Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 to Liu Xiaobo”

It’s not even lunchtime and Thorbjørn Jagland has already made a superpower very angry indeed. The three minute
and thirty second announcement he has just made has resulted in a country-wide satellite television blackout across China, two of the 17 words he has just uttered have made it to the top of “sensitive word filters” across the country, and he will soon be accused by the Chinese Foreign Ministry of having committed “an unfriendly act” which “will damage the relationship between China and Norway”. Thorbjørn Jagland has just awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace to incarcerated Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and he’s not in the slightest bit sorry for all the bother he’s caused.

“We knew that the Chinese authorities would launch a heavy attack on the committee as a representative of free politics,” he says from Strasbourg a month after his press conference, but still very much in the eye of the storm. “But this choice will influence the future of China, it will influence the world at large.” That influence is already being felt. President Obama has called on the Chinese authorities to release Xiaobo “as soon as possible”, while 19 countries – including China, Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq – have told the Nobel Institute they will not be taking part in the 10th December presentation ceremony as a result of the award.

How many people does it take to make such an axis-shifting decision? After all it required 5,835 people just to decide who won the Oscars this year. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that the diplomatic incident of this year’s Peace Prize was the responsibility of only five people, all from Norway. According to Jagland, however, this David vs Goliath set-up is the only way to get anything done.

“We knew that the Chinese authorities would launch a heavy attack on the committee”

“Although this is according to the will of Alfred Nobel – he said that the prize should be awarded by a committee appointed by the Norwegian parliament – it goes beyond that,” he says. “It is the only way. If we had a bigger committee, and representatives from many countries, then this would be a bargaining process between different countries’ interests. The decisions would become safe.”

Alfred Nobel in 1885.

US President Barack Obama collects his Peace Prize in 2009

But what gives this Norwegian party of five the right to stand in judgement? “Everyone has that right,” Jagland replies. “People can judge our decision – China can judge – that is their right. The uniqueness of this process is that the committee is small, it is from a very small country with no vested interest. I’ve seen that many have been arguing for building the composition of the committee, taking in people from other parts of the world, but I think it would harm the independence of the committee. The fact that it is not a big power that is involved in a lot of interests in the world is the only way of keeping this prize as an independent voice in the world community.”

Ironically, the independent voice wouldn’t have been heard at all if it weren’t for media incompetence. In 1888, Alfred Nobel’s obituary in one French paper declared “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead”). But reports of Alfred’s death had been greatly exaggerated – it was actually his brother Ludvig who had passed away in Cannes.

Alfred was distraught by his own obituary. He saw himself as a poetry-writing pacifist who had seen the dynamite he invented turned into the first weapon of mass destruction by others. The world, apparently, disagreed. “Dr. Alfred Nobel,” the offending obituary continued, “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” Alfred decided to go about creating a legacy he felt better suited his views. When he died of a stroke eight years later, his will revealed just how much of an effect that lax fact-checker at the paper had had on him. After taxes and bequests to individuals, Nobel’s will gave 31,225,000 Swedish kroner (equivalent to about £160 million today) to create a fund, the interest from which would be awarded to those who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. The Nobel Prizes were born.

The awards were controversial from the start – Nobel’s family fervently contested the will, delaying the inaugural awards for a further five years with the first not being given until 1901. Within five years the media knives were out: the winner of the 1906 Peace award was American president, Theodore Roosevelt, a man as capable of encouraging and taking part in war as stopping one (as he did with his mediation of the Russo-Japanese War). “A broad smile illuminated the face of the globe when the prize was awarded to the most warlike citizen of these United States,” said the New York Times.

The Committee brushed off such criticisms, continuing to recognise organisations (The International Committee of the Red Cross), women (Jane Addams)  and more presidents (Woodrow Wilson), but, for Jagland, the committee’s first really important decision was to come in 1935.  “I think it developed during the years,” he explains, “but the first time it became known worldwide was when Carl von Ossietzky from Germany got the prize”.

Von Ossietzky was a human rights activist and pacifist in Germany before the war. He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi Party and was arrested and held in a concentration camp for reporting on Germany’s illegal rearmament programme. He would eventually die in police custody. “The reaction from Hitler was very strong,” says Jagland. “He banned every German citizen after this from receiving a Nobel Prize. The committee was split, and the Norwegian king didn’t appear at the ceremony for the first time. It was a big controversy at the time and this was, I think, the first time that the prize became so well known for recognising bravery.” This bravery and ability to cause debate would characterise the Peace Prize from that day onwards. From President of the African National Congress and anti-apartheid campaigner Albert Lutuli to Martin Luther King, the prize has, according to Jagland, “been able to adapt to new realities in the world and also link the prize to new challenges.”

New challenges were met with new challengers. Protests followed the decision in 1973 to award the prize to Henry Kissinger and Vietnamese politician Lê Ðú’c Tho for negotiating an armistice in the US/Vietnam war – a war many accused Kissinger of stoking for years and a prize that Tho himself declined. In 1994 the peace prize looked to the Middle East – recognising Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin for their efforts in making peace between Israel and Palestine. The media questioned the stability and sustainability of the peace, the ongoing problems faced by Palestinian refugees and the past actions of Arafat. Speaking at a House Armed Services Committee, James Phillips described Arafat as a man who “rather than prepare his people for peace, has indoctrinated them for war”.

“Obama changed the political climate from the very beginning. That’s why he got the prize”

However it was Jagland’s first prize as president that was to spark the largest debate in the Nobel’s recent history. The awarding of the peace prize to Barack Obama – who took office less than two weeks before the February nomination deadline – had people up in arms and gunning for Jagland directly. The Australian politician Alexander Downer described Jagland as “a real party-political player” and “a fool”, Michael Binyon of The Times called it “an absurd decision” that made a “mockery of the prize”, while New York Times columnist Yoni Brenner coined the verb “thorbjorning” – to give someone their reward before they have accomplished what they set out to do.

Even Obama himself admitted to being “surprised” by the award. Never in the prize’s history had so much ire been generated. Again Jagland has no regrets. “The Nobel Committee has never been interested in only recognising people who have achieved everything they are going to achieve and who everyone already knows has done good work,” he says. “We have also given the prize to personalities who are paving the way for something new without very concrete results. For instance Dr Martin Luther King hadn’t achieved much when he got the prize, but he was paving the way for civil rights in the United States and I believe the prize helped him with this.”

But how did Jagland know that Obama would go on to justify the award? “The prize should also empower people and enhance certain processes and certain personalities that are trying to change something in the world, and President Obama started to change the political climate in the world from the very beginning. He said that he was willing to discuss the missile shields of Europe with the Russians, and that opened up the START agreement. This is also the reason why the Russian president came to the NATO summit in Lisbon, and now the Europeans are benefiting from these new relations between the United States and Russia. So all this proves that it was right to give the prize to Obama; he started to change so many important things; he has changed the climate in the world and that was why he got the prize.”

Whatever your politics or views on Jagland, the decision to award Liu Xiaobo was certainly a courageous one. There are easier targets, smaller regimes with less powerful economies whose human rights record the committee could have highlighted, but they went for the powers behind the fastest growing economy in the world at a time when money is short.

It is clear that Jagland believes that Xiaobo – armed with the Peace medal – can be an agent of change. “There are many examples where personalities have been able to change the course of world history,” says Jagland. “The best example is, of course, Winston Churchill. But you have Nelson Mandela, you have Andrei Sakharov and now you have Liu Xiaobo.”

“I think he will change not only the course of China, but more importantly for others – it can change the course of the world,” he continues. “Because if China is able to combine a social market economy with human rights and democracy, it will have an enormous impact on the world; we’re talking about 1.3 billion people. We had to take care of the long history and tradition of the Nobel Committee, which is to award those who have been struggling for democracy and rule of law and human rights – the historical trend is that democracy is on the winning side.”

Jagland’s belief in the positive future for democracy is infectious. “I think it’s unstoppable, it’s unavoidable,” he says. “Very much because of new technology – information technology – you cannot isolate the people from the truth; you can for a period of time, but not in the long run. The comparison can be made, for instance, with the Soviet Union; it failed to adapt to the new realities and the new technologies that were created, and therefore the Berlin Wall came down. When people started seeing how we were living in the West, Soviet leaders were not able to deliver, and therefore I think the whole thing broke down, the whole system. So any authoritarian system in the world cannot resist the technological changes that are taking place in the world.”

In the short term, though, China remains resolutely undemocratic and angry that a dissident has been given the peace prize. What is Jagland’s message for President Hu Jintao? “I say that Liu Xiaobo and other human rights activists in China are not dissidents, they are mainstream people in the world today; they are defending the mainstream values of the world society.”

The presentation ceremony of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo, Norway. An empty chair represents the jailed
winner, Liu Xiaobo.

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme