Norway: the Nobel peace prize goes to OPCW

Thea Hellenes Ekre, correspondante en Norvège
10 Décembre 2013

This week the Nobel peace prize will be handed out in Oslo. This year the Nobel committee has chosen the OPCW, with the goal to contribute to the abolition of chemical weapons. It is not every year that the prize is handed out this “quietly”. Interview with Kaci Five, one of the committee members.

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five | Credits -- AP
Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five | Credits -- AP
This year’s Nobel peace prize is to be awarded the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons. Taking into consideration the recent events in Syria, it is a very important prize. However, not all of the Nobel laureates have been this well received by the public. Consequently, many questions arise as to why the committee makes the choices they have made. Le Journal International tried to find out more by interviewing Kaci Kullmann Five, one of the committee members. Kullmann Five is a previous member of parliament; she was also Minister of Trade and Shipping for the conservative party and has now been a member of the Nobel committee since 2003.

Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer and inventor who left by will five Nobel prizes, of which the peace prize is the best renown. The prizes were "invented" at a time were Norway and Sweden were a union, and he chose to give Norway the task of handing out the peace prize, while Sweden kept the rest of the prizes. Since then a variety of people and organizations has won the prize. The public is rarely informed about other nominees.

One can claim that this year’s winner of the Nobel peace prize is an uncontroversial one. However, this has not always been the case. Norway is the only country in Europe that has, by referendum, said no to membership in the European Union, not once but twice, respectively in 1972 and 1994. Imagine how the Norwegian people reacted when the Nobel committee handed out the peace prize to the EU, in the wake of the biggest economic crisis the world has seen since the 1930’s. Torbjørn Jagland, the president of the committee is a pronounced supporter of the EU.

When the public and media is debating whether the winners are worthy of the prize or not, the Norwegian government is the first to underline that the Nobel committee is an independent body, which reach its decision without any participation from the government as it was the case when the Chinese peace activist Liu Xiaobo received the prize in 2010. This choice has marked the Chinese-Norwegian relationship ever since, by Chinese boycott of importing Norwegian goods. Although the committee is independent, the handing out of the Nobel peace prize has often been considered as a “Norwegian choice”. This interview might, however, correct some of these misunderstandings.

Le Journal International : Why did the distribution of the Nobel peace prize go to Norway, when the other Nobel-prizes are handed out in Sweden?

Kaci Five
:  If we only knew that!! Alfred Nobel never told anybody why he didn't give the task to hand out the peace prize to a Swedish committee. Therefore, we can only speculate over what made the cosmopolitan Swede, in 1895, decide that the task of pointing out a committee to hand out the peace prize, were to be given to the Norwegian Parliament. Some theories are however elaborated; that the Norwegian parliament was the first national parliament to support the international peace movement or that Nobel might have wished to divide the prizes within the Swedish Norwegian union. Nobel might also have feared that this political prize could be an instrument in power politics and thereby reduce its importance as an instrument for peace. Sweden was the most powerful country in Scandinavia at that time.

JI : What is the background for the composition of the committee and how is the committee compound ?

: Nobel decided in his will that a committee with five members were to be appointed by the Norwegian parliament, with the task to hand out the peace prize. The members are chosen for six years, and can be reelected. The committee’s composition today reflects the relative strength between the political parties in the Norwegian parliament. There is no requirement that the members must be Norwegian, but so far that has been the case. The committee is completely independent from the parliament, which has been an important principle since 1901.

However, if you look at the committee’s composition the first decades, it has to be noted that there was a close connection between the committee and the government and also political establishment. Nevertheless, the controversial decision to give the prize in 1935 to the Jewish-German peace lawyer Carl von Ossietzky, caused amendments to the committee rules. Two of the committee members, one of them a previous prime minister and the other the minister for foreign affairs, withdrew from the committee, to underline that the decision was not made on behalf of the government. After this event, government members could no longer be elected to the committee.

JI : How many candidates does the Nobel committee have to choose from? Who can nominate?

: This year the committee had to choose between 259 candidates, of which 30 were organizations. There is a variety of groups that can nominate candidates to the peace prize, including; members of a state’s parliament and government, members of international courts, university professors in either social science, history, philosophy, law or theology, previous winners of the Nobel peace prize, previous members of the Nobel committee and so on. According to the statutes for the Nobel foundation, the committee cannot publish the names of the candidates; this message is also given to the groups that are nominating. Nevertheless, the latter wish is often not fulfilled. The prize can be shared between maximum three winners.

Thorbjorn Jagland and Ahmet Uzumcu, Director-General of the OPCW
Thorbjorn Jagland and Ahmet Uzumcu, Director-General of the OPCW
JI : How does the committee choose the winner of the Nobel peace prize?

: At the beginning of the year the committee meets up to look at the list with the proposed candidates. If the committee finds it necessary it can complement the list with candidates it mean should be a part of the list. If a conflict is being resolved after this meeting, and the names of the people who resolved the crisis is not yet on the list, the committee cannot give them the prize that year. If the committee needs more background information on the nominees, they ask their advisers, often professors in history or political science, to elaborate. After each meeting, the list of nominees will be reduced. In this phase the committee seek advice with prominent international expertise. The committee has 6-7 meetings between February and October before the final decision is made.

JI : Can political background and affiliation be difficult for the committee’s members to put a side? Could it be an obstacle or rather an advantage in the process of making a decision?

: No, I don’t experience that as a big obstacle. Politicians have long exercise in building compromises. The goal is to agree on the choice. During the last decades there is only one exception; when Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin received the prize in 1994, one of the members withdrew from the committee, as he couldn’t agree with the four other members.

JI : Is the Nobel committee prepared for the criticism it gets after making these controversial choices? And is the potential critique from the media brought up for consideration before the committee makes its choice?

: Yes, we are well prepared for the criticism we get. Our assignment is not to avoid criticism, but to fulfill Nobel’s will, in the best way possible. We give the justification for our choice in the text the leader of the committee reads at the announcement. There are hundreds of peace prizes in the world. If you look up Nobel peace prize in the Oxford Dictionary it is actually written that the Nobel peace prize is the world’s most prestigious award. Not the most prestigious peace award, but award.

JI : In the light of the previous question; is the committee "safeguarding" by choosing an uncontroversial winner certain years ?

: No

JI : It has been debated, in the light of controversial receivers of the prize, whether Nobel’s will has been interpreted correctly. How does the committee interpret Nobel’s will, and has it put any restrictions on who you could choose ?

: According to Nobel’s will the prize can be handed out to those who have worked for brotherhood between nations, for those who have held peace conferences and for those who work for the reduction of standing armies. It says also that "It is my expressed wish that the candidates nationality should not be emphasized in the awarding of the prize, but that the most worthy should receive it..". The line of prizewinners throughout the years shows how one has interpreted the testament.

The discussion on what kind of limitations the testament place, are in periods intense in the media. I think the prizes that goes to human-right activists, to actors that work for social and economic development and to actors who contribute to the work of saving the planet from disastrous climate change are within the Nobel’s will.

JI : How does the committee hope that this year’s prize will affect the current situation in Syria ?

KF : We hope that the prize will contribute to the complete abolition of chemical weapons.