John English is the author of a two-volume biography of Lester Pearson.
Established by a Swedish arms manufacturer and chosen by a group of Norwegian politicians, the Nobel Peace Prize is eagerly sought and frequently controversial.
The 2019 Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed is not controversial, but the example of Aung San Suu Kyi (who was awarded the prize in 1991) proves that perceptions may change. Without criticizing Mr. Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Prime Minster, some have already asked why teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg was not honoured. There was no controversy, however, when the Nobel committee awarded the 1957 prize to Lester Pearson for his outstanding work in bringing the Suez Crisis of 1956 to an end. Mr. Pearson remains the sole Canadian recipient, although James Orbinski accepted the prize on behalf of Médecins Sans Frontières in 1999 and Japanese Canadian Setsuko Thurlow did so on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in 2017. In both cases, there was no controversy, not least because the Nobel Committee honoured an organization not an individual.
Canada has only a single Nobel Peace Prize recipient, but there is controversy surrounding the failure to award of the 1997 prize to Lloyd Axworthy, when the Nobel Committee honoured the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and American Jody Williams for their efforts to end and eradicate the “killing fields” where so many innocents had died. The anti-landmine campaign had begun in the 1980s when the Red Cross and other peace groups called attention to the horrible human toll of the indiscriminate use of land mines in Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique and many other countries afflicted by the savage conflicts of the late Cold War. Deeply moved by personal contact with mine victims, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy persuaded the American Senate to adopt a one-year moratorium on the export of anti-personnel land mines in October, 1992.
By that time, Bobby Muller, a paraplegic veteran and the president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), had hired Vermonter Jody Williams to lead a campaign to seek a total ban. Ms. Williams brought enthusiasm, a determined personality and a deep commitment to social justice. She quickly found advocates of a land mine ban internationally, and they joined together in the ICBL. With the help of like-minded governments, especially officials of the Canadian Department of External Affairs, they demanded action at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. Their effort failed in 1995. Disappointed but far from deflated, they persuaded the new Canadian Foreign Minister Mr. Axworthy to hold a conference in Ottawa in October, 1996, to rekindle the campaign.
The Americans never showed up, the French attacked the conference organizers and most of Canada’s NATO allies let Mr. Axworthy know that he had been mischievous in challenging the decision of the Conference on Disarmament. Prodded by his officials who had become close to Ms. Williams and other ban advocates, he ignored the critics and announced Canada would hold a conference in 1997 for all those who had the courage to commit to a land mine ban.
Soon after Mr. Axworthy’s passionate plea in October, 1996, Ms. Williams and NGO leaders met and agreed a Nobel Prize would catalyze the campaign and that it should be awarded to the ICBL. Ms. Williams would be the recipient “on behalf of the campaign” as Mr. Orbinski and Ms. Thurlow were to be for their organizations. Very soon, a close friend of Ms. Williams, Congressman James McGovern, nominated the ICBL and Ms. Williams without the qualifier “on behalf of.” Coincidentally, the Norwegian government hosted an important land mine meeting in Oslo shortly before the Nobel Committee met. At the same time, prime minister Jean Chrétien was trying to persuade the United States to sign the treaty and was seeking a compromise that would be acceptable to the sole superpower. In Oslo for the gathering, Ms. Williams suddenly turned against the Canadians. A furious Ms. Williams, who had offended the Clinton administration, openly accused the Canadians of “caving” to U.S. interests and thereby undermining the treaty. As Mr. Axworthy entered the meeting hall, thunderous boos greeted the Canadian delegation, whose “betrayal” was reported widely in the Norwegian press. Before she left Oslo, Ms. Williams found time to call upon Geir Lundestad, the powerful secretary of the Nobel committee.
Shortly after, Ms. Williams and the ICBL shared the prize. Mr. Muller was furious: A source close to Mr. Leahy later told The Washington Post that the only individual he would have nominated was Mr. Axworthy, a deed he later did. Ms. Williams took her half of the US$1,000,000 prize and put it in her bank account, rather than the ICBL. According to Ms. Williams, US$230,000 of that later went to U.S. taxes, money that could have gone to the ICBL to help with anti-landmine work.
Mr. Lundestad would later say that during his long tenure as secretary that the committee had made only one serious error of omission: It had failed to honour Mr. Axworthy. The Americans have yet to sign the Ottawa Treaty.