The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize in a historical perspective

By Øivind Stenersen

Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyrarthi belong to a proud tradition in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. Showing great courage with their lives at risk they have stood up for the rule of international law and defended human rights. Their efforts against slavery and engagement for social justice and education are outstanding. Both laureates were provoked by injustice and decided to do something about it. Let us have a look upon some Nobel Laureates who have been working in the same tradition.

Work against slavery

The first Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1901) was early engaged in helping poor people and taking part in the struggle against slavery. When Henry Dunant, the Swiss founder of the Red Cross, visited Tunisia and Algeria in the 1850s, he was shocked by the brutal and inhuman treatment of slaves in Northern Africa. He also opposed slavery in the United States and wrote a book inspired by Harriet Beecher Stove's famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. When he lived in London in the 1870s he advocated that all states should abolish slavery.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

But Dunant was not alone in the struggle against slavery. The Christian community the Quakers, Nobel Peace Prize laureate 1947, was among the pioneers. Since the first congregation was founded by George Fox in 1647 the Religious Society of Friends has meant that God's goodness is proved in good human deeds. Therefore help to the poor, sick and oppressed has always been a top priority. As early as 1752 the Quakers in Pennsylvania abandoned the practice of keeping slaves. After this they engaged vigorously in campaigns to abolish slavery and slave trade both in the USA and Great Britain. The Quakers were also among the first to voice demands for equality between men and women.


The struggle for social justice and workers' rights

The French trade union leader Léon Jouhaux worked vehemently for the interests of the working class. He was one of the founding fathers of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and became a Nobel laureate in 1951. His father worked in a match factory, suffering from serious health problems at an early age due to the use of white phosphorous, which afflicts the eyes and the bone structure. As a child, Léon witnessed his father going on strike to demand that the lethal substance be banned. At twelve, he was forced to leave school and find work to provide for the family. Some years later, he was sent home from military service because his father had now become blind from phosphorous-related injuries.

The bitter experiences did not keep Jouhaux away from the match industry. He took a job at his father's workplace and launched himself into the struggle to improve workers' conditions. After taking part in a strike in 1900 he was fired, but the local trade union was able to restore his position and elected him its own leader. This was the beginning of a career that made Jouhaux one of the foremost proponents of the European trade union movement in the 20th century.

Jouhaux helped conceive a new organization within the League of Nations to promote the main peace objective of the workers' movement: social reforms, better wages and improved working conditions. In 1919, Jouhaux was co-founder of the International Labour Organization, the ILO, and remained part of its leadership until his death in 1954.

During the First World War the union movements of several warring states demanded that the peace settlement include regulations for the rights of workers, demands that were met during the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles. In return for workers' support of the war effort, the governments of several countries had promised social reforms that they became increasingly set on implementing to pose a bulwark against the effects of the Russian revolution. The war victors set up a separate commission to draft a section on the International Labour Organization for inclusion in the treaty.

The 1919 peace treaty stated that world peace could only be built on a foundation of social justice. Because the numbers of people working under miserable conditions were growing, discontentment could jeopardize global peace and harmony. It was therefore crucial to improve these conditions through legislation on work hours, the introduction of unemployment benefit, disability benefit and old age pension. At the same time, the ILO was to work for a ban on child labour, the guaranteed freedom to organise, the establishment of labour inspection agencies, fair wages and the elimination of gender discrimination in pay.

Monument in front of the ILO headquarter in Geneva. Photo: Nobeliana

In 1969, the Nobel Committee also wanted to reward the ILO for the relief work carried out in developing countries in cooperation with several other UN organisations, for instance FAO, UNESCO and the World Health Organization.
After 1970 the ILO stepped up its work for the reduction and elimination of child labour. Highlights were ILO Convention No.138 on the minimum age for admission to employment and work and No.182 on the worst forms of child labour. But it took time to put these standards into practice. In 2013 the global number of children in child labour were 168 million.

The choice of Jouhaux in 1951 showed that the Nobel Committee took side in the Cold War and supported the free trade unions of Western Europe against the threat from Communism. In 1983 the Nobel Committee engaged itself in the same matter in Eastern Europe when Lech Walesa, who headed the independent trade union Solidarity, was awarded the Prize. Walesa was crucial in the struggle against the power monopoly of the Polish Communist party and in undermining the domination of the USSR in Eastern Europe. He proved that free trade unions are basic elements in democratic states and can be defended by non-violence.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Education and civil rights for children and women
The Frenchman Ferdinand Buisson was the first Peace Prize laureate who viewed education as a key tool in the struggle for peace. He shared the 1927 Peace Prize with the German Ludwig Quidde for their work for reconciliation between Germany and France. During childhood and youth Buisson obtained first hand knowledge of the appalling living conditions suffered by the working classes. He was politically radicalized before he studied philosophy and pedagogic and earned a doctorate in Switzerland. During his studies he became aware of the heritage from the revolutions of 1789 and 1848, which had put human rights and social rights on the agenda. Thus Buisson became a legitimate child of the age of enlightenment and optimism concerning the future.
In 1867 Buisson attended an international peace congress in Geneva where the International League of Peace and Liberty was founded. The League promoted general suffrage for men, freedom of expression, of association and the press, the right to work without being exploited, national self-determination and the end to war. According to Buisson, peace was only possible if critical thinking and awareness of democracy and human rights were instilled in the general public. They would otherwise allow themselves to be used as cannon fodder by bellicose rulers
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Buisson had an unflinching faith in education as a refining factor. In 1879 he was made director of basic education in France. In this position he worked for the right to free mandatory, non-religious basic education also for girls. Buisson excelled to such a degree that he in 1887 was awarded a professorship in pedagogics at the University of Sorbonne.
Buisson did not give a Nobel lecture in December 1927, but the following year he wrote a Nobel Essay «Changes in the Concept of War and Peace» which he sent to the Nobel Committee. Its main message was peace through education.

The UNICEF headquarter in Geneva. Photo: Nobeliana

At the end of World War II millions of children in Europe and Asia were threatened by hunger, illness and death. To help them the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund - UNICEF. In the beginning it concentrated its efforts on food, clothes and medicine for children and mothers in Europe, China and Palestine. After the organisation changed its name to the United Nations Children's Fund in 1953 it gave priority to projects in developing countries. UNICEF carried out maternity check-ups, infant medical examinations, obstetric aid and training programmes for midwifes. The fund also organized campaigns about nutrition, distributed nutritious food, built medical centres and fought diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy, yaws and trachoma. In the 1960s UNICEF increased its focus on education projects for children in close cooperation with UNESCO.

Jane Addams, the founder of the Women´s International League for Peace and Freedom, became Peace Prize laureate in 1931, first and foremost for her work for the reduction of arms. However the American Quaker and peace activist was also hailed for her work for the underprivileged.
During a visit to Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel in London´s East End she experienced the world´s first social center for education of poor immigrant people. Jane Addams felt that this was the best way to bring people out of misery. Together with her friend Ellen Starr she opened a similar center in Chicago. In the 1880s they purchased an old building complex, Hull House, consisting of 13 buildings in the middle of Chicago´s most poverty stricken district. Here they were able to serve more than 5000 persons every week. The center offered cheap food, a kindergarten and public information courses.
Jane Addams was shocked by working conditions for the workers in Chicago´s industry, especially for children. No laws existed to prohibit fourteen-hour workday for young girls from seven am to nine pm. The industry preferred children as they were cheap labor and spoke better English than the adults. Jane Addams was instrumental to the introduction of a law that outlawed the employment of children under 14 years in Illinois, and she also worked for decent worker´s housing through social building schemes.
Addams also involved herself in the crusade for women´s suffrage. She believed that women were more caring and sociable than men by nature. Suffrage was necessary in order to take full advantage of these qualities - for the good of society.


In 1968, twenty years after the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the main architect behind the project was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. French René Cassin was a lawyer and a teacher, but primarily he was a man keen on educating mankind. He was what they in Great Britain call "an educator". He had taken part in the work of formulating the UNESCO Charter and emphasized that not only children and young people, but also grown ups had to be educated in order to strengthen human rights. Cassin donated the money for the Peace Prize along these lines, and in 1969 he founded the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which he headed until his death. The institute promotes general enlightenment on human rights and the schooling of teachers.

The 2014 prizes in a short perspective

Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001 the Nobel Committee has been engaged in bridge-building between the West and the Muslim world by awarding liberal female Muslims. The Iranian champion of human rights for women and children, Shirin Ebadi, won the prize in 2003. Eight years later the committee supported the progressive forces behind the Arabic Spring when the courageous journalist Tawakkol Karman was made a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for her fierce opposition against the corrupt regime in Yemen.
But Ebadi's and Karman's efforts had little progress. The conservative clerical elite in Tehran forced Ebadi into exile in Great Britain, and in Yemen tension between former president Saleh and opposition groups together with attacks from Al Qaida ruined the possibilities for political reforms. Seen in this context the choice of Malala was s third attempt from the Nobel Committee to create an ideal for Muslim women.
New atrocities against women from radical Islamists in Africa and the Middle East strengthened Malala's candidacy. In Nigeria the militant Islamic group Boko Haram, which means "Western education is sinful", kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls to use as cooks and sex slaves. In Irak and Syria brutal extremists from the Islamic State (IS) sparked outrage across the world because of its brutal tactics - including abduction of women and children, mass killing of ethnic minorities and beheading of journalists. These abominable acts also made an impact on female Muslim immigrants in Norway, who organized a demonstration against IS in front of Parliament. Malala's position was utterly improved when she visited Oslo in the summer 2014 demonstrating her eloquence and skills for an enthusiastic audience.


Kailash Satyarthi's prize was a big surprise, but is understandable as a compensation for the turning down of Mahatma Gandhi's nomination in 1947. Since then the Nobel Committee had been looking for a suitable Indian laureate, who could repair some of the damage caused by its most fatal decision ever. Satyarthi was a perfect choice because he had achieved his goals using non-violent means inspired by Gandhi.
Satyarthi cooperated closely with the 1969 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the International Labour Organisation (ILO). This was in harmony with the universal message of the prize: to defend the rule of law, democracy and human rights through international organisations. At the same time the Noble Committee sent a signal to Indian authorities urging them to ratify ILO's conventions against child labour.
The Nobel Committee hoped that the 2014 prizes could improve the bad relations between India and Pakistan, who have been in deep conflict since the partition of India in 1947. Both heads of states were invited to the Nobel ceremonies, but none of them came to Oslo in December.