Worldwatch Perspective: Nobel Committee Is Wise to Broaden the Definition of Peace

Muhammad Yunus
Muhammad Yunus, Founder, Grameen Bank

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s surprising decision last week to award the 2006 Peace Prize to micro-credit pioneer Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he founded is a courageous step toward broadening the definition of peace. The Committee’s announcement notes that “peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Micro-credit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.”

In 1895, Swedish scientist and pacifist Alfred Nobel directed that the annual Peace Prize be given 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.” Yet over the past century, the nature of conflict has undoubtedly changed, as has recognition of the means and requirements of a just and sustainable peace.

In recent years, the Nobel Committee has cast the spotlight of this coveted prize—worth more than US$1.3 million—outside the traditional realms of peace and security. For example, the 2004 Prize—for which the Committee proclaimed that “peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment”—recognized the work of Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai, dramatically expanding the annual award’s scope.

The 2004 and 2006 awards may be the strongest reflections yet of a new mentality, though they are not the only ones that have been presented to non-traditional peacemakers. A handful of earlier Nobel decisions rewarded the work of humanitarians and human rights activists, including Iran’s Shirin Ebadi (2003), Médecins Sans Frontières (1999), Guatemala’s Rigoberta Menchú Tum (1992), and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi (1991).

It was widely predicted that the 2006 Prize would go to the individuals that negotiated the 2005 peace agreement in Indonesia’s Aceh province: facilitator and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, as well as Indonesian and Acehnese rebel leaders. While that decision might have been interpreted as reaffirmation of more traditional criteria for winning the Prize, it would in fact have ventured into new territory as well. After all, it was the devastating tsunami of December 2004 that spurred unprecedented interest in reconciliation and enabled what might be termed “humanitarian peacemaking.” In the aftermath of the disaster, peace was understood as essential for reconstruction, and reconstruction as indispensable for peace.

While disarmament, conflict prevention, and reconciliation remain crucial in a violent and militarized world, the Committee’s decision this year again recognizes that war and peace are about more than guns, generals, and diplomats. Environmental scarcity, inequality, and destitution are undermining human security. And they can be driving forces of instability and conflict as much as the buildup of weapons.

For the more than one billion people worldwide that live off ecologically fragile lands, food security is a constant concern even without war’s predations. Water scarcity may not lead to inter-state wars, as some observers predict, but it is causing increasing disputes and skirmishes among different communities and regions. Livelihoods are increasingly at risk as environmental breakdown spreads. Infectious diseases are resurgent. The example of AIDS in southern Africa highlights their potential for draining societies of their social and economic lifeblood. The destruction of ecosystems leads to more frequent and more devastating natural disasters that turn growing numbers of people into environmental refugees.

The 2006 award may draw criticism from traditional security analysts, in much the same way the 2004 announcement sparked intense debate in some circles. But working towards a conception of peace that is more than the mere absence of war demands a commitment to sustainable development, equity, and participatory democracy. We need to enhance our comprehension of the ways in which a multitude of social, economic, environmental, and demographic pressures interact, and how these dynamics play out in light of ethnic and political fault lines. And we need to honor and support those who, like Muhammad Yunus, are on the frontlines of efforts to counter these pressures.

Michael Renner is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and the author of the recent article on Aceh, “Unexpected Promise: Disaster Creates an Opening for Peace in a Conflict-Riven Land,” in the November/December 2006 issue of World Watch.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.