The Corona crisis left the Norwegian Nobel Institute unusually quiet on Thursday, even though it was the annual Nobeldagen (Nobel Day) when the Peace Prize is awarded. There’s been lots of activity behind its doors this autumn, however, with politics still behind transition on the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Terms were up for three of its five members and only one of them was renewed: Anne Enger, a former leader of the Center Party best known for leading the campaign against EU membership, will continue for five more years.
Members appointed by the Conservative and Labour parties, however, are both being replaced. Heading out the door most notably is Thorbjørn Jagland, the former Norwegian Labour Party leader and prime minister who went on to become head of the Council of Europe.
Jagland, who led the Nobel Committee from 2009 to 2015, was behind the controversial Nobel Prizes to US President Barack Obama and Chinese dissident Liu Xiabao. Jagland turned 70 this autumn and did not leave a lifetime in politics and power quietly. First he published his memoirs, in which he was accused by critics of blaming others for his own problems over the years. Jagland himself revealed how his relationship with one of his successors as prime minister, current NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, was plagued by suspicion and a lack of confidence. Stoltenberg has admitted in a book of his own in 2016 that he had allied himself with other Labour politicians to weaken Jagland as party leader. Stoltenberg has declined comment on Jagland’s autobiography.
The former Nobel Committee leader also got caught on his way out in a scandal swirling around another of his former Labour colleagues, diplomat Terje Rød-Larsen. Rød-Larsen, married to Norway’s ambassador to the UN Mona Juul, ultimately had to resign this fall as leader of the International Peace Institute in New York after a series of articles in Oslo-based newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) revealed his ties to the late and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Jagland, meanwhile, staunchly defended his old friend.
Ex-politician and non-politician join the committee
Jagland, meanwhile, will be replaced by the youngest member of the Nobel Committee ever, 36-year-old Jørgen Watne Frydnes, who most recently has been responsible for the resurrection of Utøya, the island where scores of young Labour Party members were killed in a right-wing extremist’s massacre on July 22, 2011. Frydnes, with a master’s degree in international policy from the University of York, is also a member of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and served on the board of Leger Uten Grenser (Doctors Without Borders) from 2013-2017.
The Conservative Party’s representative on the committee (which is supposed to reflect the makeup of the Norwegian Parliament under the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will) decided to depart after just one term. Professor, philosopher and author Henrik Syse, son of the late Conservative Prime Minister Jan Per Syse whose brother Christian is a Norwegian ambassador, has cited potential conflicts with future plans and his post on the board of the charitable AKO Foundation, set up by Norwegian billionaire Nicolai Tangen who now heads Norway’s Oil Fund.
Syse will thus be replaced as of January 1 by Kristin Clemet, a veteran Conservatives politician and government minister who most recently has run the think tank Civita in Oslo. Commentator Harald Stanghelle in newspaper Aftenposten wrote recently that her appointment is “problematic for everyone keen to distance winners of the Nobel Peace Prize from Norway’s foreign policy. In addition to her own long association with the “official” Norway, she’s married to Member of Parliament Michael Tetzschner, who also serves as foreign policy spokesperson for the Conservatives. “It’s difficult to find a closer tie between the government (led by the Conservatives since 2013) and the Nobel Committee,” Stanghelle wrote in late November.
Both the committee and the government have become especially sensitive to anything appearing to undermine the committee’s independence since China angrily cut ties with Norway after the Nobel prize to Liu in 2010. The Norwegian government doesn’t want to be seen as behind who wins the prize, while the committee repeatedly asserts its autonomy. When this year’s prize was dealt out digitally to the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome, the committee didn’t want anyone tied to the government involved. It thus wasn’t Norway’s ambassador to Italy who physically gave the Nobel medal and diplomat to WFP’s leader David Beasley, but the co-president of the International Peace Bureau, which won the Peace Prize itself in 1910. Lisa Pelletti Clark lives in Italy and could travel to Roma to do the honours.
Nobel Committee leader Berit Reiss-Andersen nonetheless told Beasley during Thursday’s vastly scaled-down award ceremony that if it wasn’t for the Corona pandemic and all its travel restriction, he “would have been greeted in Norway by the Norwegian Royal Family, the president of the Parliament, the prime minister and other officials representatives of Norway.” That seemed at odds with the committee’s desire to distance itself from “the official Norway.”
The Parliament’s choices also raise questions when they continue to be veteran politicians. “Does the Parliament really want an independent Nobel Committee?” mused Stanghelle last month. “The signals can be mixed.” He concluded by writing that the road towards independence for the committee “can be complicated,” given more new politically oriented appointments, “but it’s going in the right direction.”