The Peace Prize is to be awarded to individuals and institutions that “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,” according to Alfred Nobel’s will. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarding scientists, writers, peace and political activists since the late 1800s, but not everyone always agrees on who is and isn’t worthy of the $1.2 million prize. While meant to recognize those whose work has greatly benefited or contributed to the advancement and unity of mankind, the Nobel Peace Prize has sometimes been given to those with violent pasts, those whose award-winning work contains factual errors, or those whose accomplishments do not quiet bear up under close examination. It may be a rare occasion that the committee’s choices were short-sighted, or even worse, naive, but a number of poor decisions have been made. Here are the ten most controversial Nobel Peace Prize winners of all time.
Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for I, Rigoberta Menchú, her autobiographical account of her life as a Mayan and, more specifically, the genocide of the indigenous Guatemalan people in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Menchú’s book was first published in 1982 and would eventually be translated into 12 different languages, making it one of the first cohesive accounts of the atrocities against the Mayans and garnering international interest that would lead to her Nobel Peace Prize win.
But did everything in Menchú’s book really happen the way she described? Thanks to the work of American anthropologist David Stoll, Menchú’s book — and her Nobel Peace Prize — became the topic of great debate after he discovered that she had stretched the truth to make her story more emotionally persuasive. Menchú was not, as she had written, entirely uneducated, and she did not witness the torture and murder of her brother (although her mother did.) While Stoll supported Menchú’s win regardless of these discrepancies, he also pointed out that Menchú’s account was not a realistic portrayal of what actually caused the genocide to take place.
Easily one of the most controversial Nobel Peace Prize winners of all time (if not the most) is Henry Kissinger. The U.S. Secretary of State during both the Nixon and Ford administrations was a joint winner in 1973 with North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho. Le Duc Tho rejected the award, given for the pair’s peace work in South Vietnam, because he felt that peace had not yet been achieved in the area — and doubly, didn’t want to share the award with Kissinger.
Kissinger accepted the award “with humility,” but many felt that it should never have been offered to him in the first place. There were two reasons for this controversy. Kissinger was accused of war crimes for his alleged role in America’s secret bombing of Cambodia between 1969 and 1975. His win was also called premature since North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam two years after the prize was awarded, voiding his work. Two Norwegian Nobel Committee members resigned to protest Kissinger’s win.
Nominated several times throughout the 1930s, Cordell finally won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his prominent role in the creation of the United Nations, his peace efforts, and his trade agreements. But many felt he was undeserving of the award because his callous anti-immigration stance only years earlier meant almost 1,000 Jewish refugees were denied asylum. In 1939, the SS St. Louis attempted to carry 950 Jewish refugees from Hamburg to America in order to avoid the impending Holocaust. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed in favor of this action, it was largely due to Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s advice, and the opposition of Southern Democrats, that the ship was turned away and forced to return to Germany, where many of the refugees suffered torture and death at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis.
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” wrote TIME of the heated debate surrounding Yasser Arafat’s controversial Nobel Peace Prize win. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, sharing the award with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for the trio’s work on the Oslo Peace Accords, a document meant to create “opportunities for a new development toward fraternity in the Middle East.” Yet the document is seen now as only one of many stop-gate measures that failed to resolve the longest-running conflict in the world.
Criticism has been heaped on the committee for this award not only because of the failure of the Oslo accords but because of Arafat himself. Although Arafat publicly spoke out against terrorism, he’s been called “The worst man to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize” by his critics. As Jay Nordlinger — author of Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World — wrote in an opinion piece for The Times of Israel, Arafat was an “unrepentant terrorist with a long legacy of promoting violence” for terrorist campaigns against Israel. His life has been majorly scrutinized, including his role in overseeing military groups responsible for bombings, hijackings, assassinations, and his aversion to compromise, a quality that hurt the future of the Oslo accords all the more. The long list of Arafat’s numerous crimes has spurned many to call the Palestinian leader “the father of modern terrorism.”
Norwegian Nobel Committee member Kaare Kristiansen resigned to protest Arafat’s Nobel Peace Prize win.
By comparison, his supporters have likened Arafat to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Paul Thomas Chamberlin — an assistant professor of history at the University of Kentucky and author of The Global Offensive: The United States, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Making of the Post-Cold War Order — noted in a 2012 opinion piece for The New York Times that “yesterday’s ‘terrorists'” — including Arafat, Mandela, and Menachem Begin — “have a tendency to turn into tomorrow’s peacemakers.”
In a move called “a stunning surprise” by the New York Times, Barack Obama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize only 12 days after he took office in 2009. When he actually won the prize only months into his first term in office, many accused the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of being politically motivated since the president was chosen to receive the award for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” rather than any concrete achievements. “Very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said, pointing to his calls to reduce the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and work to reignite the stalling Middle East Peace process. But critics of the choice were quick to highlight that Obama’s short presidency had already seen the escalation of the war in Afghanistan as well as the beginning of a drone campaign that caused hundreds of civilian casualties.
After what journalist Kirsten Powers called Obama’s “determination to attack” Syria and his handling of the “pointless and failing” war in Afghanistan, many people agree with what Obama said in his acceptance speech: that he doesn’t deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.
António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz
The words “prefrontal lobotomy” typically inspire daunting, Hollywood-esque before-and-after images: before, a mentally troubled individual being forced to undergo this life-changing procedure (often against their will), and after, the same person robbed of identity, vapid and open-mouthed, devoid of personality and the ability to function independently (which, we must point out, is not always the result.)
António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz was the inventor of the prefrontal lobotomy, and surprisingly, won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949 for his work developing the surgery. Many have since argued that the invention of the prefrontal lobotomy has caused more harm than good. The Soviet Union prohibited lobotomies entirely, and the practice was outlawed in America after some patients consequently died due to complications from prefrontal lobotomies. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee defended Moniz’s win despite heated debate, claiming that there were “no effective alternative therapies” for certain mental illnesses during the time of its invention.
The 1918 Nobel Peace Prize winner was Fritz Haber, awarded for his significant discoveries in chemistry, specifically his discovery of a method to synthesize ammonia from its elements, something that was sought after for over 100 years prior to Haber’s solution. The process of synthesizing ammonia is largely used to aid food grown with the help of synthetic chemical fertilizer, which feeds most people in the world today. It’s said that 30 to 40 percent of the world’s population would not be alive without this ability.
The controversy surrounding Haber’s win lies in his past. Haber was the director of the Institute for Physical Chemistry when it was making poisonous chlorine gas. Besides assisting in the development of the poison, which would go on to kill over 1.3 million people in World War I, Haber vehemently lobbied for its usage. Despite the lives claimed by the utilization of chlorine gas in chemical warfare and the fact that Haber’s own wife, also a scientist, killed herself a mere ten days after the first instance of chemical warfare, Haber was awarded the Iron Cross in praise of his deadly invention.
Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize win in 2007 was, according to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, awarded because “he is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted” regarding climate change and global warming. The problem was many feel Gore was undeserving of the award since he hardly practiced what he preached. In 2006, shocking electric and gas bills from the Gore household showed that his 20-room home and “pool house” were eating up over 20 times the national average electricity usage.
Additionally, Gore’s eye-opening film about the effects of global warming and measures that could be taken against it was exposed as having nine gross errors, as ruled by a High Court in England. The errors, crafted to support Gore’s argument, included “alarmist” fudging of facts regarding the rising of sea levels, unfounded claims of the effects of global warming, and the manipulation of statistics. Although his work is undeniably important, his presentation of speculation as fact, coupled with his refusal to address concerns regarding said inaccuracies, makes Al Gore one of the most controversial Nobel Peace Prize winners of all time.
In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “six decades of contributions to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe,” despite the protests and riots engulfing Greece, Portugal, and Spain at the time. The Associated Press stated that the win came during the union’s most severe internal crisis ever.
Arguments over the European Union’s possible democratic deficit and its economic crisis made this Nobel Peace Prize particularly controversial, but there’s no denying the positive effects the European Union has had uniting participating nations after World War I and II and by participating in international aid efforts.
Harald Zur Hausen
Possibly lesser known than the other candidates on this list is Nobel Peace Prize winner Harald Zur Hausen, who won the award in 2008 for discovering that HPV causes cervical cancer. Less controversial than Hausen himself was the scandal surrounding the award. As a consequence of Hausen’s win, the Swedish anti-corruption police unit launched an investigation into AstraZeneca, a pharmaceutical company that had a large monetary stake in two lucrative HPV vaccines and was suspected of influencing two Committee members. The company directly benefited from Hausen’s win. Though the company denies any wrongdoing and the investigations turned up nothing, AstraZeneca is still suspected of “buying” this Nobel Peace Prize win.
As a side note, the Nobel Committee has also been accused for picking no winner in 1948, when Mahatma Gandhi would have been the ideal choice. Gandhi — leader of India’s peaceful independence struggle — had died that year. But since the award was not allowed to be distributed posthumously at that time, no award was made.