Kaci Kullmann Five, a former trade minister and head of the Conservative Party, took over as leader on Tuesday of the small but powerful Oslo-based committee that decides who wins the Nobel Peace Prize every year. The new conservative majority in Norway’s Parliament led to a political shift on the committee, unseating its controversial chairman for the past five years from the Labour Party, Thorbjørn Jagland.
Under the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will, the Norwegian Nobel Committee should reflect the political make-up of the Norwegian Parliament. The last national elections in 2013 left the parliament with a conservative-centrist majority that could then seize power from the former Labour-led government that had placed Jagland on the committee.
That’s what led to Tuesday’s change of command at the committee, as it held its first meeting of the year. Speculation had swirled for months that Jagland’s days as chairman of the Nobel Committee were numbered and that the new conservative majority on the five-member committee would assume command.
Five (pronounced “Fee-veh”) has been a member of the committee since 2003 and thus had more seniority than the Conservatives’ other committee member, Henrik Syse, who was just appointed last year. The Conservatives also hold government power through a minority coalition with the Progress Party, which is represented on the Nobel committee by Inger-Marie Ytterhorn.
Jagland, who had expressed a desire to continue as chairman, thus found himself in the minority along with the other committee member appointed by the Labour Party, attorney Berit Reiss-Andersen, who also serves as head of the Norwegian Bar Association. Jagland seemed to take the loss of the chairman’s role in stride.
“Those who are voted in from the Conservatives and the Progress Party have chosen a new committee leader and had a majority for that,” Jagland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Tuesday afternoon. “I just have to accept that.”
Jagland, whom Five said was “a good leader,” will remain a member of the Nobel Committee, after just being reappointed by Labour last fall. He was a controversial leader, often criticized for everything from his poor English to his dual role as head of the Council of Europe. Professor Eivind Smith at the University of Oslo is just one of many critics who have called that dual role “unfortunate,” since it can pose conflicts of interest.
Jagland, who has staunchly denied any conflicts, has also been harshly criticized over the committee’s choices of Nobel Peace Prize winners under his chairmanship. The prize in 2009 to newly elected US President Barack Obama at the time was both praised and ridiculed, and Obama himself has joked that he hadn’t done much by the time he won the prize. Jagland preferred to see Obama’s election and outreach to other nations as a sign of hope after eight years of the Bush administration.
The committee’s prize to the EU was also controversial but none has caused more problems for Norway than its award in 2010 to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. Chinese authorities were furious and have tried to punish Norway ever since, even though the Norwegian government has no say in the Peace Prize deliberation or choices.
Some commentators immediately claimed that Tuesday’s change of leadership on the committee was a concession to the Chinese, who maintain a diplomatic freeze with Norway. Five, who wouldn’t comment on the committee’s discussions that led to her election as leader, firmly denied that, claiming that she also was “wholeheartedly” in favour of the prize to Liu. It was, in fact, one of her own party fellows from the Conservatives (current government minister Jan Tore Sanner) who nominated Liu Xiaobo for the Peace Prize in the first place. Chinese officials can thus hardly view Five’s replacement of Jagland as a concession.
Five, age 63, was a leading figure in Norwegian politics for three decades, rising as head of the Conservatives’ youth group in the 1970s to become the party’s first female boss and join the government when it was led by Jan Per Syse, father of the newest Nobel committee member Henrik Syse. Since leaving politics in the late 1990s, she has served on the boards of several companies and run her own consulting firm in addition to her Nobel Committee duties. She’s was widely praised on Tuesday as being extremely capable, intelligent, orderly and perhaps more “diplomatic” than Jagland. Her English is also well-regarded.