Russia Direct looks back at ten extraordinary Nobel Peace Prize winners of the past 25 years

Former U.S. Vice President, environmental activis and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore. Source: Reuters

On Oct. 12, the Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for its "extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons." This year, a record number of candidates - 259, including 50 organizations - were nominated for the prize. Usually it is quite difficult to predict the committee’s selection. Yet, every year the political bookmakers take bets on the potential winner. Some of the contenders for this year's award from the U.S. and Russia included Russian President Vladimir Putin, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and the Russian human rights protection organization "Memorial.”

Below, Russia Direct reviews some of the most controversial, unexpected and interesting winners of the past 25 years.

Mikhail Gorbachev, USSR, President, 1990

In 1990, the Peace Prize was presented to Mikhail Gorbachev, the former head of the Soviet Union, "in recognition of his leading role in the peace process which today characterizes an important part of life of the international community." The prize money Gorbachev received was transferred to the country’s budget and later used in the construction of hospitals in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

In the West, Gorbachev is still associated with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, democracy and glasnost. Citizens of the post-Soviet space, though, are much more critical. Some still blame Gorbachev for the collapse of a formerly great country. According to a Levada Center poll in 2011, only 18 percent of Russia's population has a positive perception of Gorbachev, while nearly 28 percent have negative views of him. The others are indifferent.

Rigoberta Menchú, Guatemala, human rights activist, 1992

Rigoberta Menchú, the representative of the Guatemalan indigenous population, received the award “as a human rights champion, particularly of the Americas’ indigenous people." 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the continent, and the committee wanted to celebrate the anniversary in its own way. His autobiography ("My Name is Rigoberta Menchú and So My Conscience Was Born") was released nearly ten years ago. It was written by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray from Roberta’s own words, and has since become a bestseller. Sometimes the book was even called the most influential social treatise of our time. In addition, the year before the award presentation, Menchú participated in the preparation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

After the prize was awarded, the anthropologist David Stoll decided to write a biography of Rigoberta Menchú. On his way to the native village of the human rights activist, he examined a few archives and interviewed her former neighbors, locals, friends and enemies. In 1999, he published his book, "Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans." It turned out that many of the facts in the autobiography of the Nobel Peace Prize winner were untrue. Later, in an investigation conducted by the New York Times, Stoll’s findings were confirmed.

At first, Menchú herself said that inaccuracies crept into her autobiography because of its editor Elisabeth Burgos–Debray, but she showed Stoll Rigoberta’s recordings which she used to write her book. They fully matched what was written. Then Menchú argued that they just wanted to defame her. The Nobel committee took the Prize holder’s side in the dispute.

Shimon Peres, Israel, Foreign Minister, 1994

When the Nobel Committee presents the Peace Prize to active politicians, it almost always causes controversy and discontent by people in some part of the world. In 1994, the prize was awarded to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for their negotiations and peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. At that time, Yasser Arafat, who was suspected of involvement in international terrorism, looked like one of the most controversial winners in recent memory.

However, eight years later, the members of the Nobel committee themselves made an unprecedented statement about their desire to deprive Shimon Peres of the award, if they had such an opportunity. Their discontent was caused by Peres’s inaction during the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. The future president of Israel was at that time, still holding the post of Foreign Minister.

Shirin Ebadi, Iran, human rights activist, 2003

Shirin Ebadi was the head of the city court of Tehran during the Islamic Revolution she supported. The new authorities transferred her, like the other women, to the position of a court clerk, since, according to the Iranian Islamists, women do not have the right to make mandatory judgments for men. In protest, Ebadi resigned and until 1993, was writing books and articles that brought her considerable fame.

In the 1990s, she was able to return to her legal practice. As a lawyer, she participated in several high profile cases. For example, she represented the interests of the families of Iranian intellectuals and oppositionists who had been killed. In 2000, she released Farhad Amir Ibrahimi’s video testimony. He argued that Iran’s conservative religious leaders ordered the killings of politicians from the entourage of the moderately liberal president Mohammad Khatami. For making her statements public, Ebadi was sentenced to five years in prison, but later this decision was overturned. Afterwards, Ebadi founded an Iranian society for the protection of lawyers, known as the Human Rights Center.

While many recognized the Iranian’s achievements, no one expected that she would win the Peace Prize over Pope John Paul II. It was he who was considered a major contender for victory in 2003. The committee's decision was explained by many as an attempt to support the dissident movement in a country hostile to the West. Iran had approximately the same attitude. President Khatami did not congratulate the winner and announced that the Peace Prize was just an instrument for putting pressure on his country.

However, in her Nobel Prize speech, Ebadi surprised the audience even more. Instead of promoting liberalism, she spoke strongly against any foreign interference in Iran’s internal affairs and supported her country’s nuclear program. However, in recent years, Ebadi's views on domestic policies have become progressively tougher, which was the reason why her Nobel diploma and medals were confiscated by the authorities in 2009.

Al Gore, U.S., Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007

Al Gore was awarded the prize "for the study of the effects of global climate change caused by human activities, and the development of measures to prevent their harmful potential." The selection committee’s choice was called a politically motivated one. Gore’s work was not directly related to the "end of conflict" and to the "unification of the people" - the criteria by which Alfred Nobel originally bequeathed funding to award the prize. An expert on hurricanes, William Gray, called Gore’s theory "ridiculous and absurd." Later, members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were suspected of distorting and falsifying data that contradict the theory of global warming.

At the same time, Gore managed to earn significant speaking fees based on his victory. He began to travel around the world giving lectures, the fees for which were rumored to have reached 100 thousand dollars each.

Martti Ahtisaari, Finland, Former Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for Kosovo, 2008

Ahtisaari received the award "for his important efforts to resolve international conflicts, made on several continents over three decades." Several times, he represented the United Nations in Namibia. He headed the UN Working Group on the settlement of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the UN’s work in negotiations on the war in Iraq. In 1994, Ahtisaari became the first president of Finland elected nationwide.

The diplomat’s reputation was undermined in the Balkans. In 1999, along with Viktor Chernomyrdin, he managed to get Slobodan Milosevic to sign NATO’s conditional agreements to end the conflict in Yugoslavia. However, Milosevic himself claimed that Ahtisaari threatened to level Belgrade to the ground and kill half a million Yugoslavs, if Milosevic did not sign the document.

In 2005, Ahtisaari was appointed a special envoy of the UN Secretary General in Kosovo. In this role, he developed a "Kosovo plan", which describes the process of separation from Serbia, which some experts have even called a platform to further separatism in Europe. On the basis of this document, the countries declared their independence.

Barack Obama, U.S., president, 2009

The presentation of the Peace Prize for "efforts in strengthening international diplomacy and cooperation between nations," seemed strange even to the U.S. President himself, as he hadn’t had time to demonstrate any real progress in any diplomatic effort -- the deadline for the nomination had expired on the 12th day of Obama’s tenure in the White House. The U.S. president acknowledged that he was as yet unworthy of the reward, but still accepted it. Critics characterized it as a down payment for his proposed future achievements.

In hindsight, these future achievements would have included the agreement on the reduction of nuclear weapons by the U.S. and Russia, the plan for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and a joint venture with Russia in forcing Syria to renounce chemical weapons. At the same time, the prison at Guantanamo continues to operate, American soldiers and local residents are still being killed in Iraq, and the United States initiated a controversial military operation in Libya.

Liu Xiaobo, China, human rights activist, 2010

Liu Xiaobo was the only recipient in the modern history of the Nobel Prize who was not only not allowed to attend the ceremony, he also was not allowed to receive it -- even through relatives or loved ones. The Chinese media did not report about Xiaobo’s victory. He found out about the award only when the government organized a visit for his wife Liu Xia in prison. On hearing the news, he broke down in tears and said that dedicates his award to those killed for their public speeches for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989. After his return from prison, Liu Xiaobo was placed under house arrest.

The PRC authorities decided that awarding Lee would contradict the Nobel award principles, as he is in jail for violating local laws, which is not conducive to peace and the unity of nations. Some Chinese activists also opposed the committee’s decision, because, in their opinion, Li is unknown in his own country.

The presentation of the award gave the controversial Chinese businessman Liu Dzhikinu the idea of launching his own Confucius Peace Prize. In 2010, it was awarded to a local politician Lien Chan; in 2011 to Vladimir Putin, in 2012 to Kofi Annan, and also to the scientist Yuan Lonpin.

Leymah Gboui, Liberia, activist and peacemaker, 2011

In 2011, the award was shared by three women: In addition to Gboui, the winners of the prize included her compatriot, the first democratically elected president of Liberia and the first woman president in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, as well as the leader of "Journalistes Sans Frontieres," Tavakkul Karman of Yemen.

Gboui organized "the women's movement for peace and security" during the long civil war in Liberia. She decided that if men were willing to fight forever, only women could stop this madness. The mother of six children saw that women and children were suffering the most from the adversity. Although she had been repeatedly arrested, Gboui managed to attract a huge number of Muslim and Christian women into the movement. While attending communal prayers and demonstrations, in which activists demanded an end to the war, they wore white T-shirts that later became the symbol of the organization.

Gboui’s most famous action was the "sex strike." Women refused to fulfill their marital duty, as long as the war continued. Men became so scared, that after some time, they really stopped fighting and even elected a woman as president of Liberia.

The European Union, 2012

The presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization rather than to a person is not uncommon. The International Committee of the Red Cross received the award three times. The laureates also included "Medecins Sans Frontieres" and " UN peacekeeping forces." Sometimes, the committee pointed out the merits of the organization and its leader at the same time, like in 2005, when the IAEA and its Secretary-General, Mohamed ElBaradei, were recognized at the same time. However, never before had a political union of several states become the winner.

The committee's decision once again raised eyebrows. They explained their choice by saying that the EU helped transform Europe "from a war-torn continent into a continent where peace has flourished for a long time." In the reasoning for their decisions, they refer to "six decades of human rights." Nevertheless, three Peace Prize laureate of the previous years - South African Catholic Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Argentine sculptor Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Northern Irish activist Mairead Maguire - protested this award. In their view, "the EU is not the peace fighter meant by Alfred Nobel in his will."

A survey conducted in Norway showed that only 26 percent of local residents agreed with the selection committee, while 37 percent were against it. Someone even jokingly explained the choice as the committee’s desire to help the euro zone.