As Norwegians paid their respects this week to the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died Sunday at an age of 90, they were reminded that he lost his own respect for Norway in 2014. That’s when Norwegian officials at the time didn’t want to meet with Tutu’s fellow Nobel Laureate, the Dalai Lama, for fear of offending Chinese authorities.
Both Tutu and the Dalai Lama visited Norway several times, and they were each awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Tutu in 1984 and the Dalai Lama in 1989. When the Norwegian Nobel Committee also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010, for his own commitment to human rights and criticism of China’s authoritarian rulers, the Chinese government reacted with fury and froze diplomatic relations with Norway for six years.
Tutu, who had played a crucial role in his own homeland’s long fight against apartheid, backed the Peace Prize to the jailed Xiaobo, who died in 2017 and was never allowed by the Chinese government to travel to Oslo to accept his prize. Three years earlier, Tutu’s affection for Norway had already taken a turn for the worse: The Dalai Lama returned to Norway but the new Conservatives-led government refused to receive him.
The Conservatives’ Foreign Minister Børge Brende, who ironically had been among those nominating Liu for the Peace Prize four years earlier while still a Member of Parliament, explained that the government didn’t want relations with China, where officials also fear and bash the Dalai Lama, to become even worse than they already were.
Tutu viewed that position of the Norwegian government at the time, which otherwise championed human rights, as unprincipled. “I’ve always had great respect for Norway,” Tutu told Norwegian Broadasting (NRK), “but that’s ended.” He even predicted that Norwegians would end up “in a very hot place” on judgement day.
Many other Norwegians, however, accused Brende and former Prime Minister Erna Solberg of acting like cowards. The Dalai Lama also ended up receiving a warm welcome back to Oslo and met with several other Members of Parliament from non-government parties, just not Solberg, the President of the Parliament Tone Wilhelmsen or King Harald V.
Official condolences now
The current Labour Party-led government, meanwhile, was honouring Tutu, with Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre sending condolences to the South African government and noting that Tutu “was a unique moral authority,” and hailing him on social media for “showing the power of truth, reconciliation and forgiveness.” Støre also stated that he’d “had the joy” of meeting Tutu several times, also at church services in Soweto in 1986.
Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt told newspaper VG that Tutu “contributed towards making the world a better place,” noting that he also became a leading figure in the battle for gay rights.” Tutu also met often with former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, through their membership on an international council of elders.
Retired Norwegian pastor Trond Bakkevig also shared several memories with newspaper Aftenposten on Monday of meetings with Tutu in Norway. Bakkevig had engaged himself strongly in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980s and noted how Tutu was “never afraid to criticize those holding power.”
On one visit to Oslo in the spring of 1984, Bakkevig said, Tutu wanted to physically touch the Royal Palace, amazed that it was possible for the general public to get so close to an official building. Bakkevig told him that “the next time you’re in Oslo, you’ll probably be invited inside.”
In December of that year, Tutu was invited inside to meet with the late King Olav V while in Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. The ceremony itself was marred by a bomb threat. With the orchestra still not in place after the threat was over, Tutu invited all South Africans in the audience to join him on the stage to sing the official hymn of the African National Congress (ANC), which had become an anti-apartheid symbol. There was thus music after all, and Bakkevig described it at “yet another memorable experience” with Desmond Tutu.