Stein Tønnesson, the director of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, made waves earlier this week when he predicted jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia might win this year's Nobel Peace Prize. He's not affiliated with the Nobel organization, though like officials at other peace groups he offers nominations to the Nobel committee. Each year he publishes his best guess on who might win, though that person isn't necessarily the same as his own nominee or favorite candidate.
We caught up with Tønnesson to learn about why Hu tops his list, and how to game the decision-making process of the secretive Nobel committee.
WSJ: Why did Hu Jia top your list?
Tønnesson: It is probably a year when one would want to give a prize to someone who is related to a human rights issue. Since 2003, there has not been a clear human rights prize, and this year we are having the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
So I started looking for people who are either human rights activists or are persecuted. When I put the Chinese dissident on top, it was for two reasons. One, the only Chinese who has ever received the Nobel Peace Prize is the Dalai Lama, who does not even reside in China. The committee must surely have tried to look for good Chinese candidates. For many years, I speculated that the mothers of the Tiananmen Square protesters would win, but they did not. Then there was Harry Wu. But there hasn't been any obvious candidate.
In the past few years, I have not predicted a Chinese dissident would win because the Nobel Committee would probably be reticent about disturbing China before the Olympics. If a Chinese was given the prize just at a time when the nation's sentiments were geared towards this big national moment, it would probably be badly perceived.
But now China has had the Olympics and it was a great success. Now China would be able to afford and meet such criticism.
WSJ: Has the Prize ever gone to somebody currently in prison?
Tønnesson: Carl von Ossietzky in 1935 had been imprisoned in Nazi Germany, which lead to violent outbursts from Hitler. He issued a prohibition against any German receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
Then in 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi won after she had been arrested.
WSJ: Choosing Hu Jia would certainly anger the Chinese government. Would the Nobel committee want to do that?
Tønnesson: The committee is constituted of the people selected by the Norwegian parliament. They are veteran politicians, or people a little bit on the margins of the political party that they represent. They operate completely independently of the government, and the parliament does not interfere with the discussions.
Some committees are bold and some are not. The committee that gave the prize to Carl von Ossietzky was very courageous. The committee that refrained from giving the prize to Mahatma Gandhi was motivated by some concerns about British reaction. That was a cowardly committee.
The present committee has been criticized for having awarded the prize to relatively uncontroversial persons who often work on issues that are not directly related to peace. They have widened the prize to include many areas, but have not really given a prize that caused a lot of protest around the world.
WSJ: Has Hu Jia done work that touches on or improves enough lives to warrant a Peace Prize?
Tønnesson: He is very young. He has also been involved in some anti-Japanese demonstrations. That would be a drawback.
But on the other hand, I haven't really seen other candidates that are outstanding in a Chinese context that have the same kind of moral quality that he has. Many have fallen into exile, which makes them less eligible…
We had some debate at our Institute. Some of my colleagues say the committee will probably want to issue the prize to a dissident in an authoritarian regime only if that regime is moving in the authoritarian direction. China has been in a way improving, though perhaps there was some setback during the Olympics, which maybe was only nervousness with this big event… My colleagues say the committee would be more likely to award the Prize to a country that is becoming more and more repressive, such as Russia, as a kind of protest against this and a way of drawing the world's attention to these negative developments.
WSJ: What has been the success rate of your predictions?
Tønnesson: I was right in predicting Kim Dae Jung in 2000. Then I was right about the UN and Kofi Annan in 2001. By that time I had stopped predicting Jimmy Carter, so was surprised in 2002. I never even had the idea for 2003 and 2004. I had the International Atomic Energy Agency and Mohamed ElBaradei up high on my list in 2005, so I was at least half right. I was completely surprised when Muhammad Yunus got the prize in 2006, despite the fact that I had nominated Yunus myself on behalf of someone else. I was right on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore which got so much attention last year.
–Geoffrey A. Fowler