Norway conducts more secret talks

As foreign ministers and peace brokers from around the world gathered at the historic Losby estate outside Oslo this week for an annual forum, came news that Norway has secretly been brokering talks between the Afghan government and the insurgent Taliban. Norway reportedly has been involved in several other rounds of secret talks as well.

Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide (left) with Brazil's foreign minister, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, as the Oslo Forum got underway on Tuesday. The annual gathering is considered a major meeting place for peace brokers, foreign policy experts and participants in peace processes from all over the world. Among others attending were the UN's and Arab League's special envoy to Syria, the foreign minister of Niger and Myanmar's immigration minister U Khin Yi. The theme of this year's forum was "Innovative approaches to mediating conflict," with special attention being paid to the ongoing crises in Syria, Mali and Somalia. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide (left) with Brazil’s foreign minister, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, as the Oslo Forum got underway on Tuesday. The annual gathering is considered an important meeting place for peace brokers, foreign policy experts and participants in peace processes from all over the world. Among others attending this year were the UN’s and Arab League’s special envoy to Syria, the foreign minister of Niger and Myanmar’s immigration minister U Khin Yi. The theme of this year’s forum was “Innovative approaches to mediating conflict,” with special attention being paid to the ongoing crises in Syria, Mali and Somalia. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“Norway is a secret super power within peace and reconciliation,” Henrik Thune of the Nowegian foreign policy institute NUPI told news bureau NTB last week. “We do much more than what’s publicly known.”

That’s sparked local debate over what Norway is involved in and why it can’t be revealed openly. Norway also was, for example, involved in trying to arrange meetings between Libyan revels and the Gaddafi regime, even though it also took part in the NATO-led bombing of Libya. In September 2011, the leader of the Libyan transitional government thanked Norway and Turkey for the work they did to broker talks. Gaddafi’s former deputy foreign minister Khaled Al Gaaeem also confirmed that talks had been held with the rebels in Oslo, but Norwegian officials never commented on them. In keeping with customary practice, the Norwegian diplomats’ lips were sealed.

Norway has been active in peace brokering efforts for decades and the foreign ministry set up a special section for peace and reconciliation 10 years ago. Since then, claim Thune and fellow researcher Leiv Lunde of Fridtjof Nansens Institute, Norway has been involved in more than 20 peace processes or attempts to reconcile groups in conflict.

Thune and Lunde just released a book entitled Hva Norge kan være i verden (What Norway can be in the world), in which they examine Norway’s peace brokering roles. Those involving the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Colombia and the Philippines are fairly well known. Norway’s involvement with Afghanistan and the Taliban, Libya, Sudan, Iraq and Nigeria aren’t as well known and present a paradox: Not only did Norway take part in the bombing of Libya, it maintained troops in Afghanistan for years and was fighting the Taliban while also talking with Taliban leaders.

Gaining influence
Only a handful of people working in the foreign ministry are privy to the various talks going on. Not even high-ranking political leadership in the ministry is always informed of various efforts underway, said Thune.

He said that several foreign ministers have taken on their jobs with a degree of skepticism regarding what Norway actually gets out of its peace brokering efforts. But they quickly realize, he said, how much influence Norway can have, not least regarding access to US political leadership. The US, he said, wants Norway to talk with groups that leaders in Washington don’t want to deal with, and that can give Norway clout in return.

While other countries are often keen to publicize their own peace efforts, Norway isn’t, and that’s one of the reasons Norway’s role is so strong, Thune said: “We have the economic resources, we have few of our own self-interests, but Norwegian diplomats are best known for doing what they say they will and keeping their mouths shut.” Security issues also fuel the secrecy, because lives can be at stake.

Democratic problem
Both Thune and Lunde think it’s problematic, however, that Norway’s role in so many areas of international peace brokering remains secret even after the process is over. “It can be a democratic problem when the cards are held too tightly,” Thune told NTB. “There’s very little openness about this in Norway, and there are many good reasons that Norway should be more open when the peace process ends. It’s important for the public debate.”

Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, who confirmed the secret talks with the Taliban on Tuesday, said he wanted to be as open as possible, “but there clearly are some things that you can’t talk about in certain phases of a process,” he told NTB. He said that some processes can be damaged by leaks.

“There also are some (undisclosed) talks going on now,” Eide said, “but I hope we’ll be able to reveal them at some point.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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