Nobel Peace Prize 2010: Norwegian Dynamite


Annar Cassam – Pambazuka News

Alfred Bernard Nobel (1833–96) was a Swedish chemist and engineer who made a fortune through the invention of dynamite, cordite and ballistite, the start of a very successful arms manufacturing business. His reputation and profits grew when he bought an iron and steel mill, Bofors, and converted it into an armaments-making enterprise. Bofors became a jewel in the crown of Swedish industry and cynics will tell you that Sweden’s neutral stand during the European wars of the first half of the 20th century not only gave the country moral status but also made it possible for Bofors to sell arms and ammunition to all sides.

In 1888, a French paper mistakenly published Nobel’s obituary and referred to him as the ‘Swedish merchant of death’ who had become rich by ‘finding ways to kill more people more quickly than ever before’. Nobel was said to have been so upset by this description of himself that he decided to leave behind quite a different legacy.

Thus in his will he left the bulk of his estate of 31 million kroner – worth about US$250 million today – to fund five annual prizes for excellence in the areas of physical science, chemistry, medical science or physiology, literary work and, lastly, a prize for any person or society rendering exceptional service to the cause of ‘international fraternity’, to the reduction of standing armies and for the establishment or furthering of peace congresses. In 1968, the Bank of Sweden was asked to create a new award for economists from the Nobel funds in Alfred’s memory. All Nobel laureates, except for those selected for the peace prize, are chosen by competent peer groups within Swedish institutions, ensuring a certain level of objectivity and quality control. Thus the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is the guardian of the Nobel awards for physical science, chemistry and economics, the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, guards the award for medical science or physiology and the Swedish Academy covers the literature prize.

The Nobel Peace Prize, following Nobel’s wishes as per his will, is in the hands of Norwegian politicians and parliamentarians. Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, who make the final choice, are appointed by and from within the Norwegian Parliament. Since 1904, this committee has been assisted by the Norwegian Nobel Institute, which sifts through the many thousands of applications this prize attracts.

Every year, the Nobel prizes are handed out with much pomp and gravitas by the Norwegian royals in Oslo and by the Swedish royals in Stockholm. These awards are collectively regarded as being the most prestigious accolades in the universe and the winners bask for ever after in divine glory before reaching the Nobel enclosure in the hereafter. The peace prize, in particular, has acquired a sacred quality over the years, although the laureates are chosen by faceless, nameless Norwegians whose achievements are rather modestly restricted to local politics.

Things have changed considerably since the appointment of the new head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, in late 2008. It is under his watch that the 2009 peace prize went to the newly elected US president Barack Obama, much to the surprise of Obama himself and everyone else. Norwegians too were amazed and the opposition Progressive Party, the Conservative Party and some members of Jagland’s own Labour Party called for him to be removed from his post as leader of the Nobel Committee. This year, the choice of a Chinese so-called dissident has produced even more shock and awe – and hysteria – from many sources, including the Chinese authorities and the Western press. So who is Thorbjorn Jagland?

A cursory look at his page on Wikipedia will give a clear picture. Jagland, one-time leader of the Labour Party, one-time prime minister, one-time foreign minister of Norway and currently secretary general of the Council of Europe, is bit of a national joke. Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who left him in charge in 1996 when she suddenly announced she was quitting politics, has called him ‘stupid’. Jagland’s tenure as PM lasted from 1996–97 and this very brief period was marked by controversies and scandal – two of his ministerial appointees were forced to leave the cabinet. He resigned after the 1997 elections even though his Labour Party won most votes. His tenure as foreign minister in the Stoltenberg government was equally brief (2000–01). However, Wikipedia has an intriguing entry about an official invitation to visit China in June 2001. The invitation was extended by the Chinese foreign minister at the time, Tang Jiaxuan; Jagland left for China on 27 June and ‘returned home the following day’. What could have been the reason? What bearing does this episode have on the choice of this year’s prize winner?

Jagland’s political career has not been brilliant, one can safely say. But it appears he is more famous at home for his ridiculous comments, and Wikipedia gives a selection: ‘We will come again, yes, we are here already’; ‘We put the foot down and stand on it’; and ‘I usually don’t look backwards, nor do I look forward.’ My favourite is this one: ‘It does not help with bulletproof vests when the shots come from within.’ This was in answer to a question about his power struggle with Prime Minister Stoltenberg who appointed him foreign minister. When asked to comment on this appointment, Jagland replied that as foreign minister his job would be to deal with ‘Bongo from the Congo’. The former Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer, called Jagland a fool when he heard of Obama’s peace prize last year. And so it goes on.

Last year, the Obama choice provoked serious concern among some senior Norwegians about a conflict of interests inherent in having as head of the Nobel Committee someone who was also the secretary general of the Council of Europe. This would surely lead to doubts about the independent nature of the peace prize selection procedure, they argued. The rumpus caused by this year’s choice of the Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, is far more serious and damaging and the Norwegian political leadership must ask itself whether the right man is in the right place at the Nobel Committee and whether it wants its foreign policy options and its relations with China (or any other state) to be subjected to the theatrics and polemics of an annual Jagland show.

The Chinese authorities are furious and the Western press has indulged fully in China-bashing. But a more interesting point of view is expressed on the subject by Zheng Ruolin, the Paris correspondent of the Shanghai daily paper, Wen Huibao, writing in Le Monde (10 December 2010). He explains that there are two versions of this whole affair circulating in two parallel worlds, one Norwegian, the other Chinese. According to the Nobel people, the choice of this ‘political prisoner’ is aimed at promoting human rights in China. According to the Chinese authorities, Liu Xiaobo has been condemned for ‘subversion’ because of his attempt – via ‘rumours and defamation’ – to ‘reverse the regime’ and to establish ‘a federal republic’ in China.

However, Zheng Ruolin explains, public opinion in China buys neither version. Most people in China, including some democracy activists, still identify Liu Xiaobo with a famous statement made in 1988 that China must be ‘colonised for three centuries before it can become a democracy’. This claim was repeated in a magazine in Hong Kong in 2006. The shock of such a statement made in 1988 at a time when the Brits were still ruling over Hong Kong is difficult to describe, says the journalist. Furthermore, he explains, the same character caused a second scandal by publicly supporting George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, an act of war which was condemned in China, Scandinavia and all over the globe. So the question has to be asked, what links the Nobel Peace Prize with its current laureate’s support for this illegal war in Iraq?

This is a pertinent question which should be answered by the Nobel Committee. But the personal link that binds Jagland to his laureate is patently obvious: they are kindred spirits, both sharing the same worldview. The statement that ‘China needs to be colonised for three centuries before it can reach democracy’ is on par with the claim that diplomacy means meeting with ‘Bongo from the Congo’.

Alfred Nobel’s aim to promote ‘international fraternity’ can best be achieved by building bridges across our parallel worlds, not by blowing them up.

Annar Cassam is a Tanzanian and a former director of the UNESCO Office, UNO, Geneva.

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