Want an inside look into how the Nobel Peace Prize is decided? Asle Toje of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, tells nobelprize.org what it takes to name a peace laureate.
Can you tell us who you are?
My name is Asle Toje. I’m the deputy leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which is the five member committee tasked with selecting the laureate for the Nobel Peace Prize.
How did you become a member of the peace prize committee?
Well, actually Alfred Nobel wrote in his last will and testament in 1896*, that the Norwegian Parliament, the Storting, were going to appoint people for the committee. So, I made it here by a vote in parliament.
Can you explain the nomination process?
The nomination process is a little bit complicated because not everyone can nominate. The list is lengthy, but distinguished. Former Nobel Peace Prize laureates can nominate, members of the committee can nominate, heads of states, professors of political science and history and international law, members of parliaments can nominate. We have on our website, a pretty clear cut list about who can nominate. But I would like to stress that even if you yourself cannot nominate, you probably know somebody who can.
What do you enjoy most about your role with the Nobel Prize?
My favourite part of the Nobel Peace Prize work process is the first meeting, when we get the list of nominations. I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. I want to start going through because there are some names that I would expect to see there, but also a lot of names that I’ve never heard about and some that I didn’t expect. It’s wonderful to get stuck into the list and start discussing it with my fellow members of the committee.
How do you narrow down the list of nominees for the Nobel Prize?
Well, we don’t dip our hands into a hat and select a name. We do it pretty much the same way that you make a good sauce – you reduce and reduce and reduce. The process starts by cutting out names that are spurious or that don’t pique the interest of the members or that don’t clearly coincide with the criteria in the testament. After a series of meetings we get to the really exciting stuff and that’s when we’re down to a dozen or so names.
Contrary to what one might think, the length of the paperwork just increases and increases as the number of candidates dwindle because, first we have an excellent set of professors here in Norway that assist us in writing background notes. But also when we get down to a dozen or so names we reach out to the world because, whatever you’re interested in, somebody somewhere has written a PhD about it. We try to get the best information possible. Not because we’re looking to confirm our biases or to look for black marks, but the committee really tends to prefer to know it all, the good and the bad, in order to make an informed decision.
Why is the Nobel Peace Prize awarding process so secretive?
Let me start with the difficulties of keeping secrets. Everybody knows, if more than two people know something, it tends not to be a secret for long. But it’s not like that in the Nobel Committee. As we are very different people from different walks of life that come together and make a decision by consensus – we do not vote, we agree – it’s necessary to have a strong degree of confidence in each other. This confidence, everybody knows, is based on us being able to keep secrets. During the first few meetings, I found it difficult that I couldn’t say anything, even to my wife about the work of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in selecting the Nobel Peace Prize. But after a while it becomes second nature. It becomes a compartmentalised space which has iron doors. It’s not the way that I would prefer it to be, but it’s necessary in order to maintain the secrecy and the confidence within the committee. For that reason, we tend to be quite restrictive about informing about what goes on inside the chamber.
How do laureates find out when they have been awarded the peace prize?
In past years, before the advent of the telephone for instance, they received a letter usually a few days before the actual announcement. Then later they received a telephone call on the day – and it works like that to this day. If you have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, you will only get an hour or so notice before the leader of the committee goes out and announces that you have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not.
A funny story is when Kailash Satyarthi, the Indian peace activist was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, they had gotten through to his office and it had leaked out to the media. The only person who didn’t know who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was Kailash Satyarthi, who came to his place of work, where there were throngs of journalists who were all so excited that one of them turned around and asked him, “Do you know what Kailash Satyarthi looks like?” And his response was, “Why do you ask that question?” And the journalist said, “Because he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, stupid!”
How can I be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
The Nobel Peace Prize is a bit different [to the other prizes] because good deeds, being a good person, doing the right thing, is what we are looking for. We’re not looking for pound by pound intelligence. We’re looking for people who are able to take the values and the goals of Alfred Nobel and put it into reality for the betterment of mankind. So this is truly one of those awards where anybody can be a Nobel Prize laureate if you strive to be one.
Watch the interview
* Nobel’s will and testament was signed in 1895 and opened in 1896 after he died.
First published September 2022