Peace-themed tourist items in Oslo’s Aker Brygge district

Making peace great again in Oslo

Matt Pickles


It’s 1am on a Thursday and Cafe Sara is heaving. The bar just north of Oslo’s centre is full of young Norwegians drinking craft ale and using snus, little packets of tobacco which they place under their lips between hoppy sips.

The barman, Emil, is drying a glass and chatting to a regular. They are debating who will win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

“It has to go to the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea,” says Emil, referring to the peace deal in July which brought two decades of conflict to an end.

“No, it won’t be them,” says Thomas, leaning back on his stool and stroking a thick beard that hints at Viking heritage.

“But it will probably go somewhere in Africa.”

The winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday morning in Oslo. A measure of the prize’s popularity is that there is a trade in tacky tourist items.

A waterside shop in Akerbrygge offers washcloths with the slogan ’wipe away your fear’, chocolate coins shaped like the Nobel medal, and a t-shirt branded “Make Peace Great Again”.

Which brings us to President Trump. He isn’t popular with Norwegians, according to the regulars in Café Sara. But his negotiations with North Korea have put him among the favourites for this year’s prize. “Everyone,” Trump said in May, thinks he should win it.

Yet only five opinions matter: those of the prize’s committee members. One of them, Dr Henrik Syse, is showing me round the Nobel Institute, a grand 19th century building which used to be a townhouse.

Dr Henrik Syse in the Nobel Institute

The discussions happen in a small room whose walls are lined with wood panelling, dark green furnishings and photographs of previous laureates. In its centre is an oval table with only six seats. A large chandelier takes up half of the ceiling.

If a committee member looks out of the window and across the street, they see a Specsavers. There’s a joke about vision in there somewhere.

Henrik is an academic philosopher specialising in peace studies. His father, Jan, was Norway’s prime minister. With a narrow face, bright bespectacled eyes and wide smile, Henrik looks a lot like his dad — in fact, the sculptor of the PM’s bust used Henrik as a head model.

Henrik is not allowed to disclose what is discussed in this room, nor the criteria for selection, nor who has been nominated. “The Nobel statutes keeps this information secret for 50 years. “So you’ll still be alive to get the minutes of this year’s discussions,” he quips. “And I’ll be 102.”

But he can say that nominations close each February, after which the committee reviews the 300 plus nominees to draw up a shortlist. Then a group of researchers prepare secret reports on the nominees, and the committee meets as often as they need until October’s announcement.

The Nobel Institute’s committee room

During this six month cycle, the prize constantly swirls around at the back of Henrik’s mind. His students and colleagues bombard him with suggestions. And he can’t escape the media speculation. “You cannot help but wonder how the world will react to the decision,” he says.

A minute before the 11am announcement, his wife texts him her guess —so far, she has an impressive 50% record.

The decision weighs on Henrik because, as an expert on peace, he know it can have real world consequences. He spins on his chair to gesture at the wall behind him, at the certificate for Colombia’s former president Juan Manuel Santos. Santos won the 2016 prize only four days after his peace deal with FARC was rejected by the country.

He later said the prize’s timing helped to keep the deal alive.

And once a prize has been given, the Nobel statutes says it cannot be reversed. This rule was tested this year amid calls for Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1991 prize to be removed over Myanmar’s military violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Speculation raged this year about Trump’s chances of winning the prize

But Henrik, whose voice and laugh have a melodic rise and fall, has a lighter side. He loves British comedies like the Fast Show and almost enters academic mode as he dissects the “bathos” of Monty Python’s Camelot scene.

“The committee is not like a graveyard, there are some big personalities,” he explains. “And making a joke to lighten the mood means you are more open to others’ impressions, and to telling others that you disagree with them.”

Back in Cafe Sara, closing time approaches.

“A lot of people make bets on the Nobel Prize,” Emil tells me from behind the bar.

“But I don’t do it, except in my head.”

With a practised flourish of the wrist, he finishes pulling a pint.

“But I really do think it will go to Ethiopia.”

This article was first aired on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent