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Is the Nobel Peace Prize Overtly Political?

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, one of three recipients of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and two other women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Friday. The committee recognized Sirleaf, who is currently competing for reelection, for her work to advance women’s safety and her non-violent approach to peace and reconciliation.

The other two recipients of this year’s Peace Prize are Leymah Gbowee, another Liberian native, and Tawakul Karman of Yemen.

What do this year’s choices say about the annual, sometimes controversial award?

Scott London, a journalist and author of “Nobel Lectures: Peace, 2001-2005,” said it marks a trend toward acknowledging women for their work in peace efforts.

Including this year’s winners, only 15 women out of 119 peace laureates have won the Nobel Peace Prize since its inception in 1901, said London.

“This is one area where I feel that [the Norwegian Nobel Committee has] wanted to rectify the imbalance in terms of recognizing the important contributions that women make, not just to peace work, but in general to building societies and to promoting democracy and freedom,” he said.

In some years, no one has won the prize — most notably during the world wars when the Nobel committee felt it would be wrong to award a peace prize, London said.

Some selections have been contentious. In 1973, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart Le Duc Tho received the award for a peace accord in Vietnam that ended up falling apart. Le declined the award. In 2009, President Obama got the prize after having been in office only a few months.

Despite the controversy, London said the honor is gaining in prestige in part because of the Internet, media and coverage it gets. But like a vicious cycle, he added, the more prestigious it becomes, the more controversy it stirs up.

And the award coming to Sirleaf just days before Liberia’s Oct. 11 election gives it a political tinge.

In fact, London said, Alfred Nobel intended the prize that way. “The goal was to create a prize for peace that would be given by men and women of action who were active in political life and international affairs — to make a political prize that would have some impact.”

Over the years, laureates have been international mediators, politicians, statesmen and international jurists, he said. (View the full list of Nobel Peace Prize winners here.)

London also noted that many expected the Arab Spring would be recognized this year. But the committee is limited to nominees made by Feb. 1, and much of the events of the Arab Spring hadn’t yet taken place. “They really didn’t have the leeway to give it to people who hadn’t been nominated, and most of the worthy nominations will probably come around next year.”

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