UPDATED: This week marks the annual “Nobel Peace Prize Days” in Oslo, an event that’s usually festive and a bright spot in a deep and dark December. This year, however, the forced absence of the winner is toning down the celebration but adding to its symbolism.
Chinese officials, angry that the prize has been awarded to one of their leading dissidents, Liu Xiaobo, have attempted to mount a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on Friday. On Tuesday they referred to supporters of the Peace Prize as “clowns” and equated the ceremony to “an anti-China farce.”
The Nobel Institute could announce Tuesday that more than two-thirds of the countries invited (traditionally those with embassies in Oslo) will nonetheless be attending the ceremony. Nineteen countries have declined their invitations to attend: China, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Cuba, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Sudan, Ukraine, the Philippines, Vietnam and Venezuela.
Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, noted that several countries decline their invitations to the ceremony every year for various reasons (the exception was last year, when prizewinner Barack Obama was a major attraction). Lundestad also told reporters that some of the countries have declined the invitation for reasons that have nothing to do with China’s urging that they not attend, citing, for example, Morocco, which has been in a diplomatic conflict with Norway for the past year.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported Wednesday that Afghanistan’s ambassador, however, was staying away the Nobel ceremony after “instructions” from her government in Kabul that she not attend. The paper later clarified that while it was “correct that Ambassador Manizha Bakhtari has been told from Kabul to stay away from the Nobel ceremony, the ambassador has neither confirmed nor denied that this is due to political pressure from Beijing.”
Aftenposten reported that Serbia also was among countries that declined because of pressure from the Chinese, while Algeria and Sri Lanka failed to respond to the invitation to attend. That suggests 21 countries will stay away and more than twice as many will attend.
Defying the consequences
The 44 other countries with embassies in Norway have accepted their invitations despite warnings from China that they will thus face “consequences.” The Oslo City Hall is expected to be full as usual when the ceremony begins at 1pm.
It will feature an empty chair, where Liu should have been sitting, with just his photo resting on it. Liu remains jailed in China, serving an 11-year prison term for alleged subversion, and neither his wife nor other members of his family have been allowed to leave China to travel to Oslo to accept his Peace Prize.
Nobel Institute officials insist the ceremony will proceed anyway, with actress Liv Ullmann reading aloud from Liu’s texts in lieu of the Nobel Lecture he otherwise would have made. An annual torchlit parade meant to honor the winner will also proceed Friday evening, ending in front of the Grand Hotel where the prize winner traditionally stays. This year, the hotel’s balcony will be empty.
Some demonstrations are planned as well, with many human rights activists gathering in Oslo to protest a lack of full freedom of expression in China.
The Norwegian journalists’ union also reports strong interest in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize from the international press corps, even more than usual. Reporters and photographers from more than 27 countries have been accredited to cover the Peace Prize events, with Japanese media sending journalists from eight news organizations, with another eight media organizations represented just from Hong Kong, which traditionally hasn’t covered Peace Prize events in Oslo.
“We’ve seen extra strong interest from Hong Kong and Japan,” Nobel spokesperson Benedicte Koren told the union’s website Journalisten.no.
More than 400 journalists from Norwegian media, meanwhile, have also been accredited. CNN will, as usual, broadcast a live interview after the ceremony but not with the winner this year. Instead CNN’s guest will be Thorbjørn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and a former Norwegian Prime Minister who now also leads the Council of Europe. Jagland will also answer questions during the traditional press conference held the day before the ceremony, because the winner will be absent.