Nobel Prize

Colombian referendum result torpedoes Nobel Peace Prize chances

President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC’s top commander Rodrigo Londono had been widely tipped for the award

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 4:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 October, 2016, 9:56pm

Peace researchers dropped Colombia on Monday from a list of favourites for the Nobel Peace Prize after Colombians voted “No” in a referendum to an agreement to end a 52-year war with Marxist rebels.

Sunday’s surprise rejection of the accord, after criticism that it was too lenient to the rebels, improved chances for other Nobel candidates such as Russian human rights activists or brokers of Iran’s nuclear deal to take the peace award, they said.

“Colombia’s off any credible list,” Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, speaking to reporters about the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize that will be announced in Oslo on Friday.

President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC’s top commander Rodrigo Londono, better known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, had been widely tipped for the 8 million Swedish crown (US$936,000) award before the referendum.

Colombia’s off any credible list
Kristian Berg Harpviken, Peace Research Institute

The prize has often gone to encouraging peace processes, such as in Northern Ireland in 1998, between Israelis and Palestinians in 1994 or even in Vietnam in 1973, but never in defiance of a popular vote.

“It’s now out of the question [to give a prize for Colombia],” said Asle Sveen, a historian who tracks the prize. He had previously tipped the Colombian agreement to win, for ending a war in which more than 220,000 people died.

Sveen said he now thought the award would go to the agreement between Iran and world powers to end sanctions on Tehran in return for shrinking its nuclear programme.

Possible candidates included US Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Frederica Mogherini, he said.

Harpviken, who had Colombia second on a list distilled from 376 nominees, reaffirmed his favourite as Svetlana Gannushkina, a Russian human rights campaigner who focuses on refugees and migrants.

Thousands of people, including members of all national parliaments, professors of international relations and former winners, can make nominations for the award.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Boerge Brende, whose country helped broker the Colombian agreement, expressed disappointment at the vote.

“We have to try to rescue the peace agreement,” he told independent TV2.

Five Nobel Prize decisions that backfired

Nobel Prizes cannot be revoked, so the judges must put a lot of thought into their selections for the six awards, which will be announced in the next two weeks. A discovery might seem groundbreaking today, but will it stand the test of time? Prize founder Alfred Nobel wanted to honour those whose discoveries created “the greatest benefit to mankind.” Here are five Nobel Prize decisions that, in hindsight, seem questionable:

When a German who organised poison gas attacks won the chemistry prize

Fritz Haber was awarded the 1918 chemistry award for discovering how to create ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gases. His method was used to manufacture fertilisers and delivered a major boost to agriculture worldwide. But the Nobel committee completely overlooked Haber’s role in chemical warfare during the first world war. Enthusiastically supporting the German war effort, he supervised the first major chlorine gas attack at Ypres, Belgium, in 1915, which killed thousands of Allied troops.

When the medicine committee awarded a cancer discovery that wasn’t

Danish scientist Johannes Fibiger won the 1926 medicine award for discovering that a roundworm caused cancer in rats. There was only one problem: the roundworm didn’t cause cancer in rats. Fibiger insisted his research showed that rats ingesting worm larvae by eating cockroaches developed cancer. At the time when he won the prize, the Nobel judges thought that made perfect sense. It later turned out the rats developed cancer from a lack of vitamin A.

When chemistry prize honoured man who found use for DDT, which was later banned

The 1948 medicine prize to Swiss scientist Paul Mueller honoured a discovery that ended up doing both good and bad. Mueller didn’t invent dichlorodiphenyltricloroethane, or DDT, but he discovered that it was a powerful pesticide that could kill lots of flies, mosquitoes and beetles in a short time. The compound proved very effective in protecting agricultural crops and fighting insect-borne diseases like Typhus and Malaria. DDT saved hundreds of thousands of lives and helped eradicate malaria from southern Europe. But in the 1960s environmentalists found that DDT was poisoning wildlife and the environment. The US banned DDT in 1972 and in 2001 it was banned by an international treaty, though exemptions are allowed for some countries fighting malaria.

When the man who invented lobotomy won the medicine prize

Carving up people’s brains may have seemed like a good idea at the time. But in hindsight, rewarding Portuguese scientist Antonio Egas Moniz in 1949 for inventing lobotomy to treat mental illness wasn’t the Nobel Prizes’ finest hour. The method became very popular in the 1940s, and at the award ceremony it was praised as “one of the most important discoveries ever made in psychiatric therapy.”

But it had serious side effects: some patients died and others were left severely brain damaged. Even operations that were considered successful left patients unresponsive and emotionally numb.

The method declined quickly in the 1950s as drugs to treat mental illness became widespread and it’s used very seldom today.

When India’s Mahatma Gandhi didn’t win the peace prize

The Indian independence leader, considered one of history’s great champions of non-violent struggle, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize no fewer than five times. He never won. The peace prize committee, which rarely concedes a mistake, eventually acknowledged that not awarding Gandhi was an omission. In 1989 – 41 years after Gandhi’s death – the Nobel committee chairman paid tribute to Gandhi as he presented that year’s award to the Dalai Lama.

Additional reporting by Associated Press