Is the Nobel Peace Prize Exploding?

09/12/2012 21:14 | Updated 08 February 2013

Today may be the biggest day of the year here in Norway. It's the day on which we can genuinely hope that the rest of the world sees and maybe even listens to this little kingdom in the high north. It's our annual opportunity to teach the world that, no, Norway is not the capital of Sweden.

Every year on 10 December, Norway awards the Nobel Peace Prize. This date marks the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, who endowed the Nobel Prizes in his will. Nobel was able to leave such a large endowment because of the riches generated by his many inventions, the most famous of which is dynamite.

Some may fear, however, that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has been infelicitously successful at connecting these two aspects of Alfred Nobel's legacy. The recent awards have been so explosive that the reputation of the prize has been damaged. This year's award to the European Union doesn't lack volatility either.

First off all, reconciliation isn't the first word that comes to mind when describing today's EU. Secondly, the will of Alfred Nobel states that the prize should go to those who have made the greatest contribution during the preceding year - the preceding one year, not 60.

The third criticism is that the head of the committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, is currently secretary general of the Council of Europe; a prize from him to the EU feels more like a pat on the back to a good friend than the result of a rigorous process. This criticism was strengthened when it came out that one member of the committee was strongly against giving the award to the EU, and that the decision was made during her sick leave.

Unfortunately, the EU award is only the most recent of several incendiary decisions. A documentary in Norway a few months ago charged sloppy research on one of last year's winners, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has recently been shown to be less peaceful than implied by the prize.

Last year's award was controversial from a gender equality perspective, too. The value of the 2011 prize was watered down and spread over three laureates for the goal of pumping up the number of women recipients, underscoring the prize's longstanding problem with women.

The Jagland committee's first prize, in 2009, went to a surprised Barack Obama, also generating considerable controversy, given that Obama was commander in chief for a country at war in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The prize to Liu Xiaobo in 2010 has been a diplomatic headache for Norway. While that in itself is no criticism, it is understandable that the award was seen by those who were offended as a transgression committed by the Norwegian government. Perhaps the integrity of the government would be easier to maintain if they looked beyond established or retired Norwegian politicians for committee members. Surely there are international candidates such as researchers or even activists who could better avoid tarnishing the prize.

Controversy is not bad. On the contrary, the unparalleled status of the Nobel Peace Prize is a result of selecting laureates who attract attention.

No one wants an award that fizzles. But the work of the current committee has so thoroughly blown up that when 10 December rolls around next year, I think I'll head to Stockholm.