by Joseph A. Favre
The Nobel Peace Prize was created by Alfred Nobel for the purpose of recognizing the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Under this somewhat vague framework, the Prize has expanded to become a significant political force for promotion of humanitarian causes in general and international humanitarian law. This increased influence is not constant, and has at times stirred up a significant amount of controversy. This is particularly true when the Prize is awarded to an individual(s) who is advocating against social injustice perpetrated by a nation-state or national political group, such as the Taliban or the IRA. While the 2013 award figured to go to just such an individual, Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee instead surprised many by awarding the prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The impact of who was awarded, and who was not awarded, this year’s prize may have lasting ramifications on International Humanitarian Law.
Historical Effect of the Prize on International Law
In its 112 year history the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a variety of individuals and organizations that have in some way worked to toward Alfred Nobel’s goal of a more peaceful world, however not all of that work has directly impacted the making or enforcing of international humanitarian law, that branch of international law that attempts to forestall mass atrocities and genocide. For instance, the 1970 award to Norman E. Borlaug for “his contributions to the “green revolution”” in food production, or the 2007 award to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change.” While both of these awards undoubtedly rewarded important global initiatives, and are relevant to promotion of peace by addressing conflicts over food and natural resources, it is unlikely that these awards had any direct impact on international humanitarian law.
Another group of recipients receives the Prize for being involved with aiding the victims of international conflict. Groups such as the Red Cross, Nansen International Office for Refugees, and UNICEF have all received awards for their work on the front lines of international conflict and reducing its impact. These awards raise the profile of this very important international aid work, but it is hard to argue that rewarding these groups prevents future conflicts or directly deters future human right violations.
The Nobel Peace Prize makes its greatest impact on international humanitarian law when it is awarded to recipients who, through their direct action, help prevent, end, or mitigate actions of international conflict or genocide. This broad group includes statesmen, international peacekeeping forces, and individual and group activists who directly work against the violation of human rights or the propagation of war. A good example of this effect is seen in the life of Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite being under house arrest for the greater part of 21 years of her life, the Burmese activist has continued to be a strong voice of democracy in her native Burma. She was finally released in November 2010 and won a seat in the Pyithu Hluttaw, Burma’s lower house of parliament in April of 2012. She is planning on running for President in 2015. It has been argued her 1991 award helped to keep her from being killed by her political opponents during her long house arrest. It can also certainly be argued that the added notoriety from winning the prize aided in her November 2010 release and April 2012 election.
Despite the successes of Aung San Suu Kyi, and those like her, the awarding of the Prize does not always yield peaceful gains. For instance, the 1926 prize was given to representatives of France and Germany for their work in negotiating the Lorcarno Treaties, which were meant to reconcile the two World War I adversaries. 10 years later, Hitler disavowed those treaties and invaded the Rhineland, a violation of international law. Clearly, the international community’s approval of the Locano Treaties was not enough to stay Hitler’s hand.
Impact of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize
As the group responsible for the inspection of, and destruction of, the world’s chemical weapon stockpile, the OPCW has already had a big impact on international law. As was stated in the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s citation, their work has “defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law.” In their brief 20 years of existence they have carried out 5,000 inspections in 86 countries and destroyed about 80% of the world’s chemical weapon stockpile. They have taken responsibility for monitoring chemical weapons destruction facilities in the U.S. and Russia, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have also placed themselves on the front lines of war in order to investigate claims of chemical weapons use in Syria.
Up to this point the OPCW has done almost all of their work in relative anonymity. Receiving this award takes this relatively obscure group and brings them into the forefront of international attention. OPCW President Ahmet Uzumcu recently stated that “We were aware that our work silently but surely was contributing to peace in the world. The last few weeks have brought this to the fore. The entire international community has been made aware of our work.” There is little doubt that this increased profile could have some positive side effects on efforts to reduce genocide or other crimes against humanity if for no other reason than that the world is now aware that there is a group out there whose sole purpose is to find and destroy chemical weapons. This increased international support may also provide the political pressure needed to help convince some of the few remaining non-signatory States (Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan) to sign onto the treaty.
Despite the noted benefits to the international cause of peace, not everyone is a fan of this year’s award choice. Many feel it should have gone to 16-year-old Pakistani education activist, Malala Yousafzai. Had she been awarded, she would have been the youngest peace prize recipient ever. Malala certainly would have been a worthy choice. She has already shown incredible bravery in the face of a violent, oppressive regime. She would have fit right in with other award winners who were champions of human rights, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Shirin Ebadi and Liu Xiaobo. There is no doubt that the prestige that comes with the prize would have helped raise the cause of global access to education for all to an even greater awareness than she has already brought it to.
While Malala may have been a great choice, she may not have been the choice of greatest global impact. The war in Syria is the most pressing international conflict in our world. Since it began on March 15 of 2011 there have been more than 100,000 casualties, many of those coming from the alleged use of chemical weapons. By awarding the prize to the OPCW, the Nobel Prize is striking a blow against one of the major tools of international law violation.
Another consideration in response to criticism is Alfred Nobel’s original intentions for the prize. In his lifetime Nobel was a major producer of armaments and the inventor of dynamite. He saw his life work used to devastating effect in the first industrialized conflicts of the early 20th century. In his will, Nobel stated that the peace prize should be given to the person who has done the most or best work “for the abolition or reduction of standing armies.” Disarmament has traditionally been thought to be a part of that work and squarely in-line with Nobel’s intention of reversing some of the harm his life work had produced.
In a 2013 article discussing the effect of recent Nobel peace prize winners, Nobel Committee Secretary Geir Lundestad stated that “we should be very careful that we don’t attribute too much influence to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.” This is true. The prize is very political in nature and it has the ability to influence through popular opinion and reputation, not through any direct control over international bodies. The world pays attention to this award, and now that attention is focused on the very important work of chemical weapon control. While those who will violate international humanitarian law will still find ways to do it, we can hope that their arsenals will be less deadly and their destructive effect will be less sure.
Joseph A. Favre is a Class of 2014 candidate at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law from Tempe, AZ. Favre’s entry to the GlobalJustinceBlog is part of an assignment for the course International Criminal Law, taught by Professor Wayne McCormack.
M urphy, Clare (10 August 2004). “The Nobel: Dynamite or damp squib?”. BBC online (BBC News). Retrieved 2009-10-11.
Ritter, Karl (13 October 2013), “A look at the impact of recent Nobel Peace Prizes”, http://www.abc27.com/story/23667320/a-look-at-the-impact-of-recent-nobel-peace-prizes
 “Syria chemical weapons monitors win Nobel Peace Prize”. BBC News. 2013-10-11. Retrieved 2013-10-12; Cowell, Alan (11 October 2013), “Chemical Weapons Watchdog Wins Nobel Peace Prize”, NY Times online, Retrieved 2013-10-24
 “More than 2,000 killed in Syria since Ramadan began”. Timesofoman.com. 2013-07-25. Retrieved 2013-08-27