Debate fired up again this week over the make-up of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, following reports that Norway’s Conservative Party is poised to use its new political muscle to unseat the current committee chairman, Thorbjørn Jagland. While Jagland is a controversial figure in Norway, two newspaper editorials in as many days have called for his retention as head of the group that chooses Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Under the terms of the will of prize benefactor Alfred Nobel, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is supposed to reflect the make-up of the Norwegian Parliament. Last year’s parliamentary election gave the Conservatives and the Progress Party enough seats in parliament to form a government. That also means there will be a conservative majority on the Nobel Committee, since the parties choose the committee members.
A majority of the members over the years have been former politicians from the parties themselves, appointed as a sort of reward for good service. There also have been others appointed to the committee, though, most recently the head of the Norwegian Bar Association (Berit Reiss-Andersen, appointed by Labour), as part of efforts to make the committee seem less political.
Neither the government nor the parliament have any say in who the committee chooses to win the Peace Prize, and the committee members’ negotiations are in fact bound by confidentiality clauses. China’s decision to nonetheless blame the Norwegian government for the 2010 choice of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and the diplomatic freeze that has followed, have renewed efforts to further distance the committee from the political parties charged with forming it.
Annan, Bildt and Clinton among candidates
Jagland’s six-year term is up this year, and newspaper VG reported over that weekend that the former Labour prime minister may thus be squeezed out by a new conservative majority on the committee, which appoints its own chairman. VG also reported that for the first time, a Norwegian political party may look beyond Norway’s borders, with the Conservatives considering international figures such as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan or Swedish Foreign Minister and longtime peace broker Carl Bildt.
An appointment of Annan would mean the committee members would need to speak English at all their meetings, a factor that may dampen his candidacy along with his age. He’d be well over 80 by the time his six-year term was up. An appointment of Bildt should also be ruled out, argued newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday, since he’s an active politician and sitting government minister in Sweden. The committee members could at least speak their Scandinavian languages during deliberations, but Dagsavisen wrote that “it would be strange if a Swede were to lead the committee that hands out the Peace Prize, when Alfred Nobel demanded in his will that exactly this prize should be awarded in Norway, not Sweden, as are the other Nobel prizes.”
VG also reported that Jan Petersen, a former leader of the Conservatives and foreign minister, is among the Conservatives’ candidates for a Nobel committee seat. He’s returning to Norway after several years in Vienna, where the opera-loving Petersen served as Norway’s ambassador to Austria, and presumably open for a new top job. His candidacy was also dismissed by media commentators, though, as “just another former politician” who would not alter the image of the committee as highly political. Linda Hofstad Helleland, a Member of Parliament for Høyre, told VG she wanted the Conservatives to choose among Annan, Bildt, Petersen and also US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Dagsavisen noted that she may be too busy running for president again. The committee Nobel Institute would then also need to conduct all committee business, written and oral, in English. With some notable exceptions such as former chairman Gunnar Berge, most Nobel committee members can communicate in English, but like most Norwegians, are probably more comfortable speaking their own language.
Support for Jagland
Peace prizes awarded during Jagland’s tenure have sparked surprise and criticism, not least those to US President Barack Obama, Liu and the European Union. Both Dagsavisen and newspaper Aftenposten nonetheless urged the retention of Jagland as committee chairman, with Aftenposten claiming he has done a good job and stood firm in the face of China’s four-year assault on the committee’s integrity. Jagland relentlessly defends the committee’s independence, and Dagsavisen argues that dumping him now would fuel China’s incorrect suspicions that the Nobel Committee is simply an extension of Norway’s foreign ministry, which the Conservatives currently control.
If anything, argued Dagsavisen, the Nobel Committee’s secretariat should be strengthened. Longtime committee secretary Geir Lundestad, who also serves as director of the Nobel Institute, turns 70 in January and must retire. Six Norwegian professors have figured in the speculation around his successor, including Guri Hjeltnes of the Holocaustsenter in Oslo and Mats Berdal of King’s College in London. Svein Tønneson, a scholar and former head of the peace research center NUPI, is also considered a leading contender for the job.
Jagland, who also currently serves as the head of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, declined to comment on his future as chairman of the Nobel Committee. “The Parliament chooses the committee,” he simply wrote in a text message to VG. “The committee chooses its leader.”