Labour top calls for Nobel shake-up

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One week before the next Nobel Peace Prize is due to be awarded, a top official of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s Labour Party is calling for the Norwegian Parliament to consider changes in the composition of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that decides the winner.

Raymond Johansen is a powerful person within Norway's Labour Party, which currently holds government power, but he says he's only "personally" calling for changes in the Norwegian Nobel Committee. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Raymond Johansen, party secretary for Labour and a powerful figure in Norwegian politics, is also a former state secretary in the Foreign Ministry. He told newspaper Dagens Næriingsliv (DN) on Thursday that he’s experienced first-hand how prominent persons in foreign governments have thought that he and other Norwegian politicians or government leaders can influence the prize-winner choices made by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

They can’t, because the committee itself is completely autonomous and operates independently of any state control. Under the terms of prize benefactor Alfred Nobel’s will, however, the committee to be made up of five persons chosen by the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) and that has led to misunderstandings.

The Storting accepted the assignment from Nobel in 1897 and the first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901. The Nobel committee’s members have since in practice been chosen to reflect the political make-up of the Parliament after each election, even though Nobel himself didn’t set such criteria.

The current Norwegian Nobel Committee is made up entirely of former Members of Parliament, some of whom have been government ministers. Its leader, Thorbjørn Jagland (at left), is a former Norwegian foreign minister and prime minister who now heads the Council of Europe. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

The practice has led to the Norwegian Nobel Committee being composed almost exclusively of former politicians, chosen by the parties represented in Parliament. The current committee, for example, is made up entirely of former Members of Parliament and Norwegian government ministers, with two members from the Labour Party (committee leader Thorbjørn Jagland and Sissel Rønbeck), one member from the Conservative Party (Kaci Kullman Five), one member from the Progress Party (Inger-Marie Ytterhorn) and one member from the Socialist Left party (Ågot Valle).

The committee’s composition has been called into question before and now Johansen thinks a “discussion” and potential changes are in order. He claimed that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the Labour Party and said he had not discussed the issue with the party’s leadership, but he “personally” thinks it’s “both legitimate and necessary” to launch a discussion of the composition of and appointments made to the Nobel committee, “to secure that the prize really is understood to be an independent peace prize and not a reflection of foreign policy in Norway.”

He denied that his call is linked to the past two years of conflict and controversy over the choices of US President Barack Obama and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The latter has led to a year of diplomatic crisis between Norway and China.

‘Strengthening the independence of the prize’
“I’m speaking in general terms about strengthening the independence of the prize,” Johansen told DN. He said there’s an “international impression” that there are ties between Norwegian foreign policy and the awarding of the Peace Prize, and that’s unfortunate because it’s not so.

Johansen said he can nonetheless understand why and how that impression has emerged over the years “when we have central former politicians on the committee and that all of them sitting there come from political parties. Then I can understand that it’s difficult to see the committee as completely independent of the authorities in Norway.”

He conceded that “there’s no doubt” the Chinese government has had that impression, even though it’s mistaken. Johansen stressed that the Norwegian Nobel Committee is, in fact, independent and the prize itself has continued to hold its uniquely prestigious position in the world despite its traditional composition.

Discussion does loom
Now it may also be time to consider whether committee members have enough expertise and whether there’s a need to bring in international views and have a broader composition. It should be discussed, he said, whether committee members should have such strong ties to Norway’s political parties.

Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, refused to comment on Johansen’s initiative, saying the committee’s membership is up to the parliament to evaluate. Dag Terje Andersen, the current president of the parliament who also comes from the Labour Party, told DN that the current committee’s make-up will be discussed this fall, because members Rønbeck and Ytterhorn are due to be replaced.

“When the Storting shall now name two new members to the Nobel Committee, it’s natural … to have a round of discussion on the composition,” Andersen wrote in an e-mail to DN. The next Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday October 7.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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