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Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee considers changes

Recent controversial decisions put the Nobel committee's composition in the spotlight

As the Norwegian Nobel Committee prepares to bestow its prestigious peace prize this Friday, members of the body — who are appointed by Norway’s parliament and represent political parties there — are considering changes that could see non-politicians and even non-Norwegians involved in the selection process, after a series of controversial selections.

Alfred Nobel’s will, which set up guidelines for the prize, said it is to be awarded each year to whoever “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 and congresses.”

In recent years, however, the committee has been criticized over several decisions — such as awarding the 2009 prize to U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration has ramped up its drone program.

Some critics have accused committee members of letting domestic party politics influence their decisions, putting pressure on the decision-making body to help restore credibility to the prize by opening to a more diverse panel of judges. Suggestions have been made to include, for example, civil society figures or well-known international humanitarians on the committee.

Party politics play out

The Nobel Prize website says the committee’s composition “reflects the relative strengths of the political parties” in Norway’s parliament, as each party in power appoints members from its own ranks. It is currently composed of former Norwegian politicians.

Concerns about party influence have been raised in the past, but domestic discussions about the committee’s makeup have their roots in one decision in particular, said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, angering the Chinese government and damaging Norway’s diplomatic and trade ties with China. Attempting to mend relations, top Norwegian politicians in May refused to meet with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama — himself a 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate — whom China considers an anti-government dissident.

That refusal drew criticism from Norway’s human-rights community and brought into question the country’s image as a neutral arbiter of world affairs.

“The visit became quite an embarrassment for the Norwegian government,” Harpviken said, adding that it sparked debate about the committee’s credibility and membership.

Another case that some feel may reflect Norwegian party politics was the 2012 peace prize awarded to the European Union. That year the committee’s Ågot Valle, a Socialist Left Party member, took sick leave and was temporarily replaced by the Center Party’s Gunnar Stålsett. Valle, a known critic of the European Union, was opposed to awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the organization — and the moment she stepped aside the honor went to the EU, in what Harpviken said was perhaps the “worst year in the EU’s history.”

Valle’s husband told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten that if his wife had been on the Committee she would have voted against giving the prize to the EU.

Paul Martin, head of human rights studies at Barnard College, said that traditionally an all-Norwegian committee has not been seen as a problem, given a general sense that politicians there "were somewhat more neutral than the rest.” But controversy over recent awards has called that impartiality into question and has drawn calls for change.

Possible changes

Although any changes to the committee’s composition would not affect who wins the 2014 peace prize, Friday’s announcement is likely to be scrutinized for hints of politics.

Three seats on the five-member committee will be up for re-election at the end of 2014. They include that of Valle and of the committee’s chairman and de facto spokesman, the Labor Party’s Thorbjørn Jagland — a former prime minister and the current secretary-general of the Council of Europe.

Many of the controversial decisions have come under Jagland’s chairmanship. He began his term in 2009, the year the prize was awarded to Obama.

“He is the first peace prize winner who celebrated by starting a drone war," Norwegian lawmaker Sverre Valen told The Associated Press. Valen reportedly nominated NSA leaker Edward Snowden for this year’s Prize.

The Labor Party will re-nominate Jagland, said Svein Roald Hansen, a parliamentarian from the party and a member of the Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs and Defense. But he noted that "it is the committee itself who chooses the chair."

"The composition of the committee from next year will be that the Conservative Party and the Progress Party will hold a majority in the committee, so it is up to them who will be chair," Hansen added.

Ideas have been proposed for inviting non-politicians and even non-Norwegians to sit on the Committee.

"Right now we are all former politicians, but it doesn't have to be that way," committee member Inger-Marie Ytterhorn told the AP.

"It is possible to nominate a foreigner, but my party doesn't see that as a good choice," said Hansen of the Labor Party.

But some say minor changes to the committee’s composition would not significantly change its political tone or the kind of decisions made about awards.

“What the prizes have always stood for is a particular liberal progressive vision of world politics,” said Ronald Krebs, professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. "The committee has sought to promote it," said Krebs, adding that although committee members may have minor differences, "the basic vision is the same."

Despite the controversies, most observers agree that the peace prize carries significant weight in world affairs. Harpviken argued that it is the “world’s most prestigious prize.” 

The committee received a record 278 nominations this year. It does not publish nominees’ names, but those who nominate are free to speak of their choices.

In recent days, speculation about possible winners has included the likes of Pakistani teenage rights leader Malala Yousafzai, Pope Francis and Edward Snowden, all of whom have been nominated. The winner will be announced Friday at 5 a.m. Eastern Time.  

Martin, the human rights studies head at Barnard, said that while it's anyone's guess, this year’s prize decision is unlikely to cause surprise.

“I think it’s going to be a safe type of person,” he said. 

With the Associated Press

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