Is the Nobel Committee too political? Outgoing director suggests 'yes'

Even as Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai and Indian child labor activist Kailash Satyarthi receive their Peace Prizes today, there's debate behind the scenes over whether former Norwegian political leaders should be on the Nobel Committee.

Cornelius Poppe/ScanPix/AP
Nobel Peace Prize winners Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, left, and Kailash Satyarthi of India arrive for the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo today. The Nobel Peace Prize is being shared between Malala, the 17-year-old Taliban attack survivor and the youngest Nobel Prize winner ever, and Mr. Satyarthi, an Indian children's rights activist.

For the moment, the Nobel Committee's attention is focused on Pakistani teen Malala Yousafzai and Indian child labor activist Kailash Satyarthi, who received their Nobel Peace Prize medals in an Oslo ceremony today.

But behind the scenes, a storm is brewing over the political independence of the award process, after the Norwegian Nobel Institute's outgoing director called for a ban on former government ministers serving on the committee that selects the winners.

In a candid interview with Norwegian daily Aftenposten this weekend, just weeks away from retirement, institute director Geir Lundestad said that the practice of appointing former prime ministers and foreign ministers had been a “burden” for the committee’s independence. Its members are selected by Norway's parliament.

The critique is seen as a direct reference to current chairman Thorbjørn Jagland, a former prime minister and foreign minister. Mr. Jagland, in what might be his last major act as chairman, awarded Malala and Mr. Satyarthi their prizes today, praising their efforts to promote children's education. Malala has been campaigning for girls’ education in Pakistan, where nearly half of the 52 million school-aged children – mostly girls – do not get an education. Satyarthi has worked to release 80,000 from child labor so that they can attend school.

“Attendance at school, especially by girls, deprive such forces [as Taliban and Islamic State] of power,” said Jagland. “Satyarthi insists that it is not poverty that leads to child labor. Child labor maintains poverty, carrying it on from generation to generation. School attendance releases ... young people from poverty.” 

Political backlash to past awards 

Some politicians have called the timing of Lundestad’s comments ahead of today's ceremony unfortunate. Still, it has reawakened a debate over the independence of the five-person Norwegian Nobel Committee. It mirrors the political make-up of Norway's parliament, with two appointed by the Labor party, two from the Conservatives, and one from the Progress Party. Jagland belongs to the Labor party. 

Norway has previously amended the way it nominates members: In 1937 it banned sitting members of government after a controversy concerning the German anti-Nazi and peace activist Carl von Ossietzky’s prize; and in 1978 it banned sitting parliamentarians.

The most recent backlash over the committee's makeup followed the award of the 2010 Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, which China regarded as a direct political act by Norway and a critique of its judicial system. Beijing retaliated by freezing diplomatic relations and trade talks with Norway. 

“Undoubtedly, any adjustment could be interpreted as an admission that the Chinese, claiming that the Norwegian government must take responsibility for the 2010 Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo are right,” said Kristian Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. “The irony, though, is that the prize to Xiaobo exemplifies the committee’s determination to act independently.”

There have also been questions raised by Norwegian coalition politicians over the independence of Jagland, who also serves as leader of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Critics claim it could influence his choice of controversial recipients, such as Russian activists. One Conservative member has even suggested that the committee, which now includes Henrik Syse, a philosopher and son of a former Conservative prime minister, should replace Jagland as chairman.

“A political will in parliament to do so [to ban former top ministers] is the only thing it takes,” says Fredrik Heffermehl, a Norwegian lawyer and outspoken critic of the committee. “In my view the make-up of the committee is in violation of the will since Nobel expected the parliament to select a committee of people qualified and motivated to defend the idea of a Weltverbrüderung [fraternity of nations].”

Some have called for the committee to exclude all former government ministers. Others, such as Harpviken, have suggested parliament instead appoint a nomination committee to select the members, thus creating distance between the committee and party politics and opening up the selection to expand beyond active politicians.

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