Interview with Professor Ole Danbolt Mj?s, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

12 February 2009
Interview with Professor Ole Danbolt Mj?s, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

Nobel Commitee, Peace Prize,

Soon, once again, the eyes of the world will turn to Norway, and to the Nobel Committee as it grants its prestigious prize to a person or an organization that has carried out outstanding work contributing to peace in the world. There is one man who will appear on television on that particular day, and that is Professor Ole Danbolt Mj?s, the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. It is he who will announce the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Price.

We had the unique opportunity of meeting with Professor Mj?s during a Peace Summit in Stavanger, Norway, this September. Not only is he a well-known professor in the field of cardiology, he is also a dedicated man who strongly believes in peace, human values, modesty and hard work. Professor Mj?s has an impressive list of merits and credentials: he has already carried out numerous activities in the field of human rights and peace –– in particular combining medical science and peace work –– something quite unique in this world where profit holds sway and human values seem to be on the decline. Professor Mj?s has, among other things, been responsible for setting up a new Peace Centre training students at the University in Troms? –– the first and only one in Norway.
Eller: Professor Mj?s has, among other things, been responsible for setting up a new Peace Centre training students at the University of Troms? – the first and only University Peace Centre in Norway.

However, before doing so, it should be said that Mr Chairman has a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders because it is not an easy task to pick the right candidate for such a prestigious prize ...

Q: You are the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee –– what else do you do?

I am a professor and conduct research –– cardiovascular research is my field. I work at the University of Troms?, which is not only the most northern University in Norway –– but also in the world. I started to work there in 1974, and I have been a professor since 1975. I have taught medical students and researchers in the field of cardiology. In addition to that, I was the dean of the medical faculty from 1983 to 1986, and rector of the university from 1989 to 1996, so at that time I was unable to practice in the medical field since all my efforts were dedicated to my “presidential” functions. After that, I returned to my former activities.

From 1998 to 2000 I was the chairman of a governmental commission on higher education in Norway. We were a panel of seventeen experts, who put forward a reform of higher education institutions and universities in Norway. The recommendations were implemented after 2000. One of the main tasks was the introduction of new degrees –– master, bachelor, etc. This was done in order to match international standards so that students faced fewer barriers if they wanted to study abroad. Another important issue was that the students were placed at the centre of education, and we looked at many important issues such as student welfare, compatibility of studies, degrees, encouraging international exchanges, etc. To a certain extent it was a kind of reform in the context of globalization –– in particular, for Norway.

Then, I formed part of a huge UNESCO Conference on Higher Education in 1998 where I was one of the delegates from the Ministry of Education in Norway. By pure coincidence, I attended a seminar on the theme “What can the universities do to create a culture of peace?”

It was Oscar Arias –– former Dean of Universities worldwide and at that time Dean of the University in Ghana –– who asked a question about what the university is doing in the field of peace education. It was the Nobel Peace Laureate from Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, who was chairman for the seminar. And it was the rector of the University of Ghana who asked the question about what the universities are doing in the field of peace education.

The answer was almost nothing, because there are no peace education centres at most universities. Then I realized that there were no higher educational institutions in Norway doing this either, so we could not blame other people, despite the fact that we have been awarding the Nobel Peace Price for more than 100 years and we have the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, where Johan Galtung was very active in the beginning! Then I said: We will create a peace centre at the University in Troms?, as the only centre in Norway. Heller: as the first and only centre in Norway. The main aim for us has been a Master’s Programme in Peace and Conflict Transformation in English where 50% of the students come from abroad and the rest from Norway. This has now been going on for about five years, and we have trained more than seventy peace candidates who are scattered around the world, working either in diplomacy or in other organizations. So, this is the Peace Centre at the University of Troms?, and it’s the only one in Norway. There are not a lot of peace centres around the world, but we collaborate closely.

When I was the president of the university, I was also very concerned about peace and human rights issues, so I used to invite Nobel Peace Laureates to the university. Some of the Nobel Peace Laureates became Doctor honoris causa, but all of them gave lectures open to the general public. This enabled us to create a platform for the Peace Centre, of which I have been chairman since it’s opening, in addition to being one of the initiative takers.

The Norwegian Parliament elects the Members of the Nobel Committee and, as a result of my relationship to the Peace Centre and my connections to the Christian Democratic Party, I was elected to this body almost six years ago. You may be re-elected if the political party continues to support you. What the point here is that your representation on the Nobel Committee depends upon your political party’s representation in the Norwegian Parliament. However, there is a common belief –– especially abroad –– that it is the Norwegian Government who is deciding who should get the Nobel Peace Prize! This is not the case, as the Members of the Committee do not hold any political functions –– none of them are members of the Norwegian Parliament or of the Government.

So, when we are appointed by the Parliament, we enjoy total freedom. However, there are rules about who may recommend persons and organizations to the committee. All Members of Parliament, governments, heads of universities in the world are free to propose candidates and we who are on the committee are also free to propose candidates at our first meeting of the year. The date limit for proposing candidates is 1 February each year.

At our first meeting, we look at the candidates for the Peace Prize and decide if there is anybody else we would like to add to the list of nominees.

For the last couple of years there have been about 180 nominees. We have one meeting per month until September, when we decide who the next Nobel Peace Laureate will be.

Q: What are the criteria? How do you judge a candidate’s work?

When you have all the nominees, you read their CVs and what they have done for peace –– speeches, books, positions, etc. Those who recommend a candidate –– if I can put it this way –– are in a good position to promote their candidate.

Then, professor Lundestad, the Director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and head of the secretariat for the committee, prepares the meetings. There is also a system of outside consultants who we use regularly; they might be professors of history or social sciences. Thus, when we examine the different candidates, we see if their files are up to date or not. If we need updates on certain candidates, we ask national consultants. As soon as we approach the final date for the annual choice, we often refer to a well-known international consultant who can give us some more information or an opinion. We do not conduct any interviews with the different candidates, but we do use a set of consultants who send us their written evaluations. So after a scanning process of the candidates, a short-list is retained until the final decision is taken.

The announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize always takes place on a Friday in mid-October. In 2008 the official announcement will be made on 10 October.

Alfred Nobel’s death was on 10 December, so this implies that the celebration itself and the Nobel Ceremony –– either in Oslo or in Stockholm –– will take place on 10 December.

Q: What are the main criteria when you pick a candidate –– their visions?

The basis for granting the Nobel Peace Prize is what is written in the will of Alfred Nobel. It says that there are three criteria for the Peace Price. The first one: the person who has done the most to create brotherhood among people in the past year. It’s quite vague, and can be translated to mean the person who has been working most in the name of humanity. The second criterion is the person who has worked the most and best for the disarmament issue in the world. The disarmament issue is very explicit. If you look at those who have received the Peace Price since 1901 and up to date, this represent an important group –– the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The Nobel Committee –– this was before my time –– said that the fight against nuclear weapons is a natural extension of what Nobel said about disarmament. There were no nuclear arms when Alfred Nobel wrote his will. The third criterion is those whose who have done the most work for peace conferences. There has been less work in this field lately, and perhaps one should concentrate more on this issue now.

The world evolves and that is the reason why the Nobel Committee said more than forty years ago that the fight for human rights is also a concern of the Nobel Peace Prize. There is nothing written about this issue in Alfred Nobel’s will, but the Committee thinks that the fight for human rights in democracy is an important element for peace. We are flexible and think that there are several ways to create peace in the world ...

This is the reason why Shirin Ebadi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Mench?, Desmond Tutu amongst others, have received the prize for their work in the human rights field.

So we, in the committee, have taken this a step further by granting it to Wangari Maathai in 2004 from Kenya for her work within Green Belt Movement. This was in reality the first Nobel Peace Prize that seriously dealt with the environmental issue. The fight for the environment, better living condition and sustainable development –– these are all important elements for peace in the world.

Then we went back to disarmament issue by granting the prize for 2005 to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei, for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy is used in the safest possible way for peaceful purposes.

Then, comes the fight against poverty that was an important subject in 2006 when we granted the prize to Muhammad Yunus and his efforts to create economic and social development through micro-credit –– another way of creating peace. In 2007, it was climate change. From the environmental issue, it is not very far to climate change.

Q: When you grant the Nobel Peace Prize to micro-credit, environmental and climate institutions, you are launching new ideas that may then be picked up everywhere. Don’t you think that the world needs new ideas?

I definitely think so! There are people who criticize us on the Nobel Peace Committee for not respecting the will of Alfred Nobel to the letter. If you were to respect his will to the letter, you should not then grant the prize to anyone opposed to nuclear arms, but only to disarmament for conventional weapons –– this would obviously be quite absurd. Some people say: “What has the environment to do with peace?” We reply that if you do not take the environment into account, you will not obtain sustainable peace. The Nobel Committee reflects changes in modern society, and this is the reason why we say that there are several roads to peace. You cannot simply deal with peace negotiations, but sometimes you have to look at the background –– the roots of war and the roots of conflict.

The more I reflect upon it, the more we have to give it a global aspect. We give more thought to issues that affect everybody instead of aspects that only reflect a region of the world. I think that is important –– through the Committee we have to interpret the will of Alfred Nobel.

Q: Looking around the world today, with such problems as unemployment, the financial crisis, etc., where do you think the world is heading?

What is typical of the Nobel Peace Prize winners is that they are a group of incurable optimists –– and they are doers. When you speak with Shirin Ebadi from Iran, she is extremely positive. Of course, she is under threat for her life and she is afraid, but she keeps going. The same applies to Aung San Suu Kyi. We hope that, one day, she will be able to come to receive her prize and give her Nobel Speech, so we are trying to remind people about her situation. What can be learned from them is that one person alone can do so much. For instance, when you think about Muhammad Yunus and his social business –– anybody could have come up with this idea. Poverty has more to do with people than with money. You have to believe in people and grant them trust. This is the main lesson learned from the success of his venture. It’s really amazing to see what he has achieved in Bangladesh.

Q: One thing that really shocked me on the environmental day last year was that high-level people came to attend your event in Troms? in private airplanes. The excuse they gave was that regular flights did not fit their schedule.

I fully agree. There is something about preaching and doing. There must be a link between preaching and doing, otherwise it only becomes rhetoric.

I tend to think that the gap between ordinary people and politicians is due to the gap between rhetoric and action. If the gap becomes too big, a tremendous problem of trust will emerge.

Leaving Professor Mj?s after more than an hour of his time, I must admit to being proud of my fellow countrymen –– they are really committed and dedicated.
In October we will know who the next Nobel Peace Laureate is, and Professor Mj?s and his colleagues will once more draw our attention to a subject that should receive the world’s attention. What else can we wish for –– that they will keep on picking the right candidate who can make a difference … for us all.