We Need a Nobel Prize in Law

We Need a Nobel Prize in Law

Those who serve the law in dangerous and original ways are deserving of the recognition–and the protection–that a Nobel Prize would bring them.


On September 29 unidentified hooligans abducted a Chinese lawyer named Li Heping, beat him brutally and tortured him with an electrical rod. They warned him to practice law “within permissible limits” and said that he and his family should leave Beijing. Li has been a thorn in the side of the Chinese government, and the incident seems a clear threat to his life. On October 3, Amnesty International issued an “urgent action” bulletin on his behalf. Human rights groups may shame the Chinese government, but Li remains an unfamiliar name to most people, and the Chinese regime may ignore world opinion.

I can’t help wondering: what if Li Heping were a Nobel laureate–in law?

There is no Nobel Prize in Law. But shouldn’t there be? In the former Soviet republics, the new South Africa, Latin countries like Mexico and in the Middle East, citizens and civil society groups eagerly embrace the need for the rule of law. Often the people tyrants and would-be tyrants most fear are stooped scholarly figures with thick spectacles and bulging briefcases. Those who serve the law in dangerous and original ways are deserving of the recognition–and the protection–that a Nobel Prize would bring them.

True, Alfred Nobel did not create such a prize. So what? Nobel didn’t provide for an award in economics either. The official name of the Nobel Prize in Economics appears to be the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. It was instituted in 1969 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Swedish central bank. The winner is picked by Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. (The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded by a committee selected by the Norwegian Parliament.)

The prize in economics recognizes academic work–but it has given enormous practical clout to its winners, who regularly weigh in on issues of public policy and receive deference from journalists and national leaders. Why shouldn’t legal groups fund a law Nobel, to be chosen by a Scandinavian institution, to match the one for economics?

We need good lawyers as much or more than we need economists right now. Much of the world is actually moving backward in its commitment to a just legal system within and among nations. The United States, unhappily, is leading the retreat. The Bush Administration has obstructed the International Criminal Court (an institution that legal philosophers and reformers have dreamed of creating at least since the time of Kant) and has sought to apply the Geneva Conventions narrowly, if at all, to international prisoners considered “enemy combatants.”

Of course lawyers can win the Peace Prize: think of Nelson Mandela, Menachem Begin and Shirin Ebadi, the former Iranian judge turned human rights lawyer. But a Nobel Prize for Law would recognize a field that uniquely combines humanistic scholarship with a deep practical commitment to social transformation and would recognize law’s contribution to our shared public and intellectual life.

A Nobel Prize in Law might be given each year to that individual or group of individuals who have contributed most powerfully to the development of the rule of law. Some remarkable men and women might be candidates: lawyers like Li Heping; judges like Baltasar Garzón of Spain, who began the human rights prosecution of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the chief justice of Pakistan, who has resisted President Pervez Musharraf’s attempts to subvert the legal system; legal scholars like Cherif Bassiouni, the Egyptian-born father of the International Criminal Court, a former Peace Prize nominee; and American feminist Catherine MacKinnon.

Law is the hinge upon which the fate of the world turns. And yet much of the world undervalues and even, increasingly, sneers at law–at the deliberateness of its procedures and the moderation of its norms. One of the hallmarks of authoritarianism today, as in times past, is its unremitting hostility to law and its demand instead for docility before the state and the powerful interests it protects.

Alfred Nobel might not have thought a law prize necessary in 1895; if he were living today, he very well might change his mind.

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