Funeral services for Norwegian peace activist Fredrik S Heffermehl landed on a stormy winter day in Oslo on Wednesday, but that was arguably in keeping with Heffermehl’s spirit. The late attorney and author stirred up plenty of storms himself, as a tireless advocate of what he viewed as the real intentions of Alfred Nobel’s will.
That made him a thorn in the side of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (appointed by the Norwegian Parliament to select Nobel Peace Prize winners) and many of the Members of Parliament in Norway who appoint Nobel committee members. Heffermehl was convinced that Nobel committees over the years regularly violated the terms of Peace Prize benefactor Alfred Nobel’s will.
Even though Nobel himself was Swedish, and all the other Nobel Prizes are awarded in Sweden, he made it clear that responsibility for awarding the Peace Prize would lie with a committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget). Nobel’s will was dated November 27, 1895, when Norway was still part of its unhappy union with Sweden and keen to become a sovereign nation with its own foreign ministry and, eventually, monarchy. It eventually did, 10 years later in 1905.
The five-member Nobel committee itself was meant to reflect the political makeup of Parliament. Its members in turn are charged, according to Nobel’s will, with awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Heffermehl took that literally, even though there aren’t many “peace congresses” held these days. He maintained that Alfred Nobel was most concerned with reduction of arms: “Alfred Nobel wished to help the world break free of the yoke of weapons, militarism and war,” Heffermehl wrote on the website Nobel Peace Prize Watch (external link). It called for “international cooperation to replace confrontation” and annually offered its own list of “qualified candidates” for the Nobel Peace Prize.
He also predictably criticized most of the Nobel Committee’s Peace Prize choices, suggesting they amounted more to political prizes aimed at “serving US and Western agendas.” He also wrote several books on the topic, with titles including references to “the back side” of the prize’s medallion and content about what Alfred Nobel “really wanted.”
The Norwegian Nobel Committee has consistently defended itself, also as its makeup changed when members’ terms were up. In 2015, the committee claimed in a lengthy response to a letter Heffermehl had sent to Parliament and the Nobel Foundation (external link) in Stockholm that it firmly believed it has administered the prize, “both historically and in recent years, according to the ‘actual intention'” and that Heffermehl’s proposed measures were “neither necessary nor appropriate.”
The Oslo-based committee has long viewed itself as the “executor” of Alfred Nobel’s will. “Others are entitled to their opinion about the committee’s choice of laureates, but, under the terms of the will, the task of awarding the peace prize is entrusted to the Norwegian Nobel Committee and no one else.”
Heffermehl remained dissatisfied with the vast majority of the committee’s choices, with a few exceptions, but could claim at least one victory of sorts: In recent years, the committee has made a point of justifying its Nobel Peace Prize winners by specifically referring to how it meets the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will. That was a clear sign of the impact Heffermehl actually had.
In addition to his long record as a peace activist, Heffermehl held leadership roles in the humanist federation Human-Etisk Forbund in Oslo, which offers an alternative to organized religion among other activities, and several other organizations including the International Peace Bureau and the International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms. He was active to the end, when he suddenly died at age 85 just before the Christmas holidays. Eleven days earlier, when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to jailed Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, he was busy sending off emails with his opinions about this year’s Peace Prize. They carried the title “En falsk forestilling,” which translates to “A false performance.”
Heffermehl was born on November 11, also known as Armistice Day after World War I, and he celebrated his 85th birthday just over two months ago by gathering friends, family and professional acquaintances at Oslo’s Hotel Continental. He also released his latest book at the party on a Saturday afternoon, entitled, not surprisingly, The Real Nobel Peace Prize, A Squandered Opportunity to Abolish War. It was an updated version of Medaljens Bakside, and written in English, not Norwegian, for all his international contacts to read.
“Many will miss Fredrik, as a friend, as a source of knowledge, as a good person and an inspiring champion of peace,” wrote Ingeborg Breines, a former president of the International Peace Bureau and UNESCO official, in newspaper Klassekampen. He’s survived by four younger siblings, nephews, nieces and their children.