Nobel Peace Prize Forum coming to the University

This year’s forum provided an opportunity for an interview with Norwegian Nobel Institute Director Geir Lundestad.

by Ian J Byrne

“We do not think the Nobel Peace Prize is a magic wand. It cannot transform the world, but maybe it can represent some sort of encouragement and bring added support to its cause. It is a high honor,” said Norwegian Nobel Institute Director and Norwegian Nobel Committee Secretary Dr. Geir Lundestad.
I attended the Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa over the weekend. Every year the forum honors the previous yearâÄôs Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The Norwegian Nobel Institute and the five historically Norwegian colleges in the Midwest âÄî Augsburg, Augustana, Concordia, Luther and St. Olaf âÄî host the forum. The weekend consists of workshops and a speech by the honored laureate.

President Barack Obama didnâÄôt attend this yearâÄôs forum. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist and 2003 laureate spoke instead.

For the past 23 years, the location of the forum has rotated between the five aforementioned colleges. Next year, the forum, which will honor Chinese dissident and 2010 laureate Liu Xiaobo, will relocate permanently to Minneapolis and be held in conjunction by Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota.

I had the opportunity to interview Lundestad at the forum. As director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and permanent secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, he coordinates the nomination and selection process for the Nobel Peace Prize.

As the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, what is the value of the forum?

The U.S. is an important country. Twenty Nobel Peace Prize laureates are American, more than any other country. The forum helps to create awareness about the prize. Also, there are sentimental reasons. It gives me an opportunity to visit a place I like, as I was an exchange student in Anoka, Minn. in high school. Norway also has its relationship with the five colleges and ties to the people around the region.

What went into the decision process for choosing Obama as the 2009 laureate?

The choice of Obama was not very difficult. The prize is for people that have done the most to promote peace over the past year. He pledged to end the war in Iraq. He has attempted to engage Iran diplomatically. He has worked to promote global cooperation and decrease the number of nuclear weapons in the world. Also, the election of a black American as president of the U.S. is a triumph for democracy and human rights.

What has been the response to awarding Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize?

Awarding Liu the prize has been received very favorably, especially by the media. The media virtually everywhere has supported the choice. The Chinese have responded negatively and they told us this in advance. They have introduced some economic policies aimed at Norwegian exports.

It is impossible to gauge the response from the Chinese populace. Most Chinese have no idea who these dissidents are, and if they know who they are they are afraid of speaking in favor of them because they will go to jail.

What is your outlook for the upcoming decade?

I am quite optimistic. Many good things have happened. War between major powers is very unlikely. Democracy and human rights have been spreading dramatically over time. The number of democracies in the world has been increasing since the end of World War II. We saw what happened in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, and now see what is happening in the Middle East.

Economic development has been increasing throughout the globe. Millions have been lifted out of poverty, and peopleâÄôs lives are improving every day. Going forward it is important to sync human rights, democracy and economic development. The big challenge is the environment, and we have just started to address this question. How to address environmental issues while sustaining economic growth will be the hardest issue but will have to be solved. ThereâÄôs no reason for pessimism because great progress has been made on many issues.

With the forum moving to Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota, what are your hopes for next year?

I am all for moving to Minneapolis. WeâÄôve had 23 good years with the [five] colleges. There are three major components to the forumâÄôs success. One is having excellent programs. Two is having broad participation of not only students but also the surrounding community. The third major component is publicity. I believe all three will be easier to achieve in the new setting.

Could you comment on the role of young people in the forum?

ItâÄôs cliché to say that “young people are the future,” but seeing what these young people have done in North Africa in the toughest of circumstances is evidence that this is true. I admire the admiration and strong interest in the world exhibited by young Americans and that public service is such a major component of American society. ItâÄôs important to maintain and strengthen interest in the outside world.

What is the best piece of advice you can give young Americans going forward in 2011?

Tough question. I will limit myself to say: Stay involved and stay interested in the wider world.