Recently I returned from Oslo, Norway, where I met with others to reimagine the treatment of people and animals who are demeaned simply because of who they are – a topic covered in my forthcoming book Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives. While in Oslo, I visited the Nobel Peace Center. It’s an incredibly inspiring place – for children and adults.
One of the center’s permanent exhibitions focuses on the contributions of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. Visitors can “meet” all of the Laureates – going back more than a century. One of the honorees in the exhibit is the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. In 1997, the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to the campaign and its coordinator, Jody Williams. As one of the founding members of the campaign, Physicians for Human Rights shared in the prize. Today, Physicians for Human Rights continues to use medicine and science to document and call attention to human rights violations. As a medical consultant, I work with Physicians for Human Rights to end mass atrocities like torture and sexual violence.
Sometimes, while working in the weeds, it is easy to lose track of the progress that has been made. The exhibition serves as a reminder of the power of hope, hard work, and determination – particularly during challenging times.
Here are some people and organizations honored at the Nobel Peace Center who inspired me to reflect upon how positive change is possible:
Bertha von Suttner was the inspiration for the Nobel Peace Prize. She worked briefly for Alfred Nobel and went on to work within the peace movement and publish Lay Down Your Arms in 1889. The popular novel, written in an autobiographic style, introduced readers to thoughtful, rational arguments against war. She inspired Alfred Nobel to leave money in his will to establish a peace prize, and she was its first recipient.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) received the award twice – in 1954 and 1981 – for its groundbreaking work for refugees and displaced persons across the globe. Its efforts are as relevant today as they were then.
Martin Luther King, Jr. won the prize in 1964 for his nonviolent campaign against racism. At the time, he was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite facing powerful opponents within the United States government, he rallied activists to fight for civil rights and social justice for all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin. Long after his assassination, his incredible legacy lives on – including through the efforts of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change.
In 1985, a five-year-old group, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, received the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts to counteract the nuclear arms race. Founded by two heart specialists in the United States and the former Soviet Union, the organization quickly grew to more than one hundred thousand members in 40 countries across the world. The group continues today as a non-partisan federation of national medical organizations in 64 countries – with the “goal of creating a more peaceful and secure world freed from the threat of nuclear annihilation.”
In 1993, Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk shared the prize for their work toward a peaceful termination of apartheid in South Africa. As one of South Africa’s first Black lawyers and a leader within the African National Congress liberation movement, Nelson Mandela spent more than twenty years of his life in prison. He shared the prize with the man who released him after they agreed upon a peaceful transition to majority rule. After his release, Nelson Mandela helped establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has focused on restorative justice following the abolition of apartheid.
Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. As a writer and founder of the grassroots organization the Green Belt Movement, she advocated for democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation. Born in rural Kenya, she was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree. She went on to fight for other women. In 2006, she co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with her sister laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams, and Mairead Corrigan. My friends who knew her before her death in 2011 speak of her with awe and affection.
In 2011, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, social worker and peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee and journalist and activist Tawakkol Karman shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their campaign for peace and democracy in Liberia and Yemen. They were the first in their countries to receive the award. All three were chosen for their nonviolent efforts to secure the safety of women and women’s rights and participation in the peace-building process. Their work has created a pathway for other women, activists, and journalists.
Malala Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, along with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. She is the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As a young girl, Malala defied the Taliban in Pakistan and demanded that girls be permitted to pursue an education. Because of her activism, a member of the Taliban shot her in the head in 2012. She survived and she has continued to speak out for girls across the globe. Though the Taliban continues to threaten her life, she has worked with others to open schools for girls and to call upon global leaders to invest in “books, not bullets.” I had the privilege of meeting Malala and her father while I was traveling with colleagues in Kenya. She appeared as humble as she is inspiring.
There are many other inspirational individuals and organizations highlighted at the Nobel Peace Center exhibition, and I’d encourage anyone who has the opportunity to visit Oslo to include a stop at the center. Like the people and organizations featured in the exhibition, the center shows how strength and courage can make a tremendous, positive difference in the world – even during difficult, unimaginable times.