On 21 October 1969, a 30-word telegram arrived in the ILO’s Registry in Geneva. While the thin folio of paper looked unremarkable its contents were momentous, announcing the highest honour ever awarded to the ILO – the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Prize marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the ILO, and at the award ceremony the Nobel Committee cited the organization’s founding ideals as central to the decision to bestow the honour.
“Beneath the foundation stone of the ILO's main office in Geneva lies a document on which is written: Si vis pacem, cole justitiam - If you desire peace, cultivate justice. There are few organizations that have succeeded to the extent that the ILO has, in translating into action the fundamental moral idea on which it is based,” said the Chair of the Nobel Committee, Mrs Aase Lionaes in her speech.
There are few organizations that have succeeded to the extent that the ILO has, in translating into action the fundamental moral idea on which it is based."Mrs Aase Lionaes, Chair of the Nobel Committee
The Prize did not come as a complete surprise. In the years following the Second World War there were many conversations among world leaders about nominating the ILO. The aim was to recognize the Organization’s crucial wartime role, when it was one of the few international bodies that continued to function, as well as its work in reinforcing and refreshing its mandate through the 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia, which refocused attention on the need for lasting peace to be built on social justice. (Indeed, in her speech, the Nobel Chair quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States of America, who described the Philadelphia Declaration as being on a line with the US Declaration of Independence.)
This quest – after two World Wars – for a peace that could endure, was emphasized by the then ILO Director-General, David Morse, who traveled to Oslo with the officers of the Governing Body to receive the prize on behalf of the Organization.
Social justice is no less difficult to attain than the ultimate goal of world peace."ILO Director-General David Morse
“The history of the Nobel Peace Prize is in large measure the history of man’s efforts throughout the present century to establish a just and lasting peace,” he said in his acceptance speech. But he added a caution; “social justice is no less difficult to attain than the ultimate goal of world peace”.
On December 11, 1969, the day after collecting the prize, Morse gave the traditional Nobel laureate’s lecture. He used it to outline how the ILO had used its unique mandate and its first 50 years to build “an infrastructure of peace”.
“The ILO in short offered the world an alternative to social strife; it provided it with the procedures and techniques of bargaining and negotiation to replace violent conflict as a means of securing more human and dignified conditions of work.”
Morse’s lecture stakes out the ILO’s role in the economic, social, political and civil progress seen during its first half-century. But he also warned, “the task is still far from finished. The goal of ‘social justice’… has proved to be a dynamic concept.”
Looking back, the challenges he identified in his Nobel speech 50 years ago show a remarkable degree of prescience. The failure of economic progress to benefit more than a small sector of the population; the plight of those such as minorities, migrants and the poor who live on the fringes of affluence; the challenge of making technology the servant rather than the master. In its Centenary year, all these issues remain unresolved and on the ILO’s agenda.
As for the Nobel Peace Prize itself; to this day the ILO continues to benefit from the prestige and recognition it bestows. The medal itself, with its gold-embossed green leather case, lies on a blue cushion in the ILO archives, alongside the originals of the three golden keys that symbolize the tripartite membership structure of governments, workers and employers.
The medal itself is 66mm in diameter and about 5mm thick. It is made of approximately 200 grams of 23 carat gold. On front is a portrait of Alfred Nobel, the millionaire founder of the prizes, while the reverse shows three naked men embracing – a symbol of the international fraternization that Nobel wished the Peace Prize to support. Around the rim is a Latin inscription: Pro pace et fraternitate gentium, which translates as ‘For peace and fraternity among peoples’. It seems the perfect complement to the ILO’s own axiom, that lasting peace first requires justice.