Volunteer rescue and humanitarian group that braves daily bombings is credited with saving tens of thousands of people.
United Nations, New York – It seemed like a no-brainer for Nobel Peace Prize judges. A deal between Colombia’s leaders and Marxist rebels to end a bloody, 52-year-old war was, by most standards, deserving of the top global award for dovishness.
Colombian voters had other plans. Days before the announcement of the 2016 peace prize winner on Friday, they rejected the bargain with FARC rebel fighters by a slim margin in a shock referendum result that upended years of negotiations.
As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos scrambled to salvage his trademark peace deal, developments in South America were doubtless being tracked by the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee 9,000km away in Oslo.
“A strong candidate for the peace prize stumbled at the finish line,” Alf Ole Ask, a reporter on the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, told Al Jazeera.
Kristian Berg Harpviken, a veteran prize-guesser and director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, agreed. It is now “entirely unlikely” that Colombia’s peace-makers will get the gong, as judges cast their eyes elsewhere.
“Despite an expressed commitment by all parties to return to the negotiation table, the future of Colombia’s peace is in the balance. Particularly so shortly after the referendum, a peace prize would easily be seen as a criticism of Colombia’s majority view,” Harpviken told Al Jazeera.
Committee deliberations will remain a well-kept secret for 50 years. Had judges decided to honour Santos and the FARC chief, known as Timoleon “Timochenko” Jimenez, they would probably have had a “very good back-up” winner in reserve, added Harpviken.
The contest is now wide open, analysts said. Would-be winners include Russian activist Svetlana Gannushkina, the rubble-digging White Helmets of Syria’s civil war and the negotiators behind last year’s climate change accord in Paris.
Pope Francis is in the running. So is cyber-snooping whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the Afghan women’s cycling team, the Greek islanders who helped refugees arriving on their shores and Nadia Murad, a former Yazidi sex slave.
Nobel judges typically select from several broad categories. A classic scenario is when two bitter enemies lay down their guns and talk peace – such as in Colombia’s process to end a war that claimed a quarter of a million lives.
Without a Colombian option, the committee may instead elevate last year’s nuclear deal with Iran, which effectively curbed Tehran’s nuclear drive, putting doomsday bombs out of reach, in exchange for a gradual lifting of crippling sanctions.
That could see prizes for Washington’s top diplomat John Kerry, his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif and Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, or the nuclear experts Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, and US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
“Getting the Iran nuclear agreement was complex, but the most difficult element is implementation, and that will define how successful it is,” Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scholar from the Brookings Institution think-tank, told Al Jazeera.
Judges honoured former foes in 1998, with a prize for the Catholic and Protestant leaders who brokered peace in Northern Ireland. They elevated Israeli and Palestinian leaders for reaching the Oslo Accord in 1994 – but were later accused of jumping the gun when that deal unravelled.
Panellists also often pick dissidents, such as Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi in 2003 and jailed Chinese campaigner Liu Xiaobo in 2010 – a decision that riled Beijing. This year, that could translate to Gannushkina, Snowden or the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.
Harpviken cites Gannushkinah as his favourite, as judges have yet to highlight Russia’s slide into authoritarianism under President Vladimir Putin, he said. The Russian mathematician has spent decades helping migrants and refugees – another timely issue.
Snowden, who exposed the scope of US surveillance, would likewise mark a snub to Washington. But the conservative-leaning panel under chairwoman Kaci Kullmann Five will probaby choose a winner more atoned to Nobel peace-making traditions, Ask said.
Judges often choose institutions. Previous winners, such as the European Union in 2012 and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2014, ignited few passions but chimed with the values of Alfred Nobel, who founded the prizes in his will.
Of the 376 candidates this year, 148 are organisations. Should panellists wish to honour the hard-won Paris climate change deal, without singling out any one leader or country, they could opt for the United Nations secretariat that was a backbone to talks.
Statesmen have fared well in previous years. Former US President Jimmy Carter won in 2002 for deal-making in the Middle East and Barack Obama secured a surprise honour in 2009, after only a few months in the White House.
Angela Merkal was hotly tipped in last year’s Nobel speculation for an open-door policy on Syrian refugees. She may still win the 2016 prize, but her star has waned these past 12 months amid criticism of her handling of the crisis.
Finally, judges can use prizes to spotlight grassroots activists who do valuable work with little recognition, such as last year’s choice of four lesser-known democracy-promoting groups in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
In 2014, judges electrified the world by making Malala Yousafzai the youngest ever Nobel winner. After surviving Taliban bullets in 2012, the Pakistani schoolgirl continued to fight so that all children see the inside of a classroom.
This year, the Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege may win for braving bullets to treat rape victims. The White Helmets, a brigade of some 3,000 volunteers, could do with a morale boost as they pull shell-shocked Aleppo residents out of the rubble.
Judges have many options. This year’s record-breaking list of 376 candidates tops the previous record of 278 set in 2014. It includes US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose name was advanced for his “peace-through-strength ideology”.
There is a history of dubious Nobel nominations – Josef Stalin featured in the 1945 and 1948 lists; Adolf Hitler was nominated, ironically, in 1939. According to Harpviken, nominations are increasingly used as a publicity stunt.
“I’m not all that impressed because I know how easy it is to get nominated,” Harpviken said.
Though judges may come under fire for their decision, which will be announced at Oslo’s Nobel Institute on Friday, there is still every reason for them to pore over who gets the prize and the 8 million Swedish kroner ($930,000) purse, said Felbab-Brown.
“We live in an era of one-line, 140-character answers to solve everything, which is fundamentally misguided,” said Felbab-Brown. “We need more prizes to recognise the painstaking process of policy adjustment that take years to solve our most serious problems.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl