Nobel committee dodges controversy by choosing Malala, Satyarthi

The Nobel Prize Committee has been under fire in Norway for being too beholden to the country's foreign policy when selecting Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Vegard Wivestad Grott/NTB scanpix/AP
Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee Thørbjorn Jagland (c.) announces at The Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo Friday, that the Nobel Peace Prize 2014, is awarded jointly to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi.

After several years of controversy over its political autonomy, the Norwegian Nobel Committee took a safer route with this year's Nobel Peace Prize, splitting it between Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai and Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi.

The decision makes Malala, the 17-year-old student who survived an attack by the Taliban, the youngest Peace Prize laureate ever. Malala received the award for her “heroic struggle” under the “most dangerous circumstances” in standing up to the Taliban over girls’ rights to education.

Her much older co-laureate, Mr. Satyarthi, a 60-year-old champion against child labor, will share the award for “maintaining Gandhi’s tradition” through various peaceful protests and demonstrations focusing on the exploitation of children for financial gain. It is estimated that there are now 78 million fewer child laborers globally than in 2000, bringing the current tally to 168 million.

The committee stressed the importance of giving the prize to both a Hindu and Muslim to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.

“Let them go to school instead of letting them get swept up in extremism,” Thorbjørn Jagland, the Norwegian Nobel Committee chair, said during the announcement ceremony in Oslo. “In conflict-ridden areas in particular, the violation of children leads to the continuation of violence from generation to generation.”

The decision to honor children’s rights this year skirts the current thorny debate over the independence of the five-person committee, which is selected by Norway’s parliament.

Critics have complained that the current makeup of the committee – comprised of Norwegian political veterans like Mr. Jagland, a former Labor prime minister – hamstrings its ability to award the prize. They say that  prevents the committee from tapping other Peace Prize nominees who could prove problematic for Norway’s foreign policy interests, such as Russia’s opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta or US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Norway is still reeling from the decision in 2010 to award the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The Chinese retaliated by stalling bilateral trade talks with Norway and cooling diplomatic relations. A member of the ruling Progress Party has even questioned the prudence of having Jagland as committee chairman, given that he also serves as the secretary general of the Council of Europe, the EU's human rights organization. Critics say holding both positions raises conflicts of interest for Jagland.

But Jagland disagrees. “The Nobel Committee is entirely independent, has always been, and will be in the future regardless of who is on the committee and who is chairing the committee,” he told the Monitor. “As you know, this is rooted in the will of Alfred Nobel, deciding on how the committees shall be appointed and that they have rules on who is chairing the committee.”

Parliament will vote by Jan. 1 on new terms for three of the committee seats, including Jagland’s. Jagland is expected to continue to serve, following on the tradition that the committee reflects parliament's composition. The Labor party is the largest party in parliament.

But the ruling Conservative and Progress parties' coalition could choose to alter the committee's makeup in response too the controversy. Some have called for parliament to think more broadly this year and elect academics, perhaps even an international member, to avoid potential confusion over its autonomy.

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