Political debate continued to fly this week over criticism lodged against the Norwegian Nobel Committee during the weekend by its own retiring secretary Geir Lundestad, the longtime director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. One former short-lived justice minister claimed on Tuesday that Lundestad had “sabotaged” the committee, just as it enters its most high-profile week of the year.
Anne Holt, who was appointed justice minister by Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland just after he’d become prime minister in 1997, wrote in a column in newspaper Dagsavisen that Lundestad’s decision “to air his personal thoughts about the Nobel Committee” was “crude at best, and sabotage at worst.” Holt, now better known as a successful crime author, only served a few weeks as justice minister before resigning as a result of illness. She was firm, though, in refuting the criticism lodged against Jagland and the committee, not only by Lundestad but by many others especially during the past year.
Holt has not been alone in lashing out at Lundestad and earlier critics who worry that the Norwegian Nobel Committee is not viewed as independent of the Norwegian government. Under the terms of the will of prize benefactor Alfred Nobel, the committee must be appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. Nobel believed that would be the best way of ensuring that the committee would reflect the will of the Norwegian people, but it has resulted in the committee often being made up former politicians appointed by parties holding government power. That has often made it difficult, not least during the conflict with the Chinese government over the prize in 2010 to dissident Liu Xiaobo, to distinguish the committee and its decisions on prize winners from the Norwegian government itself.
Lundestad has claimed that he simply found it appropriate to share his thoughts on how the committee’s members are chosen before he retires at the end of this month. His comments, though, were immediately dubbed as political “dynamite.” Lundestad was, in effect, criticizing the Parliament and several politicians tried to put him firmly in his place.
“In his position, he shall not criticize Stortinget (the Parliament) over the work performed on choosing members,” Martin Kolberg, a veteran official of Jagland’s Labour Party who now serves as a Member of Parliament and heads its disciplinary committee, told newspaper Aftenposten. Kolberg suggested Lundestad was being “snobbish,” especially for demanding that committee members be proficient in English. The parliament, Kolberg claimed, appoints members of the Nobel Committee “to the best of their ability. Concrete evidence that his (Lundestad’s) reasoning is not correct, is that the prize now has more prestige than ever before. It has in no way been damaged by the type of people that the Parliament has chosen to sit on the committee.”
Not everyone agrees with Kolberg’s assessment of the prize and the committee that awards it, especially outside Norway, but several politicians also seemed offended by Lundestad’s remarks. Fellow Labour Party member Sissel Rønbeck, herself a former government minister who sat on the Nobel committee for 17 years, called Lundestad “terribly arrogant” for taking attention away from this year’s prize winners, at least in Norway. Marit Arnstad, a former government minister who’s now an MP for the Center Party that recently ruled with Labour, was among many questioning and criticizing the timing of Lundestad’s remarks, just before Nobel Peace Prize events begin in Oslo. It’s a time when the committee chairman (Jagland) and its secretary (Lundestad) must appear often together in public, and a time when the spotlight arguably should be on the prize winners, not on the Nobel Institute or the committee itself. Harald Nesvik of the Progess Party was among those contending that the media-savvy Lundestad wanted to achieve maximum impact and stir up a media storm. If he’d waited until he actually retired, or even until after the Nobel Peace Prize whirl was over, he likely wouldn’t have received as much attention as he has since first using newspaper Aftenposten as his mouthpiece on Saturday.
Lundestad himself, who is also writing a book on his 25 years at the Nobel Institute, has remained almost strangely quiet since detonating his “dynamite” over the weekend. He has mostly declined further comment, other than to tell Aftenposten that he had shared his thoughts with the committee itself before airing them publicly. Jagland and the other four members on the committee were therefore aware, and presumably prepared, for what Holt calls Lundestad’s “broadside” against them.
Jagland refuses to comment on Lundestad’s criticism and the two men seemed to be putting a brave face on any tension between them. Reporters noted that Lundestad and Jagland had their arms around each other while waiting to greet prize winner Malala Yousafzai at the airport Monday night, and the men reportedly shared a taxi to the airport when they met co-winner Kailash Satyarthi earlier in the day. That suggests they at least had a lot of time to chat together. With a new conservative majority on the committee that will convene with new member Henrik Syse in January, speculation has also been flying that Jagland will not be re-elected as committee chairman.