LONDON - The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for its promotion of peace, democracy and human rights over the past six decades. The committee says it wanted to highlight the union's triumphs at a time of economic difficulty. But, the award's announcement has led some critics to question the EU's record on human rights.
Nobel Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland says the European Union has helped turn the continent from war to peace.
"The European Union is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the European Union's most important result - the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights," said Jagland.
During the first half of the 20th century, millions of Europeans were killed in two world wars that tore the continent apart. At the close of the Second World War in 1945, many felt something had to be done to stop such bloodshed from happening again.
The European Union has helped fulfill that aim. Today 27 countries are member states - 17 of them united in a single currency, the euro.
Borders between nations have been opened up to allow free movement for EU citizens. And countries that were once violent enemies now work together for common goals.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said Friday the union has been the world's biggest peacemaking institution.
"We are all very proud, and 'we,' that means not only the EU leaders but all the European citizens from this generation and the former generations," said Van Rompuy.
The award comes at a time when the European Union is mired in economic woes, and national governments are wrangling over the future of the euro. Poverty and social unrest are growing in many member countries, with soaring unemployment rates a growing concern and government spending cuts hitting many of Europe's poorest the most.
David Diaz-Jogeix is from the rights group Amnesty International. He says there is often a lack of political will to address human rights issues within the European Union. He highlighted what Amnesty sees as some notable shortfalls.
"Mainly it's a lack of political will to address severe, entrenched discrimination against Roma. This is the largest minority, and they are subject to structural discrimination. We have also seen large episodes of Islamophobia. There's discrimination against lesbian and gay people in many parts of the European Union. We have seen an 'EU Fortress' attitude to prevent people from coming into the European Union that has an impact on refugees and also asylum-seekers," said Diaz-Jogeix.
The peace prize is one of five Nobel prizes awarded yearly. The winner is selected by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, a five-member committee that is appointed by the Norwegian parliament. The award comes with prize money, which this year is just over $1 million. The prize will be awarded at a ceremony in Norway this December.