The Nobel Peace Prize is arguably the most prestigious prize in the world. It is awarded annually by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to persons or organizations for their efforts and actions for the promotion of peace. Although the committee itself is independent, the prize unavoidably has a political impact and as such is often met with controversy, both regarding the individual laureates and the committee’s interpretation of Alfred Nobel’s will.
Based on their professional assessments, PRIO Directors have made it a tradition to offer their personal shortlists for the Peace Prize. Current director Henrik Urdal presents here his fifth list since taking up the position of director in 2017.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee bases its decision on valid nominations received by the January 31 deadline. Anyone can be nominated (and history has indeed presented us with a few rather dubious nominees, including Hitler), but the right to nominate is reserved for members of national assemblies and governments, current and former members of the Committee, Peace Prize laureates, professors of certain disciplines, directors of peace research and foreign policy institutes, and members of international courts. The five committee members have until their first meeting after the deadline to add nominations of their own. Urdal abstains from using his right to nominate given his active role in commenting on the prize. He has no association with the Nobel Institute or the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
The laureate will be announced in October.
Henrik Urdal's 2019 Nobel Peace Prize Shortlist
- Youth peace activists Hajer Sharief, Ilwad Elman, and Nathan Law Kwun-chung
- Reporters Without Borders
- Control Arms Coalition
- International Rescue Committee
- Abiy Ahmed
Youth peace activists Hajer Sharief, Ilwad Elman, and Nathan Law Kwun-chung
The importance of youth activism has become increasingly apparent in recent years. Young people are setting the agenda on issues of critical importance for peace and security both locally and globally, challenging established narratives and generational power dynamics. The UN Security Council has recognized ‘the important and positive contribution of youth in efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security’ in Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security, adopted in 2015. This theme has only become more timely since then, and it is my view that the contributions of young people should be highlighted in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
A particularly worthy recipient of a Peace Prize focused on youth peace activism would be Libyan activist Hajer Sharief. Winner of the 2017 Student Peace Prize, Sharief was the co-founder (at the age of 19) of Together We Build It, a civil society network working to support peaceful democratic transition in Libya. As part of the Youth Advocacy Team of the United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY Peacebuilders) – itself a possible prize recipient in this category – she has campaigned for the adoption and implementation of Security Council Resolution 2250. She has also worked with the implementation of UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, co-organizing a network in Libya aimed at promoting the role of women in peacebuilding. In addition, Sharief is an advocate for the Kofi Annan Foundation’s Extremely Together initiative on countering violent extremism, an issue of particular relevance for a youth-focused Peace Prize given the importance of current discussions around youth radicalization.
Another worthy candidate for a youth-focused prize is Ilwad Elman. Born in Somalia, Elman spent her childhood in Canada before returning to Somalia in 2010 while in her early twenties. Together with her mother, Fartuun Adan, she co-founded and currently leads the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu. Elman Peace engages in a number of peace related agendas ranging from youth activism and peace education to skills training and job creation, and to fighting gender-based violence. Winner of African Young Personality (Female) of the Year at the 2016 Africa Youth Awards, Elman is a member of the UN Peacebuilding Fund Advisory Group, as well as a number of other UN expert groups. Like Sharief she is also associated with the Extremely Together initiative.
Youth activists have also played an important role in pro-democracy campaigning in Hong Kong. While the current wave of protests has brought the issue of democracy in Hong Kong to the fore in recent months, there are a number of youth democracy advocates whose work predates these events. A worthy candidate to be included in a Nobel Peace Prize for Youth Peace Activism would be Nathan Law Kwun-chung, a leader of what became known as the “Umbrella Revolution” in 2014, and elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in 2016 as its youngest ever lawmaker. Law and his fellow activists Agnes Chow Ting and Joshua Wong Chi-fung, are all prominent members of the pro-democracy organization Demosistō and its forerunner Scholarism, and have become leading figures in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Alternative co-winners could include Alex Chow Yong-kang, former secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and a central figure in the 2014 Occupy Central campaign and Andy Chan Ho-tin, a founding member of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party.
A youth activist we all expect to receive a lot of attention in the run-up to the announcement of this year’s prize is Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg. While Thunberg has undoubtedly done important work and become perhaps the most prominent face of the new wave of youth political engagement through creating a truly global youth grassroots movement, I have chosen not to include her on this year’s shortlist. This is in no way to denigrate Thunberg’s achievements or the worthiness of her cause – which in my view addresses the gravest challenge that we are facing as a society. Rather, the absence of her name from my list reflects the lack of a straightforward connection between climate change and armed conflict, a topic that PRIO researchers – myself included – have been exploring for a number of years. The call for climate change action is premised on a very solid scientific evidence base. Similar standards should apply to any claim about the social implications of climate change. As a result, the IPCC have been very cautious not to draw far-reaching conclusions about the climate-conflict link.
Reporters Without Borders
Independent reporting and press freedom have not yet been the focus of the Nobel Peace Prize. Reporters all over the world are putting their own safety at risk to provide information from the most devastating conflicts and repressive regimes. A prize emphasizing the importance of providing reliable information from theaters of conflict around the world would be a prize for holding those engaged in conflict accountable. It would also acknowledge the importance of independent information gathering in enabling governments to make good decisions in crises and conflicts. Misinformation in wars abounds and increasing concerns over "fake news" only make the need for reliable, quality reporting stronger.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is an international watchdog group based in France, whose goal is to preserve media freedom and freedom of expression by protecting journalists and highlighting injustices and threats toward them. The organization has spoken out against the sentencing of Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo following their reporting of atrocities against the Rohingyas in Myanmar. These reporters, who received the Pulitzer Prize for their work and were freed in May 2019, would themselves be worthy candidates. A win for RSF would be well-deserved and represent the work of journalists everywhere who dedicate their lives to report on these important issues. (For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that PRIO is currently collaborating with the RSF on a new international initiative on information democracy.)
Similarly, a Nobel Peace Prize for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) would send a message to the international community about journalism and free speech. The CPJ, like RSF, is a watchdog group that compiles data on journalists who have been attacked or killed, and advocates for journalists in crisis. Other candidates in this category are Can Dündar and the Cumhuriyet newspaper, which were both on the 2017 PRIO shortlist. Dündar was the editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet until mid-2016, when he was forced to go into exile. One of Turkey’s oldest newspapers and a steadfast secular and republican-leaning publication, Cumhuriyet has been renowned for its independent reporting and fearlessness in criticizing the authorities. Both the newspaper and editor Dündar have been the recipients of several international press freedom prices for taking a stand against mounting government pressure.
Control Arms Coalition
Violent death is not confined to the context of armed conflict. Indeed, globally, the number of people killed by small arms far outnumber the victims of war. The proliferation of arms – through illicit trade but also through legal purchase in areas with insufficient or dysfunctional regulation – facilitates gun violence, posing a threat to peace and security even in regions not directly affected by war. The seemingly interminable series of mass shootings in the USA and recent attacks on mosques by right-wing extremists in Christchurch, New Zealand and in Norway, has put gun control on the media and policy agendas. But control over the trade in arms and how they are regulated domestically is a global issue, with important ramifications for the promotion and maintenance of peaceful societies. A prize for efforts to promote the responsible regulation of arms would be a timely recognition of this. An organization that has truly made a significant impact is the Control Arms Coalition. A coalition of over 100 NGOs, it campaigns for a strong international arms control regime as a means to combat violence, poverty, and human rights abuses. Control Arms was instrumental in the adoption in 2013 by the UN General Assembly of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a landmark multilateral treaty regulating the international trade in conventional weapons, and it continues to take an active role in monitoring the implementation of the treaty.
Other organizations that have a long history of work in this category are the International Action Network on Small Arms (INASA), grassroots network campaigning for multilateral measures on global gun control, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War a global network of doctors who also work on preventing violence with small arms, and the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO), who have been an important and persistent voice for global disarmament. There are also worthy individuals who have done important work on global gun control: Adele Kirsten, the activist behind the Gun Free South Africa campaign; and Professor Edward J. Laurance, Professor of Development Policy and Practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, a pioneering figure of the small arms control movement.
While a prize for initiatives and organizations with a global focus is perhaps most in keeping with the mandate of the Peace Prize, there are national organizations who may also warrant attention. In particular in a US context, where we have seen numerous impactful examples of the possible dire consequences of arms proliferation in recent years, we might mention the student-led political action committee Never Again MSD or the NGO Everytown for Gun Safety as potential recipients. The former is also relevant for the theme of youth peace activism.
International Rescue Committee
Few issues have dominated the political agenda in recent years like the global refugee crisis. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), we are witnessing unprecedented levels of displacement – a near doubling in less than 20 years. Over 65 million people are now forcibly displaced worldwide. Over 25 million of these are refugees, and 10 million are stateless.
The global community has struggled to come up with a coherent way of dealing with the issue whenever large groups of refugees are on the move. European states have responded by tightening access, whilst the Trump administration has drastically reduced the US refugee program and introduced a travel ban for citizens of certain countries. At the same time, much of the strain of dealing with the global migrant crisis is borne by countries neighboring areas of intense conflict. Providing support for refugees in these countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, is of critical importance. A Peace Prize to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) would be an acknowledgement of their important work in these refugee-dense regions. The IRC has also made a significant impact in Libya, where they are one of relatively few organizations providing emergency healthcare to refugees and other migrants in recent years.
Other candidates in this category are the World Food Programme, for their effort to feed displaced populations across several continents; and SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders (MSF), co-operating to run the Aquarius, one of the few ships still running rescue operations in the Mediterranean.
Although the office has already received two Nobel Peace Prizes (in 1954 and again in 1981), the UNHCR would also be a worthy prize winner, having shown its capacity and integrity in standing up for refugees’ rights and needs time and time again, most recently in Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Filippo Grandi, who has decades of experience working with refugees, has used his office to speak out for the Rohingyas in the Rakhine province in Myanmar, urging the de facto head of state in Myanmar, Aung-San Suu Kyi, to act on the situation.
As one of his first major actions after taking office in April 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took steps to formally end the conflict with Eritrea, signing a "Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship" on July 9, 2018 with his Eritrean counterpart Isaias Afwerki and indicating that he will hand over disputed land territories like the border city of Badme. In a similarly bold move, Abiy has engaged in dialogue with the many armed, regional Ethiopian opposition groups, succeeding in persuading the Oromo Liberation Front to commit to peaceful participation in the political process.
Progressive reforms following his rise to power include security sector reforms, lifting the state of emergency, establishing a Ministry for Peace, and pardoning political prisoners. Himself of mixed Oromo and Amhara heritage, his mother being an Orthodox Christian and his father a Muslim, Abiy appointed a cabinet demonstrating a rare sensitivity to political inclusion. The president and half of the ministers are women, including female ministers of defense and peace, and all major ethnic and religious groups are represented. Ethiopia is among the countries ranked near the bottom of the Human Development Index, and Abiy’s ambitious program for economic and social reform arguably represents a broader, long-term conflict prevention agenda. Similarly, his initiatives to boost economic collaboration and trade in the region, including agreements securing Ethiopian access to ports in neighboring Djibouti, Sudan, Somaliland, and Kenya, bring hope for a more stable and prosperous development for the whole of the Horn of Africa.
Despite having initiated democratic reforms, Abiy Ahmed has yet to bring about free and fair elections in Ethiopia. Still effectively a one-party state, the country ranks below 150 on the V-Dem Liberal Democracy index. Furthermore, the prime minister has come under scrutiny for failing to deal with growing ethnic violence in Ethiopia, even being accused by some of exacerbating existing tensions by using ethnically discriminatory measures to crack down on opposition forces. While Abiy remains on this list in acknowledgement of the hope his reforms have brought to a troubled region, it remains to be seen the extent to which he will be able to live up to this potential. Consequently, he no longer tops the list.
A possible co-winner could be Eritrea's president Isaias Afwerki, in acknowledgement of the peace agreement finally resolving the Eritrean-Ethiopian War.