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The Alfred Nobel Show

Those at the forefront of conflicts see an advantage in involving Norwegians: it subtly helps their shot at the peace prize.

The Alfred Nobel Show
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In a fortnight, somebody will become a crorepati. But this is not a reward for participating in a game-show, it is for a noble mission. On October 13, the world will know who the next winner of the Nobel peace prize is. Due to excellent asset management, the peace prize has swelled this year to 10 m kroner or Rs 5 crore. Chances are this year's winner will be an individual as last year the prize was won by an institution, the French organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres, whose personnel have rendered medical service to victims in conflict zones. "But there's much more excitement when an individual wins," says Gunnar Berge, chairman of the Norwegian peace prize committee who'll disclose the winner in Oslo.

I met Berge in Stavanger, the modern yet quaint Norwegian town where he lives and works. He's one of the most respected politicians in Norway, a former finance minister who could have been prime minister. But he opted out. "I have seen from close quarters what it is like to be prime minister. It's not always pleasant," he says. So he prefers to be a low-key, though powerful civil servant. From somebody who began his life as a shipyard worker, Berge has come a long way - much like the creator of these prestigious awards, Alfred Nobel, a school dropout who invented dynamite and became one of the wealthiest men in Europe.

Legend has it that Nobel set up the world's most prestigious award due to a newspaper's mistake. One morning he woke up to read a terrible item: his own obituary. The newspaper had mistaken his brother for him. He was horrified not by the error, but by the nastiness of the obituary. He was a rich and brilliant chemist with 355 patents to his name. Yet he was seen as nothing more than a merchant of death, who had made wars more lethal with his invention. He set out to reform his legacy by creating the world's richest fund to award excellence. Perhaps to salve his guilt, he instituted awards also to someone who promotes peace. Thanks to Nobel, today it pays to wage peace. His award brings the recipient both money and honour. It's regrettable though Mahatma Gandhi never won the prize. But till 1960 it was awarded only to people from North America and Europe.

The decision of the Norwegian Peace Committee is invariably unanimous - though it wasn't in 1994, the year the prize was divided among Yitzhak Rabin and Simon Perez of Israel and Yasser Arafat. One member of the committee opposed Arafat's inclusion and resigned. But there was no problem when John Hume and David Trimble of Northern Ireland won in 1998, Carlos Belo and Jose Horta of East Timor in 1996, Nelson Mandela and Willem de Klerk of South Africa in 1993, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978 and Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho of Vietnam in 1973. Earlier, the committee gave the award after the peace deal was signed, but increasingly it is given to people while they are negotiating so as to boost the peace process.

One gets the feeling that the peace prize has helped Norway emerge as one of the world's most important and successful peace negotiators. Its most recent success was in 1993 when it forged the Middle East Peace Accord. It's now active in trying to resolve conflicts in Sri Lanka and Colombia. Those at the helm of conflicts in these regions see the advantage of involving Norwegians: perhaps they stand a better chance to win the award. Certainly, Chandrika Kumaratunga will be pleased if she were to ever win the Nobel, but it's doubtful whether the award's prestige will entice ltte leader Prabhakaran to a settlement. Then again, back in 1997, didn't Rajiv Gandhi give Prabhakaran Rs 5 crore for the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, money he used to purchase weapons to fight Indian soldiers?

There is no direct connection between the Nobel peace prize and Norway's role as peace interlocutors, says Berge though he concedes it may have indirectly strengthened Norway's credibility and leverage as mediators. Says he: "Norway has a long history and a strong reputation for facilitating conflict resolution, but perhaps the peace prize has contributed in a small way to the image." In fairness, the Norwegians had established a reputation for mediation, arbitration and peaceful solution of international disputes even when Alfred Nobel was alive. In fact, that could be one of the reasons why Nobel, a Swede, chose a Norwegian committee to bestow his peace prize while Swedish committees give away the other Nobel prizes for literature and sciences.

The process of selecting the winner is secretive, but that doesn't stop people from canvassing for their candidature. Berge says ambassadors of the countries whose leaders angle for the award, visit him with a not-so-subtle mission. Sometimes, leaders canvass openly for themselves like Russian premier Chernomyrdin. But nobody has succeeded in influencing the committee and often such attempts prove counter-productive.

So who're the nominees this year? There are 150 of them, ranging from lesser known peace activists to presidents of South Korea and the US. Jimmy Carter is among the hopefuls this year. His is a classic case of being stumped by a bureaucratic hurdle. As the architect of the Camp David accord, he could've easily won the prize in 1978 when it was awarded to Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin. The Nobel prize can be divided equally upto a maximum of three people, so Carter was a natural winner. Except nobody had nominated him. The prize cannot be awarded to someone who hasn't been nominated. Carter and his supporters have tried to rectify that oversight. Since 1979, Carter has been nominated every year.

But whoever the winner, it's usually the cause and not the person that becomes the crorepati. More often than not, the winner would donate the money to the mission instead of investing in shares, going on a world tour, buying a house: things a game-show crorepati would spend on.

(You can contact the author at anitapratap@journalist.com)

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