Handicapping the Nobel Peace Prize

OSLO, Norway — This could be the year a pop star gets the Nobel Peace Prize. Or it may go to a green campaigner to grease United Nations climate talks ahead of the Copenhagen summit. Or the committee might reward a woman, something it has done only 12 times in its 108-year history.

The only certainty is that at 11 a.m. local time on Friday, when Thorbjoern Jagland steps into a third-floor salon at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo to announce the winner of the Peace Prize for 2009, he and his colleagues will have tried to influence a tricky political situation somewhere on the planet.

“This is a committee that wants to affect current processes,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo and a close observer of the prize.

The field is wide open this year as there is no obvious contender. The prize may be awarded to Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian senator who has argued in favor of a negotiated settlement between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government. It could go to Ghazi bin Muhammad, a Jordanian prince who promotes interfaith dialogue. It might even go to Barack Obama, who is on the list of 205 nominees — the most ever nominated.

It is tricky to guess the thinking of the committee members as they do not publish the list of nominees until 50 years later. And they are not the only people who can nominate winners: The group with the power to nominate includes parliamentarians, former laureates and academics. These others sometimes do reveal their choices.

Speculation has centered on Chinese dissidents, given that 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the 60th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China.

Bookmaker PaddyPower rates Hu Jia, a Chinese activist who has campaigned for democracy and the rights of HIV/AIDS patients, as a favorite. Another contender could be Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer, who has been named in previous years as a likely laureate.

Some experts say, however, that such a decision is unlikely this year as two members of the five-strong Norwegian Nobel Committee are members of the outgoing Norwegian parliament. “It is more difficult for them to challenge strong national interests,” Harpviken said. “It will have an impact on the chances of Chinese dissidents.”

Other close observers suggest that the committee will this year go for a “traditional” laureate working for conflict resolution and prevention or human rights. "The Nobel committee is under a certain amount of pressure to return to a classical interpretation of peace," Jan Egeland, the head of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and a key player in the conclusion of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, told Agence France-Presse.

In recent years, the committee has stretched the definition of the peace prize by giving it to green campaigners like Al Gore (2007) or Wangari Maathai (2004) and micro-credit banker Muhammad Yunus (2006).

If the committee goes for a traditional winner, it may decide on U.S. Senator Richard Lugar and former Senator Sam Nunn, who have in the past been named as favorites for the prize for their work toward nuclear disarmament. Harpviken also said the prize was unlikely to be awarded to someone in the Russian opposition, given that the chair of the committee, Jagland, was elected in September as secretary-general of the Council of Europe, one of the rare pan-European institutions where Russia sits. “Many former Eastern [Bloc] countries will be much trickier to give the prize to, such as Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, the Caucasus, the Balkans,” Harpviken said.

But the committee could also decide to expand further the definition of the prize, by naming a journalist or media organization. "Media organizations could receive the Nobel Peace Prize” in the future, the secretary of the Nobel committee, Geir Lundestad, has said in the past.

“Good news coverage, as opposed to propaganda or inaccurate reports, can be essential to peace,” he explained, before mentioning possible contenders such as CNN, The Washington Post, the French daily Le Monde or the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

It is also possible that the committee decides to focus on the role of women, something it last did in 2004 with Maathai. Previous committee members have often spoken of the need to highlight women’s role. “Women are often working toward the prevention of conflicts,” Ole Danbolt Mjoes, the previous chair of the committee, said last year. “You cannot have peace in the world without equality between men and women.” This year, four out of the five committee members are women.

And one should not discard the celebrity factor, as committee members have not denied that possibility in the past. Friday, or some day, Bono, Bob Geldof or Angelina Jolie could win the Nobel Peace Prize.