Olav Njølstad has spent the past three months settling into his new job as director of the Nobel Institute in Oslo and secretary to the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Now the mild-mannered historian is sending signals that changes loom in how the committee goes about deciding who wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
“They won’t be dramatic changes, but we have started a process,” Njølstad (roughly pronounced “Nyull-stahd”) told foreign correspondents at a meeting in Oslo on Thursday. He’d been asked about whether he’ll launch any reforms, or efforts to improve transparency.
His answer was a careful “yes.” He said the financial situation within the Nobel system “isn’t that good” at present, because of some poor returns on investments, so he can’t launch into any expensive reform projects. “But there will be some changes,” he said. “That’s part of my job. I want us to work in an even more professional and academic way.”
Njølstad, age 58, has spent his career in academia, rising to become a professor of history at the University of Oslo. He has written highly acclaimed biographies, perhaps most notably about the secretive and controversial war hero and politician Jens Christian Hauge. He also was a member of the secretariat to the July 22 Commission, which critically evaluated the emergency response to the terrorist attacks of July 22, 2011.
He is no stranger to the Nobel Institute, however, serving as its research director for 12 years before becoming a full professor. He seems intent on bringing an academic approach to his job of serving the five-member Nobel Committee and running the institute itself.
The 273 nominations for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (three were removed from the original 276 that were submitted to the committee) have already been cut back to a short-list of “between 10 and 30,” he said. The deadline for nominations is always February 1 and committee members could themselves add nominees to the list at their first meeting of the year on March 3. Now Njølstad is in charge of preparing reports on the nominees on the short list, “and we’re in the middle of that now.”
The changes he alluded to involve what he called an evaluation of how nominees meet the requirements of prize benefactor Alfred Nobel’s will. “That’s a very healthy thing to do, if not constantly, at least on a regular basis,” Njølstad said. “There is a discussion going with the committee on this.”
Nobel’s will sets down specific criteria for the Peace Prize, which is to go to whoever “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The tricky part is to make that criteria relevant at a time where there no are longer, for example, the types of “peace congresses” that existed in Nobel’s day.
Answering the critics
Critics have charged for years that the committee’s choices of prizewinners don’t always seem to meet the criteria. Many critics were seemingly rebuffed, even ridiculed, by Njølstad’s outspoken predecessor Geir Lundestad. Njølstad insists he will address the questions raised by, among others, Oslo attorney Fredrik S Heffermehl.
“I’m sure they will get answers, I’m taking them seriously,” Njølstad said. He noted that he has “a different style” than the boisterous Lundestad, adding that “my approach is that we should always be willing to discuss things.” Local newspapers have independently described Njølstad, who once performed as a street musician in Oslo and other Norwegian cities, as having a “harmonic face” and a “peaceful” countenance. His studies, articles and books over the years have focused on war and peace.
He stressed that he, his staff and the committee also “have to relate to the statutes” set by the Nobel Foundation, which oversees all the Nobel prizes from its base in Stockholm. He supports transparency but defended the committee’s habit of never announcing the names of nominees, not even to the candidates themselves. That’s part of the statutes, as is the so-called “50-year secrecy rule” that blocks access to information about a given year’s candidates or nominators until 50 years have passed. Njølstad clearly chafes under that rule and said the Norwegian Nobel Committee has twice asked the foundation in Stockholm to reduce it, to 25 or 30 years, in line with many governments’ timelines for declassification of documents. “It’s difficult to see that we need a longer security period for the Nobel Peace Prize than national security documents get,” Njølstad said. The foundation, however, refused to change the rule.
Testing the limits
Njølstad supports, however, a perceived need to withhold the identities of Peace Prize candidates for their own safety. Some nominees, he argued, could be exposed to danger if their candidacy was made public. “People living in non-democratic societies could be put in a very difficult situation,” he said, if it becomes known they’re a serious candidate for the prize.
He conceded that some of the Nobel Peace Prizes “have tested the borderlines” of Nobel’s will, and he personally doesn’t seem comfortable with awards given to heads of state who may ultimately need to go to war. He asserted, though, that the prize has always been controversial (in 1964, he noted, the US ambassador in Oslo refused to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony because Martin Luther King Jr was the recipient) and said the most important thing is to preserve the committee’s absolute independence in selecting winners.
It will also be his job to defend and “explain” the committee’s choices. He’s prepared for more controversial choices. Winners, he said, “should be controversial, and must be, otherwise the prize has lost its political relevance.”