Critics still question Nobel choices

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NEWS ANALYSIS: It’s still said to be the most prestigious prize in the world, but debate continues to swirl over how winners of the Nobel Peace Prize are chosen. Some feel human rights issues now take precedence over the disarmament Alfred Nobel championed. The Norwegian government, meanwhile, seems to have distanced itself somewhat from the prize this year, after last year’s award set off a diplomatic crisis between Norway and China that’s still going on.

Chinese authorities confirmed on Friday that they’re still angry with Norway over the awarding of last year’s prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who remains in prison. China has blamed the Norwegian government for the prize, which angered and embarrassed Chinese officials and led to a diplomatic freeze that still shows little signs of melting. The Chinese even tried to mount a boycott of last year’s ceremony, vainly hoping government officials and foreign ambassadors would stay away.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has been traveling far and wide this week, here in South Africa, and won't be attending this year's Nobel Peace Prize celebrations. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor

They didn’t, and Norwegian officials made a point of attending, as usual. This year, though, for the first time in decades, the prime minister of Norway won’t be attending Saturday’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Instead, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg is literally on the other side of the globe, in the midst of an official visit to Australia. He was in Perth on Thursday along with a delegation of around 40 Norwegian business leaders, and then he was heading on to Sydney and Canberra before continuing on to Antarctica, where he’ll celebrate the 100th anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole on December 14.

The lengthy trip follows Stoltenberg’s attendance at the UN climate conference in Durban and it may well be simply coincidental that it collided with the annual Nobel Peace Prize festivities. The prime minister’s absence remains notable, since last year’s presence contributed to a diplomatic drama the likes of which have rarely if ever been seen before. Stoltenberg was quick to hail the winners of this year’s prize when they were announced, three women from Liberia and Yemen who also are champions of human rights, but he’ll miss seeing them collect their gold medals and diplomas.

There have been other subtle signs that the Norwegian government has reduced its role in Nobel activity. For years, for example, press accreditation was handled by the Foreign Ministry. This year, it was handled by the independent Nobel Peace Center. And even though Stoltenberg said in October that this year’s winners were in line with Norwegian policies encouraging women’s rights, government officials have repeated their insistence all year long that they have nothing to do with the actual selection of the winners.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee at last year's Peace Prize ceremony where the winner's chair was empty, because he's in prison in China. At left, committee leader Thorbjørn Jagland, a former Norwegian foreign minister and prime minister who now heads the Council of Europe. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

That’s always determined by the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee, which under the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will, is appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. The debate and criticism, also the ongoing conflict with China, involves how the parliament conducts that duty. A longtime practice of allowing political parties to choose members of the committee, to reflect the make-up of Parliament, may need reevaluation to quell criticism.

Committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland insists the committee is totally independent, as do Norwegian politicians. Both Jagland’s and Stoltenberg’s own Labour Party, however, seemed to take a first step this fall away from appointing their political colleagues to the committee by instead choosing a highly respected lawyer to fill a committee vacancy to which Labour was entitled under current practice. The Progress Party, however, opted to re-appoint one of its veteran politicians, which set off a bitter dispute within its own ranks.

Longtime critics of how and under which criteria the winners are selected include Norwegian lawyer Fredrik Heffermehl, and on Friday, Professor Ståle Eskeland wrote in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that he expected Labour’s new member on the committee to more closely follow the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will. He feels she’s obliged, as a lawyer, to inform other committee members about the limits on their mandate.

“Prizes awarded since World War II have not been made in compliance with Nobel’s will,” Eskeland wrote, adding that committee members, with a lawyer amongst them, can no longer neglect Nobel’s vision of peace. If they don’t, Eskeland claimed, lawyer Berit Reiss-Andersen will have to leave the committee.

“It will be exciting to follow developments,” Eskeland wrote.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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