlikely. Although transparency and keeping governments accountable are worthy aims, experts are skeptical. Neither seemed to reflect on the risks or dilemmas that came with Wikileaks, including those whose lives the leaks endangered.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is pictured with a horse during his vacation outside the town of Kyzyl in Southern Siberia on August 3, 2009.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is pictured with a horse during his vacation outside the town of Kyzyl in Southern Siberia on August 3, 2009.

Source Alexey Druzhinin/Getty Images

But it’s not enough to be an agent of global change – or a hurricane of self-aggrandizing PR – especially not this year. Malala Yousafzai tops PRIO’s speculative list of winners, and even past laureates openly revere her. “My heart leaps…I fall for you!” the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, told Yousafzai at a U.N. panel on education last week. “Let us dream like young people dream,” he said. “Let us be idealistic and say we want a world where we care about each other.”

For her part, Yousafzai explicitly linked education to peace. “Wars can never be ended through wars,” she said. “Instead of sending tanks to Afghanistan and all these countries that are suffering from terrorism, send books. Instead of sending tanks, send pens. Instead of sending soldiers, send teachers.”

Sounds like a draft of an address suitable for Oslo in December.

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