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The Boston Globe

Opinion

RENÉE LOTH

Is the Nobel committee off its mission?

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An eminent group of global peacemakers was in Chicago this week for the 12th annual World Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, held in a US city for the first time. For three days Lech Walesa, Elie Wiesel, Muhammad Yunus, the Dalai Lama, and others delivered inspiring messages of non-violence. You would think not a fly was swatted in the whole state of Illinois.

But the distinguished gathering masked a long-simmering controversy, mostly centered in Europe, over whether the Nobel committee has been violating the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist who endowed the prize. According to critics who earlier this year secured a formal investigation into the awards, Nobel intended the prize to recognize leaders working specifically on disarmament — and not the environmentalists, human rights workers, or social justice advocates who have been recipients in recent years.

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Nobel “went to the roots of the problem, and wished to remove the infrastructure of war, military, and armaments,” wrote Fredrik Heffermehl, a Norwegian lawyer and prominent critic of the Nobel process, in an e-mail. He claims that members of the prize committee, which is appointed by the Norwegian parliament, “use the Nobel name to promote their own ideas and completely ignore their mandate.”

Heffermehl pointed to this year’s award, which honored three women activists working for democracy and gender equality: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakul Karman. They are exemplary people, he said, but they do not embody what Nobel specified in his 1895 will. “These winners do not see abolition of the military as their goal,” he wrote.

It might be tempting to dismiss Heffermehl as a gadfly promoting his investigative books on the topic, except that his critique goes to the heart of an evolving definition of war and peace. Since the end of the Cold War, the Nobel committee has steadily broadened its lens to include achievements beyond traditional statecraft. Many critics see this as a trendy bow to political correctness. But as early as 1931, the committee gave the prize to Jane Addams, the social worker and suffragist — hardly the first name to mention in the same breath as Henry Kissinger.

Still, it is notable that since 2003, the peace prize has rarely gone to a diplomat or a head of state — with the notable exception of 2009, when the committee awarded the prize to Barack Obama, less than a year into his presidency.

“The committee’s composition changes and their notion of what constitutes peace changes,” said Charlie Clements, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University. Clements said Obama’s prize, which many called premature, is a good example. “They gave the prize for the possibility of what could be accomplished,” he said. “They wanted to propel the work. That was a new concept of the prize.”

Such interpretations infuriate critics like Heffermehl, who could be called strict constructionists of Nobel’s will. But there is wisdom in recognizing that environmental degradation, human rights violations, and even overpopulation can destabilize nations and make them more vulnerable to war. The connection between bloody civil conflict and poverty, scarcity, and oppression is more than just coincidental. The war in Sudan, with its devastating consequences for refugees in Darfur, was in many ways a struggle over water and arable land. Resource wars are no less bloody as those fought with standing armies over geopolitics or ideology.

In March, the Swedish Foundations Authority, which regulates foundations, ended a formal investigation into Heffermehl’s claims. Although it declined to criticize the committee’s past practices, the authority did require that the Nobel Foundation board of directors review the precise purpose of Nobel’s will and issue regulations to ensure compliance in the future.

Back in Chicago, the Nobel laureates met with youngsters in the Chicago public schools. The actor Sean Penn was cited by the laureates for his humanitarian work in Haiti, and even he managed to look serene. Jimmy Carter and Mikhail Gorbachev pressed young people to adopt environmental issues, human rights, and economic justice as ideals of peace right along with disarmament and demilitarization.

Given the indiscriminate sweep of violence in this world, it seems petty not to include everyone at the peace table.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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