Nobel Peace Prize: Seeking Peace in a Warring World

Students learn about the Nobel Peace Prize and the 2013 winner, learn about and discuss the controversy over this year's prize, and make their own nominations for the 2014 prize.


 Students will

  • Learn about the history and nominating process for the Nobel Peace Prize and about its founder, Alfred Nobel
  • Learn about different kinds of peacemakers who have won in the past
  • Learn about the 2013 winner and the threat of chemical warfare
  • Read and discuss articles about the controversy over this year's prize
  • Make their own nominations for the 2014 prize


  • Negotiation
  • Critical thinking
  • Research

Materials needed:

  • Today's agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • Chart paper (or space on the board) for a Nobel Peace Prize Web, chemical warfare web, and peacemaker brainstorming exercise
  • Map of the world
  • Blank sheets of paper and envelopes for everyone in the class
  • Copies of articles about the controversy surrounding this year's prize:
  • Don't Blame the Norwegians (NY Times op-ed)
  • A Peace Prize Worthy of the Name? (NY Times letters)


The Nobel Prize website ( has a wealth of information about the Peace Prize and all the other prizes, including educational computer games and  biographical information about past winners. Students who are interested could be directed to the site and asked to report back on what they find.


 Ask students to think about what peace means to them. Is it the absence of conflict? Is it a feeling of contentment? Is it a feeling of hope?

Ask students to break into groups of four.  Each student will have one minute to list things and/or people who help them feel at peace or peaceful. Call out time at the end of each minute so that each student in the group gets a turn.

Reconvene the group and ask for ideas that you can write on the board or chart paper.

Check agenda and objectives

Web: The Nobel Peace Prize

Explain that in October, Nobel Prizes were awarded in several categories, but that the prize that usually gets the most publicity is the Nobel Peace Prize.  The winner of the prize will receive it in a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on December 10, 2013.
Tell the students that today we will talk about why the Peace Prize was established, who provided the idea and money for it, and what kind of people and organizations receive it.  We will talk about how the committee that awards the prize makes its decisions and about  controversies over these decisions.
Write the words "Nobel Peace Prize" in the center of the chart paper and ask the students what they know about it. Write down their responses and draw lines back to the center, creating a web.  
When you come to a stopping place, ask students to pause for a moment and look at the web. Ask, what are your observations, comments, or thoughts about the web?

About the Nobel Prize

Tell students that the Peace Prize was established by Alfred Nobel in his will.
Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, and inventor who lived from 1833 to 1896. His most famous invention was dynamite, which has many peaceful as well as war-making uses. He became a millionaire as a result of his inventions and his shrewd business sense. Even though his own inventions could be used in war, he hoped that the danger of such inventions would keep people from using them.
When he died, Nobel left most of his money to fund what has become known as the Nobel Prize. He created the prize to encourage others to seek peace, and to be creative in their research and inventions.
There are Nobel prizes in chemistry, economics, medicine, physics, literature, and peace. All the prizes except the Peace Prize are given in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.  The Peace Prize is given in the capital of Norway, Oslo, earlier on the same day.
Although Nobel's will stated that the other Nobel Prizes were to be awarded by Swedish institutions, he gave responsibility for the Peace Prize to Norway. The Norwegian Parliament selects the five-member Nobel Committee, which then considers nominations made by a wide range of people, and decides who will be awarded the prize. It's not clear why Nobel wanted Norway to administer the Peace Prize, instead of his native Sweden. At the time Nobel lived, Sweden had defeated Norway in a war, and the two countries shared the same king, although they were still two separate countries. (Point Sweden and Norway out on the map.)  Some people think that Nobel didn't want Norway to feel slighted. Others think that he thought Norway was less militaristic than Sweden. Today, both countries have a reputation for being peaceful.
Nobel's will said that the Peace Prize was to be given to persons who "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding of peace congresses."  Over the years, the Nobel Committee has interpreted those words to include humanitarian aid and the work of international organizations.
Twenty-two organizations have received the Peace Prize. The International Red Cross has received it three times.  Ask if anyone knows of other organizations that have won the award.  Write down answers if students know any of the groups. Mention Doctors Without Borders, which provides medical help in war-torn countries, and Amnesty International, which helps political prisoners. In 2012, the European Union won because it has brought together countries that for centuries were at war with each other.

What is a peacemaker?

Go back to the list of words about peace that students created in the opening activity. 
Ask students if they have any other ideas now that we've talked about people and organizations that have won the Peace Prize.  What allows people to live in peace? 
Note that when Alfred Nobel was alive, most wars were between countries.  The primary role of government was, and is, to protect its citizens.  Since the end of the Second World War, though, most conflicts have been internal ones, inside countries. (However, very often these conflicts involve larger countries that do not fight each other openly but through backing factions within the warring country.)  Examples include North Korea and South Korea, North Vietnam and South Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Congo, and Sudan. There is a civil war going on in Syria right now in which more than a hundred thousand  people have died  (See TeachableMoment lessons on the Syria conflict: What it means to be Syrian and Syria today: Diplomatic vs. military responses.) 
Our own country had a civil war  more than 150 years ago whose wounds have not yet healed. 
The United Nations was formed after the Second World War to help countries solve their problems peacefully.
The Nobel Peace Prize has been given to people who have worked out peace treaties (negotiators), people who have been go-betweens trying to get people to the negotiating table (mediators), and individuals who have led movements to bring about peace. (Students might have named some of the individuals who have received the Peace Prize on their web. If they didn't, add the names of Nelson Mandela of South Africa and  Martin Luther King, Jr,  Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama,  who are  U.S. laureates.  You can visit the Nobel Prize website for a chronological list of winners.)
For instance, Martin Luther King was a leader of the civil rights movement in the United States, which worked to fight prejudice against people of color.  The civil rights conflicts of the time could be traced to our own civil war and to slavery, as can many of our present-day conflicts.  The process of peacemaking is an ongoing one..
The prize has also been given to organizations. Ask the class how they think an organization can help bring about peace. For instance, the United Nations has peacekeeping forces that are supposed to be neutral and can be sent to war-torn areas. The UN peacekeeping forces have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ask students to break into small groups and think about how an organization could help bring about peace.  Then reconvene the whole class and ask students to share their ideas with everyone.

2013 Peace Prize

Write "Organization to Prohibit Chemical Weapons" on a piece of chart paper.  Tell students that this is the group that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, and that will receive the award in December.
Ask: What do you think this organization does?  Make sure that the class understands that the organization works to "verify the elimination of chemical weapons from the world," a goal of many peace advocates for almost a hundred years.  The organization was founded in 1997.
Circle the words "chemical weapons" on the board or chart paper.  Ask what the word evokes for the students and write down the words. 
Chemical weapons are usually considered Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) along with nuclear, biological, and radiological weapons because they can kill so many people so quickly and do so much damage to the biosphere. Most conflicts are fought with conventional weapons.  Many governments have agreed to treaties and conventions to limit or ban the use of WMD. (A convention is defined by Webster's as "an agreement between states for regulation of matters affecting all of them.") 

However, some countries still make WMD and stockpile them. Chemical warfare has been used since the first hunter put poison on the tip of an arrow or sword.  Archeologists have found bones of Roman soldiers who were gassed by fumes of sulfur and bitumen in an underground tunnel of a besieged city in 256 C.E.   Tear gas is a chemical weapon.
But the biggest mass use of chemical weapons was during the First World War. The effects were terrible and terrifying.  Soldiers not only died in large numbers, many were blinded and burned and suffered nerve damage beyond anything ever seen. 
By 1925, countries around the globe had agreed to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits the use of chemical weapons. But there was no convention to prohibit countries from making or storing these weapons.  During the Second World War, Adolf Hitler used chemical gas to kill 1.2 million people, most of them Jews or Polish or Soviet prisoners of war. After the war, one of the co-inventors of the gas was hanged as a war criminal and others were imprisoned. Several other countries have used chemical weapons on people in their own countries, such as Iraq against the Kurdish minority and, more recently, Syria.  
In 1992-93, a convention was drawn up prohibiting the production and storage of chemical weapons. It went into effect in 1997, which is when the OPCW was formed.  Almost every country in the world - some 190 - have signed the convention. Two countries have signed but not ratified, and four have neither signed nor ratified. Syria ratified the convention in September 2013.
The use of chemical weapons was in the news in the months before the Nobel Committee awarded the prize. Syria was charged with using poison gas against civilians in August 2013, in the most deadly use of chemical weapons since the war between Iran and Iraq.  The United States was talking about military retaliation against Syria for using such weapons when Russia helped mediate and negotiate a solution: Syria agreed to eliminate its chemical weapons.
Still, as the time came for the Peace Prize winner to be announced, many people thought that Malala Yousafzi might win. Yousafzi, a young Pakistani woman, had been viciously attacked for attending a school for girls in Pakistan and for speaking out for the right of women to be educated.  (See our TeachableMoment lesson: Malala: Standing up for Girls). Nominations for the prize had been made months before, and the nominations are kept secret for fifty years. This means that nobody knows who has been nominated or how the winner is chosen.  When it announced the prize, the committee said that it was being given to OPCW "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons."
Many people expect that in awarding the Peace Prize, the committee will consider how the prestige of the prize could best help the cause of peace, or will recognize people who have been working for peace for a long time.  Some people criticized the decision to award the prize to OPCW because most of the deaths in the Syrian conflict have been caused by conventional weapons, not chemical weapons.  Syria's stockpiles of chemical weapons are small compared to those of other countries. However, the committee was clear that the prize was for the organization's overall work against chemical weapons, not a response to what was happening in Syria. 
Ask the students to read this op-ed from the New York Times about this year's prize. 
Have students break into groups of four. Give them five minutes to discuss the piece. What did the writer say that they agree with?  What did the writer say that they disagree with?
Now ask the students to read these New York Times letters to the editor and then discuss briefly:
What do they agree with and what do they disagree with?

Nominate someone for the Peace Prize

The process for choosing a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2014 has already started.  The Norwegian Nobel Committee started asking for nominations in September 2013.  The deadline for nominations is February 2014.  Nominations can only come from people with certain credentials (such as leading government officials or academicians in certain fields).
Today, we're going to imagine that we're nominating someone.  Each group of four students will make one  nomination. Students should think of themselves as people involved in government, academia, or peace work.  Ask each group to consider what is happening throughout the world - the big picture - and brainstorm about people they might want to nominate. 
You may want to give students time to research possible nominees as a homework assignment, and come back to class to agree on a nomination.  After each group has decided on its nominee, the group will make its case for the nominee to the whole class.  Once the groups have made their presentation, have the class vote to decide on one nominee.
Afterwards, ask each student to write a letter to him or herself that includes the following:
1) their thoughts about the nominee they themselves proposed in their group; 
2) their thoughts about the nominee that their group picked; and
3) their thoughts about the nominee the whole class selected. 
Ask students to put today's date on the letter, put the letter in an envelope, address it to themselves, and seal it. 
Collect the envelopes and mail them in late September of next year so that students can see how their choices compare with that of the Nobel Committee.
Alternate Exercise: Ask students to research people in their community who are working for peace and understanding, make nominations and advocate with other class members for their nominees. When a nominee has been chosen, ask the class to write a letter of appreciation to the person or group expressing thanks for the peace efforts and describing the process by which it was chosen.


Ask students to think of one thing they can do in the coming week to bring peace to their home, their classroom, or their community and to write it in their calendars.  If it seems appropriate, ask some students to share their ideas of what they can do.