Nobel committee leader strikes back

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Thorbjørn Jagland, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, is firmly defending the independence of the committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize and clearly sees no need for concerns raised by one of his own political colleagues. He called a curious new debate over the committee’s composition and independence “surreal.”

Veteran Labour politician Thorbjørn Jagland is vigorously defending the independence of the Nobel Committee that he now heads. PHOTO: Council of Europe

The debate was launched on Thursday by Raymond Johansen, secretary of the Labour Party that Jagland himself led for several years. In a front-page story in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), Johansen suggested that the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget), charged with choosing the committee according to the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will, should re-think the way in which it does just that.

Since the committee for years has been made up of former politicians chosen to reflect the current make-up of the parliament, Johansen said he worried that other countries may wrongly blend the committee’s choices for Peace Prize winners with Norwegian foreign policy. Johansen, a former state secretary in the foreign ministry, stressed that the Nobel Committee was indeed independent but said he had often run into such misunderstandings while traveling.

Jagland with the first Nobel Peace Prize winner that sparked controversy under his committee leadership: US President Barack Obama. PHOTO: The White House

Nonsense, according to Jagland. “I am perhaps the Norwegian who travels the most in the world right now, and I have never heard that other countries or persons view the (Nobel) committee’s decisions as part of Norwegian foreign policy,” Jagland told DN on Friday.

Jagland, a former prime minister and foreign minister for Labour, said the most important thing is to find prospective committee members “who really are independent, and behave as such.” He doesn’t think former politicians are any less independent than so-called “experts” on issues related to peace.

Jagland suggested that a bigger problem may be whether Norwegian politicians and government officials conduct themselves independently enough of the committee. Jagland revealed that many “did everything they could” to be associated with the Peace Prize when it was awarded to US President Barack Obama in 2009. Jagland claimed he’d never experienced such pressure to get invitations to dinners and meetings with Obama during the short time he was in Oslo.

Jagland during the awards ceremony for his committee's second Nobel Peace Prize choice that also sparked controversy, at least from the Chinese government: Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. PHOTO: NRK/Views and News

While the leader of Norway’s Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, flatly refused to comment on how the Nobel Committee should be made up, saying that was entirely up to the parliament to decide, Jagland seemed to have no reservations at all. “I see it as completely surreal that a debate has come up over the independence of the Nobel Committee when I think about the enormous pressure we were under in advance of last year’s award,” Jagland told DN, referring to the committee’s decision to award the prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, which infuriated the Chinese government. The Chinese authorities refused to distinguish between the committee’s decision and Norwegian foreign policy, and have all but frozen diplomatic relations with Norway ever since.

Curious debate
The debate of the independence and composition of the Nobel Committee is especially curious since it’s starting within the Labour Party, which itself appointed Jagland to the committee just a few years ago. Current Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg had won a lengthy power struggle within the party and took over as leader after Jagland. It was widely viewed that Jagland was “retired” from active party politics by getting him named as the party’s choice to the Nobel Committee and also campaigning to get him chosen as head of the Council of Europe, which was successful.

The first two Nobel Peace Prizes awarded under Jagland’s leadership, to Obama and Liu, have been highly controversial, with the latter costing the Norwegian government dearly because of the subsequently icy relations with China. Johansen and the Labour-led government have appeared eager to bury the hatchet with China and some opposition politicians in Norway wonder whether Johansen’s initiative, which he claims he hasn’t taken on behalf of Labour or the Labour-led government, is actually part of another attempt to appease the Chinese just a week before the next Nobel Peace Prize is to be awarded.

“I would warn against jumping to conclusions (over the make-up of the Nobel committee) that would give the impression that the Chinese criticism of the Peace Prize is being addressed,” Dagfinn Høybråten of the Christian Democrats told DN. “The criticism from China is groundless, and they know that themselves.”

Labour ‘shot itself in the foot’
Progress Party leader Siv Jensen told DN that Labour “has shot itself in the foot” by raising questions about the committee’s make-up when it chose Jagland. “The party itself chose to place a high political profile on the committee,” Jensen pointed out, adding that her party was critical of Jagland’s appointment to the committee. “If the party now thinks this is a problem, then they have to do something about it.”

Jensen’s party soon must name a new member to the committee itself, since the term of its representative is about to expire. Jensen will thus have an opportunity to make a clean break with party ties if so desired.

Johansen, meanwhile, has won support for his concerns from at least two other Labour colleagues, the president of the parliament Dag Terje Andersen and the deputy leader of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Svein Roald Hansen. Andersen has already said the parliament will discuss the committee’s composition this fall, while Hansen said Jagland’s own background “strengthens misundertandings out in the world.” Hansen, in complete defiance of Jagland’s position, told DN that leaders in foreign countries “naturally enough have difficulty in believing that the committee is independent when the leader has been the president of the parliament, foreign minister and prime minister.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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