Are Norwegians better peace negotiators?

Norway has once again taken the lead in international peace brokering, helping bring the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas to the peace table from mid-October. So what has made the Scandinavian country the world’s expert in negotiating peace?

This week the world learned that Norway’s foreign ministry was behind months of secret diplomacy to get the government of Colombia and the FARC guerrilla group to finally sit down for peace talks.

Relatively little is known about the forthcoming Colombian peace process, but the two parties have confirmed that negotiations will begin in Oslo in mid-October, and then move to Cuba sometime later.

During the past 30 years Norway has become synonymous with peace brokering. Indeed, its peacemaking efforts picked up speed after the Cold War, with the Scandinavian country taking the lead in ending armed conflicts of different intensities in the Middle East, Central America and Africa throughout the 1990s.

The 1993 peace treaty between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the so-called Oslo Accord, was a high point of Norwegian diplomacy, even though the treaty has not stopped violence in the region and has been heavily criticised. Norway’s role in ending complex and bloody civil wars in Mali (1995) and Guatemala (1996) are clearer success stories.

So what is behind Norway’s mediating might? Are Norwegians better at negotiating than other people?

According to Jan Egeland, a former official in Norway’s ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) and currently the director of Human Rights Watch Europe, Norway’s broad engagement in conflict resolution was initially unplanned.

“I was state secretary of foreign affairs at the time and when Norwegian activists and academics came to us with interesting contacts and ideas for bringing conflicting parties to the tables,” Egeland remembered.

Egeland said that Norwegian peace diplomacy developed slowly, and was built on its acquired experience. “When we got the Oslo agreement and the Guatemala peace accord, parties in conflict started to come to us. It was then the MFA started to build its in-house expertise,” Egeland told FRANCE 24.

He noted that his country has been involved in peace efforts in Colombia, which is planning a new round of peace negotiations in October, since 1999. Now, more than a dozen years later, Norway’s dogged persistence could help diffuse the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.

Building a reputation and model

While the face-to-face talks between the Israeli government and the PLO in the early 1990s brought Norway unrivalled prestige as a negotiator, the country’s identity as a peace nation can be traced back much earlier in the 20th century.

Norway was one of the founding members of the League of Nations in 1920. It is the homeland of Fridtjof Nansen, who first gained international fame for his arctic expeditions, but who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922 for his pioneering work on behalf of World War One refugees, and of Trygve Lie, the United Nations’ first Secretary General from 1946 to 1953.

The Nobel Peace Prize, although it is not directly linked to resolving armed conflicts, is awarded in Norway every year, and has certainly helped project the country’s peace identity across the globe.

That history, along with Norway’s active participation in resolving conflicts in the last three decades, has helped it solidify its reputation and even led to what has been called the “Norwegian model” for mediating peace.

The MFA says the Norwegian model emphasises several factors, which include a willingness to assist parties in a longterm process, its close relationship to different international actors, a lack of self-interest in pursuing peace and placing the ultimate responsibility with the concerned parties.

However, Kristian Berg Harpviken, the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), says Norway’s approach to peace is noteworthy because it does not try to follow a standard formula. “It uses whatever contacts and expertise it has in any given context…one may say that the real core of the ‘Norwegian Model’ is that there is no model, just a very flexible approach.” Berg Harpviken said.

High-level meets low-profile

However, some observers say there is a clear recipe behind the Norwegian brand, which includes the willingness to commit substantial time and money.

“The country has been willing to use sufficient money and manpower to stay engaged over many years and that cautious and patient approach has gained the confidence of many parties … This policy survives shifting governments,” admits Human Rights Watch’s Egeland.

The formula also is based on close links between the MFA and other non-government channels, says Vebjorn Horsfjord, a board member of the Sweden-based Life and Peace Institute (LPI), an international and interreligious group that promotes peace initiatives. That is to say, Norway’s diplomatic strength lies in the close links between high-level statesmen and low-profile peacemakers including NGOs, research centres and churches.

“These close links make it possible to gather information informally, and not least, work through these,” said Horsfjord. “Parties to a conflict can gather in informal settings, sometimes in secret, at the invitation of a civil society actor – but encouraged, funded and facilitated by MFA in the background.”

Impartial player?

According to Egeland, warring parties are often feel reassured to deal with a “small, non-threatening and impartial country” like Norway to help settle their disputes. But Norway’s status as impartial or neutral actor can be called into question.

While Norway does not have a colonial past that threatens to become a sticking point during negotiations with different countries or groups, it has been a close military partner of the United States, Britain and France for the past 60 years in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

The Scandinavian country has taken a central role – relative to its size – in all of NATO’s recent military operations. This cooperation was on display most recently in the military intervention in Libya, where Norway fighter jets flew 583 missions, out of a total of 6,493, and dropped 569 bombs.

According to the LPI’s Horsfjord, there has been virtually no public opposition now or in the past to Norway’s NATO membership. “Most political parties are clearly in favour of NATO, there are just occasional observations that Norway is allied to the United States and others.”

The PRIO’s Berg Harpviken said that there was definitely a “moral commitment” to brokering peace that was shared by virtually all political parties in Norway, but that other motives also existed. “The engagement serves Norway well. Norway is seen as a significant actor, and conversations about a particular peace process at the White House, for example, also opens up for pursuing more narrow self-interests,” he said.

Limited successes, especially in the case of Sri Lanka and the Phillipines, may also be waning interest in Norway’s all-out war on war. Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere has recently scaled down the number of peace initiatives his ministry agrees to work on, and has said the country should give more attention to interests closer to Norway’s borders, such as increased cooperation with Russia.

Joseph BAMAT

France 24