All About Estates

Nobel Peace Prize’s Breach of Trust?

Norwegian lawyer Fredrik Heffermehl thinks the Nobel Foundation has blatantly ignored the intentions of Alfred Nobel for his namesake Peace Prize. Nobel’s will stipulated that the prize be awarded to the ”most worthy champions of peace”. Specifically it should go to “the person 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 and promotion of peace congresses.”

Since 1901, however, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 50 recipients that are “not justified” according to Heffermehl. These recipients were largely non-governmental organizations such as 2015 recipient Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet or the 1999 winner Médecins Sans Frontières. He is so indignant that he wrote a book analysing the recipients and pushed for a review by the Swedish government in 2012. The review unsurprisingly concluded that the Nobel Foundation has the “final and ultimate responsibly for the all funds used in conformity with the purpose.”

As a trust professional it is easy to see the point being made. The will focuses on 1) persons; 2) international peace; 3) reduction of armed forces and 4) promoting peace congresses.” Many of the recipients are organizations that focused on humanitarianism, human rights, environment or even climate change. In the charitable sector we call politely called this shift “mission drift”. In law it is called breach of trust.

Despite the Swedish government review and Heffermehl’s legal fundamentalism, the Nobel Foundation is showing no evidence of reverting to the will and Alfred Nobel’s stated wishes. Indeed, it delegates the decision making for the Prize to a committee based in Norway, which provides distance from the individual awards and tacit support for a broad interpretation of the will.

In the charitable world, restrictive trust terms may reduce public benefit over time because the needs of society and effective responses change. Would the Nobel Peace Prize have its international prominence and moral authority if it remained rooted in a 19th century world view of what a peacemaker looks like? Put another way, Nobel was trying to cure polio and today the needs are ebola, AIDS and multi-drug resistant bacteria. Discretion wisely exercised helps ensure ongoing public benefit, but it would be preferable Nobel had provided the discretion in his will.

About Malcolm Burrows
Malcolm is a philanthropic advisor with 30 years of experience. He is head, philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Wealth Management and founder of Aqueduct Foundation. Views are his own.