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New faces propel Peace Prize process

The young new leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee isn’t the only fresh face behind the Oslo-based process of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize. Jørgen Watne Frydnes has another new colleague on the committee and now its five members also need to find a new director for the Norwegian Nobel Institute that administers the prize. The search is on.

Jørgen Watne Frydnes became the youngest leader ever of the Norwegian Nobel Committee earlier this year. Now he’ll also share responsibility for bringing in a new director for the Norwegian Nobel Institute. PHOTO: Berglund

The new director will replace the retiring Olav Njølstad, a professor and historian who turned 67 on March 1. Njølstad, who’s also been working on a political biography of former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, has been one of the Norwegian Nobel Institute’s few full-time employees, and played a major role in rescuing the institute from some serious financial problems in recent years.

They’ve since been sorted out, after the institute set up a new foundation in 2022 with its own board of directors and a fund dedicated to extend “lasting economic support.” The foundation is named after prize benefactor Alfred Nobel and dedicated to financially securing both the operations of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, the Norwegian Nobel Committe and their independence.

The independence issue has become increasingly important in recent years, not least after the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010. That prize infuriated the Chinese government, which prevented Liu from attending the ceremony and set off a lengthy diplomatic freeze between China and Norway. Chinese officials blamed their outrage and embarrassment on the Norwegian government, even though the Nobel Committee has always selected prize winners independently of the government and Parliament and through a top-secret process. Deliberations by the committee are even kept under wraps for 50 years, but that didn’t satisfy the Chinese.

New Nobel Committee leader Jørgen Watne Frydnes, sitting under the watchful gaze of prize benefactor Alfred Nobel at the table where Peace Prize decisions have been made for more than 100 years. PHOTO: Berglund

The only link between the Norwegian Parliament and the Norwegian Nobel Committee is found in the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will from 1896. It calls for the make-up of the five-member committee to reflect the political make-up of the Parliament at any given time. It’s up to the political parties represented in Parliament, though, to decide who they want on the committee, and then that chosen few settle on the Nobel Peace Prize winners after months of their secret meetings.

The new foundation dedicated to the independence of the Nobel Peace Prize  cleared the way, meanwhile, for the Norwegian Parliament to make a one-time grant of NOK 300 million to the foundation’s new fund. Around NOK 70 million of that was spent to buy the historic mansion adjacent to the Royal Palace in Oslo, where the Nobel Institute and Nobel Committee are based. Earnings from the remaining NOK 230 million must fund annual operating expenses for both. The Nobel Peace Prize’s monetary award and the costs of the Peace Prize ceremonies in December will continue to be funded by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm that also funds all the other Nobel prizes.

It’s all amounted to a fresh start of sorts for both the Nobel Institute and the committee. Committee leader Frydnes told that Institute Director Njølstad, who also serves as secretary to the committee, has agreed to stay on through the end of this year, but an executive search firm has been hired to help find Njølstad’s replacement and a new director is expected to be in place from January 1, 2025.

The current Norwegian Nobel Committee that chooses the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize: (from left) Anne Enger, Olav Njølstad (secretary), Gry Larsen, Kristin Clemet, Asle Toje (deputy leader) and new leader Jørgen Watne Frydnes. PHOTO: ©Nobel Prize Outreach/Agnete Brun

Frydnes was himself tapped by the Labour Party to represent it on the five-member committee that selects Peace Prize winner in 2021, when he just 36 years old. He stressed during a meeting this week with members of the Foreign Press Association in Oslo that the current members of the committee “are all very different, with different backgrounds” and range in age from their late 40s to their mid-70s. “I’m not that young,” insisted the now-39-year-old Frydnes, although he may become the first Nobel Committee member to still be alive when the 50-year ban on winner deliberations is over. That could offer future insight in prize decisions.

Of the current five members, three were longtime politicians: Anne Enger, a member since 2018, is a former leader of the Center Party and best known for leading the campaign that kept Norway outside the European Union in 1994. Kristin Clemet is a former government minister for the Conservative Party and the newest member on the committee, 49-year-old Gry Larsen, is a former state secretary in the foreign ministry for Labour. The fifth member and deputy leder of the committee, Asle Toje, is a political scientist and scholar who formerly served as research director for the Nobel Institute. He was chosen by the conservative Progress Party to serve on the committee, members of which also have other full-time jobs or various pursuits.

Frydnes outside the historic mansion in Oslo that serves as the offices and meeting rooms for the Norwegian Nobel Institute, with a bust of Alfred Nobel in the background. PHOTO: Berglund

Frydnes himself is the secretary general of PEN Norway, the country’s chapter of the international organization (external link) devoted to defending freedom of expression. He has a degree in political science from the University of Oslo and a master’s degree in international politics from the University of York in England. Before taking over at PEN, he led reconstruction efforts on the island of Utøya, after it was the site of a right-wing extremist’s terrorist attack on Labour’s summer camp in 2011. A total of 69 mostly young people were killed and hundreds wounded and traumatized, and Frydnes’ job was to transform the mass-murder site into a center for democracy and dialogue. He’ll be concentrating on the discussion and dialogue aspects on the Nobel Committee.

“Our role is not necessarily to create peace,” Frydnes said. “It’s to recognize others who have made the best contribution to it.” He believes it’s “important for the prize to create hope, create a way forward, or a way out” (of conflict). He disclosed that committee meetings involve going “around the table, we go around the table, and we go around the table again. And then we get hungry, and the tradition is that the youngest committee member goes out to get lunch.” That’s been him for the past three years.

“We try to develop,” he added, “our own interpretation of (Nobel’s) will,” the wording of which is now somewhat outdated given the current lack of “peace congresses” to which it refers. Nobel’s will also promotes “fraternity between nations” and the “abolition or reduction of standing armies,” something that’s not easy to recognize now as countries rush to boost defense spending after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The high level of conflicts of present makes it even more important, Frydnes said, “to find peace initiators in a troubled world.” The committee’s work began in February, after the deadline passed for this year’s Peace Prize candidates. The institute reported a total of 286 candidates for the 2024 prize, including 197 individuals and 89 organizations. That’s down from 351 candidates last year and a record 376 candidates in 2016.

Frydnes couldn’t explain the reduction, apart from noting extraordinarily high numbers of nominations recently. “What’s important is that the trend has been a big rise in recent years,” he said. “We encourage more nominations” for what he insists is still a relevant prize that also aims to highlight issues, not least, he adds “when things are dark and difficult.”

The winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize will be announced in Oslo, as always, on the Friday of the first full week of October. That falls on October 11 this year. Berglund



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