Not only is the Norwegian Nobel Committee under constant pressure over the Nobel Peace Prize that it’s charged with awarding, the Nobel Foundation in Sweden has often tried to meddle in its affairs, according to the new book written by the committee’s former secretary. The outspoken Geir Lundestad also blasted his critics and media reports about his book, claiming it is not a “character assassination” of the committee’s former chairman, nor did he oppose the controversial Peace Prize awarded to US President Barack Obama.
Nowhere in his book, claimed Lundestad at a press conference tied to this week’s launch of his book, did he write that he opposed the prize to Obama. He was skeptical about it in the beginning, he allowed, but he backed the prize fully and even wrote the committee’s justification for it. He also vigorously defended the prize afterwards.
Lundestad also flatly rejected commentators’ claims that he was unduly harsh in his evaluation of Thorbjørn Jagland as the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s former chairman. Jagland still sits on the committee, as a representative for Norway’s Labour Party, but he became the first to be demoted earlier this year when the committee’s five members voted to replace him with Kaci Kullmann Five, who represents the Conservative Party on the committee. The Conservatives won a majority on the committee after they also won the last national elections in 2013, since Alfred Nobel’s will decrees that the committee awarding the Peace Prize must reflect the make-up of Norway’s Parliament. Kaci Kullmann Five ended up taking over Jagland’s role as the committee’s leader and she’ll now be the one announcing the Nobel Peace Prize winners. She’ll make her debut which this year’s prize is announced on October 9.
Jagland’s demotion was tied not only to the change in the make-up of the committee, but also to ongoing criticism over the committee’s choices, Jagland’s manner of communicating and his dual role as head of the Council of Europe. Lundestad expands on much of that criticism in his new book, and remains concerned that Jagland’s Council of Europe job poses conflicts of interest.
He rejected suggestions he was too harsh with Jagland, however. “I have written that he had an ability for long-term thinking, that we mostly had an excellent cooperation and that he has great knowledge of foreign policy, with a few holes,” Lundestad told reporters at the press conference. “I even defended (Jagland’s command of) English,” he added, which is generally viewed as poor and heavily accented. That, Lundestad asserted, did not amount to a character assassination.
Lundestad said he was “disappointed” over how his book has been interpreted. He claims it makes a strong contribution towards openness into how the Nobel committee operates, which has traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. Former Labour Party secretary Martin Kolberg strongly disagreed. “I believe that Lundestad has made a big mistake, and behaved in an unacceptable manner, both in how he describes the committee’s work and the characterizations he makes,” Kolberg said on the popular public affairs radio program Dagsnytt 18 on state broadcaster NRK. Kolberg said the book should never have been written.
It was nonetheless getting lots of publicity this week, not just for Lundestad’s characterizations of committee members over the years but also for its revelations about how the Nobel system operates. Benefactor Alfred Nobel decreed in his will that the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemisty, physiology and literature would be awarded by Swedish committees while the Norwegians were entrusted with awarding the Nobel Peace Prize. Newspaper Aftenposten reported Friday on how Lundestad writes that the Swedish Nobel Foundation, however, has repeatedly tried to exert influence over the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Lundestad, who served as committee’s secretary and director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute for 25 years, describes a shift of power in recent years, from the committees charged with selecting prize winners to the Stockholm-based Nobel Foundation, which is charged with managing and placing the money that Alfred Nobel donated for the prizes. Armed with such financial muscle, Lundestad writes that foundation leader Lars Heikensten has tried to assert control over the committees as well.
The foundation, according to Lundestad’s book, wanted, among other things, to sell the classic old mansion in Oslo that houses the Nobel Institute, located on prime property adjacent to the Royal Palace. The building was seen as too expensive, Lundestad suggested, and presumably could provide a considerable financial gain for the foundation. Lundestad said that he and the Norwegian committee managed to resist the pressure to sell, though, by finding papers in the Norwegian committee’s archives stating that even though the Swedish foundation formally owns the building, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has the right to use it and the building can’t be sold without the committee’s approval.
Lundestad writes that the Nobel Foundation and Heikensten also tried to influence who would be hired to replace Lundestad when he retired late last year. Lundestad claims the foundation wanted to prevent the hiring of another outspoken person such as himself. “If the Nobel Foundation is allowed to hire the committee secretary, it would also have consequences for the selection of prizewinners,” he writes, “because the person hired would be expected to report on candidates and winners back to the foundation.”
A Swedish law governing foundations that was passed in 1996 also presents challenges for the autonomy and independence of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Lundestad believes, beause it’s been interpreted that the foundation can be obligated to ensure that the committees awarding Nobel prizes do so in accordance with Alfred Nobel’s will.
Aftenposten reported that it sought comment on Lundestad’s claims from the Nobel Foundation but was told that no comment would be made until foundation officials had read Lundestad’s book. Asked whether he’d had any reaction from the foundation, Lundestad said it had only come indirectly. “They don’t like it,” he told Aftenposten.