Thorbjørn Jagland, the often-criticized chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, has finally responded to debate that flew last week over the qualifications of committee members, not least his own. Jagland was careful, though, to avoid directly referring to the man who set off the most recent round of debate: Geir Lundestad, the committee’s outgoing secretary.
Lundestad delivered some explosive parting shots just before last week’s Nobel Peace Prize events got underway. After 25 years as the Nobel committee’s secretary and director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Lundestad decided to share some of his thoughts on who should and should not be chosen to sit on the committee.
In Lundestad’s opinion, Jagland shouldn’t have been chosen because he’s both a former Norwegian prime minister and foreign minister. That can make it difficult, Lundestad told newspaper Aftenposten, for the committee to be viewed as totally independent from the Norwegian government. The retiring committee secretary also worried there have been too many former politicians on the committee over the years, and members who lacked proficiency in English and a solid background in international affairs.
Lundestad, who was met with a barrage of criticism himself after his remarks, insisted he was speaking in general terms, and Jagland didn’t refer to his criticism directly in a commentary published in Aftenposten on Tuesday. Instead, Jagland responded to Aftenposten’s own editorial on the Nobel debate that Lundestad unleashed.
‘Politics no hindrance’
Jagland believes that committee members’ political background is no hindrance to their performance on the committee. Alfred Nobel himself wanted the Norwegian Parliament to name the five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee who would select the Peace Prize.
“When it comes to competence, political background can’t be a disadvantage,” Jagland wrote. “It’s of course not the only qualification. The committee has always had members with political and other background.”
He also noted that “it’s often said” that the Nobel Peace Prize continues to be the world’s most prestigious. “It’s fantastic how much attention the prize gets every year,” Jagland wrote. “That can’t be because of incompetent (committee) members who can’t speak English or lack expertise in international issues.” That was a direct reference to Lundestad’s additional belief that committee members should be proficient in English and have knowledge of international issues before joining the committee. That hasn’t always been the case.
Challenging the Chinese
Jagland also addressed the controversy that erupted after jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, for his efforts to promote human rights in China. Chinese government officials immediately froze diplomatic relations with Norway, blaming the Norwegian government instead of the committee for its embarrassment and anger over a prize to someone they view as a criminal. Jagland contends that the very fact that the Nobel committee chose to award the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo proved its independence from the Norwegian government:
“I was warned by the (Norwegian) government in power at the time (led by his own Labour Party) not to give the prize to Liu Xiaobo,” Jagland wrote. “I didn’t think it was any problem that the (Norwegian) government made its views known. A problem would have come up if the committee had backed off, especially after the committee also was subjected to direct pressure from the Chinese government.” Jagland claimed that “a Chinese deputy foreign minister” took contact “with both me and Geir Lundestad and warned (against a prize to Liu Xiaobo) in clear and threatening words.”
If the Nobel committee had given in to the pressure from both the Norwegian and Chinese governments and that became known publicly, Jagland wrote, the Nobel committee’s credibility would have been damaged. “The committee did not give in,” Jagland wrote.
Jagland has been nominated by Labour to serve a second five-year term on the committee. The committee will reconvene in January, with a new secretary who will succeed Lundestad, and elect its own chairman. It’s unclear whether Jagland will be re-elected to the post, since the new committee will reflect a new conservative majority in Parliament.