Edward Snowden: whistleblower, criminal ... Nobel Peace Prize winner?

Experts say ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden is a favorite for the Nobel Peace Prize, set to be announced Friday. But such a decision would cause huge complications for Norway with one of its closest allies, the US.

Glenn Greenwald/Laura Poitras/Courtesy of The Guardian/Handout via Reuters/File
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is seen in this still image taken from video during an interview by The Guardian in a hotel room in Hong Kong, in June 2013.

The US government says he's a criminal. Others call him a hero. But will Edward Snowden soon be described as a Nobel Peace Prize winner?

Some experts are predicting that the former US contractor for the National Security Agency now living under asylum in Russia will be announced on Friday as this year's honoree. But Mr. Snowden's selection would give new fuel to an ongoing debate in Norway about just how independent the Nobel Committee there really is.

Experts say Snowden, who alerted the public to the US government's widespread surveillance through the release of enormous volumes of documentation last year, tops their predictions of Nobel contenders. 

He has been nominated by Socialist Left parliamentarians, and supported in several editorials in leading Norwegian papers and by lawyers and academics internationally, points out Asle Sveen, a Norwegian Nobel historian at Nobeliana. Giving the prize to Snowden would also underline the independence of the parliament-appointed Norwegian Nobel Committee, which selects the winner.

Questions over the autonomy of the committee were resurrected earlier this year when the Norwegian government refused to meet with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on the 25th anniversary of his Peace Prize over fears of irking China.

“Giving it to Snowden would run against all political instincts,” says Kristian Harpviken, director at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. “He is, after all, considered a traitor to one of Norway’s closest allies."

Indeed, awarding the prize to Snowden would rock US relations. Norway is still dealing with the fallout from awarding the prize four years ago to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. China stalled bilateral trade talks and cut trade with Norway in retaliation. Though awarding Snowden this year's prize would likely not draw as harsh a rebuke from the US, it would still shake the relationship.

And under treaty agreements with the US, Norway could be obliged to arrest Snowden at the award ceremony at Oslo City Hall in December, according to Michael Tetzschner, a Conservative member of parliament.

"We would have another empty chair,” Mr. Harpviken added, referring to Mr. Liu, who was prevented from attending the award ceremony in Oslo.

The committee has alternatives, of course, some of which are just as controversial. Novaya Gazeta, the independent Russian newspaper set up in 1993 at the initiative of Mikhail Gorbachev, has been a favorite among speculators for some time. The paper has seen the killings of its journalists and been the subject of numerous cyberattacks. A prize to the media watchdogs would be topical given Russia’s current involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

However, politicians and academics view it as a possible conundrum for Thorbjørn Jagland, the Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman and former prime minister who also serves as secretary general of the Council of Europe, because they believe Mr. Jagland would not dare anger Russia with an award to activists. Kristian Norheim, Progress Party foreign policy spokesperson, recently suggested that Jagland should even be ousted as chairman because of his controversial double role.

Among the less incendiary candidates, say both Mr. Sveen and Mr. Harpviken, are Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai and Pope Francis. But Harpviken's latest first choice is the Japanese people who support Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. "In Japan, a large part of the population sees this non-aggression commitment in its Constitution, effective as of 1946, as the main cause the country has stayed out of war ever since," said Harpviken.

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