The Secret Process For Picking Nobel Peace Laureates President Obama was never considered a front-runner for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. But the names of the nominees are kept secret, which fuels a vigorous guessing game each year before the announcement.
NPR logo The Secret Process For Picking Nobel Peace Laureates

The Secret Process For Picking Nobel Peace Laureates

Heard On 'All Things Considered'

The Norwegian Nobel Committee's surprise decision to award this year's peace prize to President Obama has once again thrown a spotlight on how such selections are made. It's a process famously shrouded in mystery.

Names of nominees are kept secret for 50 years, so it will be a long, long time before outsiders know for sure who else was among the record 205 people nominated for this year's prize. That secrecy, of course, helps fuel the vigorous guessing game sparked each October before the announcement.

There were no clear favorites this year, and Obama's selection came as a shock to most. After all, the deadline for submitting nominees to the committee was Feb. 1 — less than two weeks after Obama's inauguration.

So who has the power to nominate a laureate? The group has been broadened in recent years to include former Nobel laureates; current and former members of the Nobel Committee; members of national assemblies and governments from around the world; university professors of history, political science, philosophy, law, and theology; and members of international courts of law.

The wide range of potential nominators makes for some unlikely choices annually. Among the ranks of those whose names were reportedly dropped in the hat this year: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. (Past nominees have included dictators Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.)

After the nominating deadline passes, the Nobel Committee, which consists of five members appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, winnows the candidates down to a short list, sometimes adding its own nominees. The Nobel Institute's permanent advisers spend several months preparing in-depth research reports on each candidate that form the basis for the committee's deliberations.

As committee members continued to meet to discuss the possible winner in the weeks leading up to this year's announcement, there was, as usual, plenty of speculation. Norwegian television reported that Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai appeared to be the front-runner.

Other rumors pointed to Chinese dissidents, a move that would have been poignant, coming 20 years after the massacre at Tiananmen Square and 60 years after the founding of the People's Republic of China. Irish oddsmakers also ranked the Chinese dissidents among the favorites, while giving low odds to Obama.

The respected Nobel-watchers at Norway's International Peace Research Institute offered their top predictions: Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian senator and peace activist who has helped negotiate the release of kidnapped hostages; Ghazi bin Muhammad, a Jordanian philosophy professor who advocates interfaith dialogue; and Sima Samar, an Afghan human-rights activist and medical doctor by training.

The final decision apparently came at the last minute. As late as last week, the committee's nonvoting secretary, Geir Lundestad, was telling reporters that the committee was still undecided.

It seems Obama's message of hope, so central to his presidential campaign last fall, also proved persuasive to the Nobel Committee.

In announcing the winner in Oslo on Friday, Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said: "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future."