The retiring director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute has unleashed some political dynamite about the people who award the Nobel Peace Prize, just days before he oversees annual peace prize events in Oslo for the last time. Geir Lundestad’s parting shots about who should (and shouldn’t) sit on the committee that selects the Peace Prize winner sparked new debate and surprised many, probably not least those sitting on the committee he still serves.
Lundestad, age 69, is an author and historian who has been closely involved in the process of selecting Peace Prize winners from Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai this year. His provocative observations in an interview with newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend have been described as “dynamite” and may influence how the Norwegian Nobel Committee is appointed.
With a front-page headline reading “Nobel showdown,” Aftenposten reported that Lundestad doesn’t think any former prime ministers or foreign ministers, for example, should sit on the committee. That was widely interpreted as direct criticism of the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s current chairman, Thorbjørn Jagland, who was both a prime minister and foreign minister during his long political career with the Norwegian Labour Party. Jagland, who’s been a target of criticism over several Peace Prize choices in recent years, had no immediate comment but his chief of staff was clearly annoyed and objected strongly to Lundestad’s comments in social media.
Aftenposten also highlighted Lundestad’s remarks that members of the committee should at the very least be able to speak good English. That was viewed as a jab at several Nobel committee members over the years who have had a poor command of English, speaking with heavy accents or even insisting on only speaking Norwegian.
Lundestad also admitted in the interview that the controversial Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 to the newly elected US president at the time, Barack Obama, did not prove to be “the boost” for Obama “that we had hoped for.” Lundestad said the prize was meant to honour Obama’s achievement of being the first African-American elected as president of the United States and strengthen his ideals within the areas of human rights, disarmament, dialogue and diplomacy. That didn’t happen.
It was, however, Lundestad’s “advice” to the Norwegian Parliament (which was given the job of selecting the committee by prize benefactor Alfred Nobel himself) that grabbed the most attention following Aftenposten’s interview. After 25 years of observing how committees function, Lundestad made several unsolicited recommendations to the ruling parties in Parliament about how he thinks they could do a better job of choosing committee members.
“A lot can be said about those whom the Storting (Parliament) has named as members of the committee, but I don’t think the job done has been especially impressive,” Lundestad told Aftenposten. He proposed “two minimum demands” for members: In addition to proficiency in English, Lundestad said members should show an interest in international politics before they join the committee. Otherwise, according to Lundestad, “there’s too much training that needs to be done if they come in blank and don’t have much background in international politics.”
‘No foreigners,’ though
Lundestad also rejected recent proposals that the committee should include high-profile international figures. “There is of course enormous competence among the 99.9 percent on earth who are not Norwegian, but in practice, it would be difficult (to have foreigners on the committee),” Lundestad told Aftenposten. “In a cold war, wouldn’t we need, then, to have one from the East and one from the West? Kofi Annan (the former UN secretary general) has been mentioned, and I know him well, but he’s still active, brokering conflicts. We can’t have members with restricted negotiating room.” He called the addition of non-Norwegians to the committee as “a recipe for its destruction.”
His comments advising against the appointment of former prime ministers and foreign ministers has already been challenged by some Members of Parliament, including Øyvind Halleraker of the Conservative Party, deputy leader of the Parliament’s foreign relations committee. “Who else has greater international experience?” queried Halleraker on Sunday. Lundestad, however, worries that such appointments only fuel an impression that the committee is not independent of the Norwegian government and far too politically motivated.
“Getting the world to understand that the committee is independent (of the government) is a difficult job in itself,” Lundestad said. “The load gets too heavy if there are former (government ministers) on it.”
Kristian Berg Harpviken, leader of the Oslo-based peace research institute PRIO, thinks Lundestad has been surprisingly bold in his candid remarks in Aftenposten and later on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “He’s careful about not naming anyone, but it’s easy to presume who he’s turning the spotlight on,” Harpviken told Aftenposten on Sunday. Since Jagland of the Labour Party is up for re-election in January as chairman of the committee that now has a majority of members from the conservative side of Norwegian politics, “this is dynamite,” Harpviken said.
Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, said he thinks it’s fine for Lundestad to make his views known and choose to share the experience he’s built up over the past 25 years in his post. “Then we can avoid seeing the same mistakes made again,” Sverdrup told Aftenposten.
Others, including Harpviken and Halleraker, were surprised Lundestad criticized the Nobel Committee before retiring from his post. Harpviken suspects Lundestad, who also is writing a book about his years at the Nobel Institute, is hoping for maximum effect, not just in Norway but abroad. The book won’t just be about his impressions of Nobel Peace Prize winners (including anecdotes how he found former PLO leader Yasir Arafat, for example, watching old Tom & Jerry cartoons in his hotel suite in Oslo) but about committee members and committee leaders as well.
“We are all aware that Lundestad is relatively free-speaking,” said Halleraker, who thinks it was somewhat inapproriate for Lundestad to at least indirectly criticize the committee’s current leader before he’s gone out the door. “This will probably just increase when he retires. It will, at least, be refreshing.” Lundestad will resign as director of the institute and secretary to the committee at the end of the year, and be succeeded by Olav Njølstad, a professor at the University of Oslo.