Francis Sejersted, 79, Dies; Steered Nobel Peace Prize Into Controversy – Bruce Webber/New York Times
Image: Alfred Nobel medallion
Francis Sejersted, a Norwegian historian who as the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee presided over several controversial awards, including those shared by the Israeli leaders Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, died this week at his home in Oslo. He was 79.
The death was confirmed by his son Frederik, The Associated Press reported. News organizations differed on whether he died late Monday or early Tuesday.
The Nobel Prizes, first presented in 1901, were fathered by the Swedish chemist, engineer and inventor Alfred Nobel, whose 1895 will established annual awards for surpassing work in chemistry, physics, literature, and physiology or medicine, as well as “for the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
A sixth prize, in economics, was established by Sweden’s central bank in honor of Nobel and first awarded in 1968.
The peace prize is distinct in that, in accordance with Nobel’s will, the winner is not selected by an academic institution but by a five-person committee whose members are chosen by the Norwegian legislature, known as the Storting.
The reason Nobel ceded the selection of the peace prize winner to Norway is unknown, though Norway, which did not achieve full independence until 1905, was politically tied to Sweden.
Mr. Sejersted, a professor of history, was connected to the Nobel committee for nearly two decades, beginning in 1982 when he was first selected as one of the five committee members. He was the committee’s chairman from 1991 until 1999, and during that time was the main spokesman for the panel’s selections.
He was also the author of an essay detailing the history of the peace prize on the Nobel website, in which he acknowledged the various biases that have affected the committee’s choices through the decades, including a tendency to reward “white men of Western origin” and to consider the regional interests of Norway’s politicians.
The 1994 prize — given to Mr. Peres, Rabin and Arafat in recognition of the first of two peace agreements pointing in the direction of a two-state solution to Middle East hostilities — drew skepticism from some quarters and anger from others. One member of the committee, a supporter of Israel, resigned.
Skeptics also noted at the time that the peace negotiations had been conducted in Norway and that the agreement was commonly known as the Oslo accord.
Perhaps the most frequent criticism of the peace prize selections has been that they are politically motivated. But rather than attempt to allay such criticism, Mr. Sejersted embraced it in an often-quoted passage from his essay.
The prize “is not only for past achievement, although that is the most important criterion,” he wrote. “The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account. Among the reasons for adding this as a criterion is the obvious point that Nobel wanted the prize to have political effects. Awarding a Peace Prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act — which is also the reason the choices so stir up controversy.”
The 1993 award, to Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, the president of South Africa, for negotiating the end of apartheid, received criticism for, among other things, rewarding Mr. de Klerk, the face of a long-enduring system of cruel inequality.
“These are not saints,” Mr. Sejersted said at the time, acknowledging that the committee had expected the controversy. “They are politicians in a complicated reality, and it is the total picture that was decisive.”
Francis Sejersted was born in Oslo on Aug. 2, 1936. He studied and taught at the University of Oslo and wrote widely on Norwegian economic and social history. His book, “The Age of Social Democracy: Norway and Sweden in the 20th Century,” was published in English by Princeton University Press in 2011. Known as a free speech advocate, he was the chairman of a Norwegian national commission on free speech from 1996 to 1999.
Among the other Nobel Peace Prize laureates during his tenure as committee chairman was Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese human rights advocate and opposition leader, who received the prize in 1991. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its founding coordinator, Jody Williams, received the prize in 1997.
In 1998, two politicians in Northern Ireland received the award. John Hume, a Roman Catholic who led the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and David Trimble, the Protestant leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, were honored for their part in negotiating what became known as the Good Friday Agreement, bringing a tenuous but mostly enduring calm to the region. In 1999, the prize went to Doctors Without Borders for providing medical assistance in places torn by strife.
Complete information about Mr. Sejersted’s survivors was not available. The A.P. reported that in addition to his son Frederik, he is survived by his wife, Hilde, and another son.