05 December 2003

Shirin Ebadi to Claim Place in the Illustrious History of the Nobel Prize

More than a century of history underscores importance of prize

By Elizabeth Kelleher
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- When Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi receives the Nobel Peace Prize December 10 in Oslo, she will join a truly select group of individuals. The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the most widely acclaimed awards in the world, and past recipients have included some of the most highly respected and influential individuals of the past century.

But generally less is known about the founder of the Nobel Prizes, a 19th century Swedish chemist who amassed a fortune from his invention of dynamite, than about those who have received his prizes.

The irony of the peace prize bearing the name of the inventor of dynamite has given rise to a myth that Alfred Nobel established the award as a way to expiate his guilty conscience.

However, Irwin Abrams, the U.S. author of several books on the Nobel Peace Prize, debunks this myth, explaining that Alfred Nobel was strictly interested in the civil applications of his invention for building canals, mining and commercial construction.

As with many scientific discoveries, the military engineers simply found alternative uses for his product.

The establishment of the peace prize was, in fact, not Nobel's initial intention. As a self-educated inventor without a university degree, Nobel wanted to encourage other aspiring scholars. Consequently he planned to leave his fortune to Swedish institutions that would make awards for physics, chemistry, medicine and literature.

But late in his life, his friend the Austrian Baroness Bertha von Suttner inspired him to establish a prize for peace making. She was a prime organizer of an international peace movement and author of "Die Waffen Nieder" (Lay Down Your Arms).

Nobel's will says the peace prize should go to 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."

On occasion, the prize has been shared by parties who hold peace congresses. In 1973, Henry Kissinger of the United States and Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam were named for a cease-fire agreement that did not hold up. Le Duc Tho refused the award.

But "work for fraternity between nations" is a frequently cited reason for awarding the prize, especially to human rights protectors. The first instance of this was when Albert Lutuli won the Peace Prize for his civil rights work in South Africa in 1960.

There have been several cases since, including Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), for leading the U.S. civil rights movement, Adolfo Perez Esquivel (1980) for human rights work in Latin America, Lech Walesa (1983) for fighting for workers' rights in Poland, Bishop Desmond Tutu (1984) for fighting apartheid in South Africa, the Dalai Lama (1989) for his work for rights for people in Tibet, and Bishop Belo (1996) for working to protect the people of East Timor (1996).

Shirin Ebadi, this year's recipient, follows in this tradition for her work in defense of the rights of Iranian women and children.

The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901, five years after Nobel's death. Awards are announced each October, the month of Nobel's birth, and presented on December 10, the anniversary of his death. In some years, the prize is shared between individuals or accorded to organizations. Some years, no prize is awarded, as commonly happened during last century's world wars.

Nominations come from Nobel committee members, members of national governments, members of other official organizations and former recipients. Typically, there are about 150 nominations considered.

The Peace Prize, always the last of the Nobels to be announced, carries with it a monetary award of $1 million. Presentations were made in a room at the Nobel Institute until 1947, when the event moved to a larger venue in a university auditorium. In 1990, the year Mikhail Gorbachev won the prize, the event moved to Oslo city hall, where there are more than 1,000 seats.

According to Anne Kjelling, librarian at the Nobel Institute, an important change was made in 1992. Rules had stipulated that the recipient must give a speech outlining his work within six months of receiving the prize. Because the award ceremony was attracting foreign dignitaries and media attention the institute decided the speech should be given that day.

Kjelling recalls that one of the most moving and popular speeches given was that of Elie Wiesel in 1986. Wiesel, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, said, "Remembering is a noble and necessary act." His speech is reprinted in many textbooks for children.

In the 102 years since the first award, it has become celebrated to a degree Nobel undoubtedly never dreamed of. David Morley, Canadian director of "Medecins Sans Frontieres" (Doctors Without Borders), said he was awakened by a phone call from a television station at 5 a.m. when his organization won in 1999 and was interviewed on the spot. He said that in Canada, following the publicity of the award, fundraising for MSF quadrupled and that his organization now enjoys greater visibility with government officials.

Photos taken and words spoken on announcement day take on symbolic importance. Shirin Ebadi was in Paris on the day her award was announced. Abrams said it signifies "she can travel in Paris, not dressed in Islamic garb" after being imprisoned in the past for controversial stands she took in Iran. "It shows it is not like a totalitarian state," he said.

The prize is often controversial. The five-person selection committee is appointed by the Norwegian parliament, and consequently its make-up is influenced by the relative strength of political parties in that body.

In 1935 Carl von Ossietzky, a pacifist journalist being held by Hitler, was nominated by friends who wanted to protect him. They did not expect him to get the prize, but he did. A Norwegian foreign minister and former prime minister withdrew from the committee rather than incur the disapproval of the Nazi government.

Since then, no member of the government has been allowed to serve on the committee. In 1977, a rule barred members of parliament from serving as well.

Because committee proceedings are secret, there are always questions about why some recipients are chosen and others left out. Gandhi never got a Peace Prize; Tolstoy never got a literature prize.

While Nobel originally meant for the prize to go to young people as an incentive, it has often been given to older people in recognition of past accomplishments. The median age for all recipients is 63. More recently, however, the trend has been to choose younger candidates, with the average age dropping to the fifties. The committee may be trying to recognize people young enough to continue their work for some time.

Ebadi, who wins at the age of 56, represents this trend as well as two others -- the committee's growing tendency to recognize non-Westerners and women. Of the 11 women who have received the prize, four have been chosen in the past dozen years.

The December 10 ceremony in Oslo will be a gala media event complete with presentation, speech, a royal dinner, and a star-studded concert. Former recipient Desmond Tutu reportedly recalls, however, that the most enjoyable moment of his award ceremony in 1984 was when the hall was evacuated due to a security threat. Outside, everyone sang a civil rights song. The bishop said he enjoyed this time the most because he was with ordinary people.

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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