In this edition of the Interview, Fair Observer talks to former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik.
One of Norway’s most popular politicians, former Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik is probably the world’s first statesman who admitted that he suffered from depression while in office. For his honesty and willingness to speak of his psychological disorder, Bondevik was commended and received thousands of letters offering support.
Bondevik was Norway’s prime minister from 1997-2000 and 2001-2005. He is currently president of Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights, which he founded in 2006, and works closely with the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the Carter Center and the Crisis Management Initiative. The Oslo Center is tasked with engaging in conflict resolution plans, peace meditation and negotiation efforts in fragile and unstable regions of the world. In early 2006, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan named Bondevik as the new special humanitarian envoy for the Horn of Africa.
In this interview, Fair Observer speaks to Bondevik about a variety of issues, including the Nobel Peace Prize, Norway’s alliance with NATO and its relations with the European Union.
Kourosh Ziabari: The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Pakistani prodigy Malala Yousafzai and the Indian anti-child labor activist Kailash Satyarthi, in recognition of their efforts to regain the stolen rights of minorities. What do you think of the recipients for last year’s award? Were they merited enough to win the prestigious prize?
Kjell Magne Bondevik: I fully support the decision of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize 2014 to Malala and Satyarthi. Their work for the rights of children is an important contribution to peace. I know that the Nobel Committee also had an eye on the fact that the two winners come from two neighboring countries with serious tensions. We all hope that the award can contribute to better relations.
Ziabari: What role do you think Norway has played in recent decades in establishing peace and security across the world? Norway has a reputation for being a neutral state with moderate politicians. Is this an asset for the country?
Bondevik: It is a fact that Norway has been called upon to contribute to reconciliation and peace processes in several countries. Guatemala and Sudan are two examples where negotiations led to peace agreements. Norway has the advantage of being a small country without a colonial past — and with many NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] working in relevant countries with a long-term and idealistic perspective, cooperating with the government.
Ziabari: Norway is not a member state of the European Union (EU), and so its large-scale policies sometimes differ from those of EU nations. But Norway is a founding member of NATO, and this has its challenges as well as advantages. Why has Norway not opted for joining the European Union, while being part of NATO?
Bondevik: The people of Norway have twice through referendum decided not to join the European Union. There are several reasons for this standpoint. For instance, a wish to be more independent in international politics, and more freedom in regional, agricultural and fisheries policy. There is a broad consensus regarding our NATO membership because of security reasons.
Ziabari: One of the most painful incidents in Norway’s recent history was the mass killing of 77 Norwegian citizens by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. Western media often refuses to call him a terrorist and euphemistically refer to him as a mass killer.” Do you see the heinous crime he committed as anything other than an act of terrorism?
Bondevik: Of course it was also a terrorist act and an alarm bell to stand up against the rise of xenophobia and discrimination, especially against Muslims.
Ziabari: Should freedom of speech and expression have any limits? In recent years, a number of movies have been produced in which Prophet Muhammad has been denigrated. Do you think that such attempts should be defended under the umbrella of free speech or condemned due to causing offense to religious communities?
Bondevik: In accordance to Norwegian law, there are limits with regard to racism and invitation to use violence. But when using the freedom within these limits, we always have to think about what our expressions may have as an impact, especially on religious and other minorities. Freedom of speech is a fundamental value, but should be used in a responsible way. With every freedom comes responsibility.
Ziabari: Many people across the world face the question of statelessness, and in some regions, such as Myanmar, this has led to a humanitarian catastrophe. What is your view on the current situation of stateless people, both in developed countries and in such impoverished places as Myanmar?
Bondevik: It is no doubt that crimes against humanity are being committed against the Muslim minority in Myanmar. The controversial 1982 Citizenship Law denies the majority of the Rohingyas Burmese citizenship. They live under severe and dire conditions and far too many are victims of daily persecution. If the situation continues to worsen, this can in turn lead to a relapse in the entire peace process.
Ziabari: There are currently 22 female leaders serving as the head of government around the world. Some of them have made remarkable contributions to their respective countries’ economic, social and political progress. How important is it for women to have an equal chance to assume senior political positions?
Bondevik: Since half of the population is [made up of] women, they should have the same opportunity as men to serve in public life. This is an obvious right in Norway, entrenched in national legislation and implemented through quota regulations and by other means. This is an advantage for Norway and a contribution to our welfare state. Without women’s participation, we [would] miss important values.
Ziabari: The Norwegian government’s opposition to the Iraq War was a moment where it remarkably diverged from NATO allies and the US. You once said in an interview that the “weapons of mass destruction” argument was a baseless accusation. How do you see the situation in Iraq today, and what’s your assessment of the Norwegian government’s decision not to join the invasion of the country in 2003?
Bondevik: I am more convinced than ever that our decision not to join the invasion in Iraq was a right standpoint. The Western countries that invaded Iraq were not attacked, and there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction. The situation in Iraq is very difficult, and ISIS [Islamic State] is operating in the northern part of the country. Our decision did not trouble our relation with NATO.
Ziabari: Tension in eastern Ukraine has tarnished relations between Russia and the West. The United States and the EU have imposed financial sanctions on Moscow. Has Norway faced pressure from Washington and Brussels to put restrictions on its trade with Russia as a punitive measure? Will the crisis affect Norway’s political and economic ties with Russia?
Bondevik: Relations with Russia are difficult at the time being for all Western countries, due to the situation in eastern Ukraine. It is normal for Norway to coordinate our reactions with our allies, but further questions in this regard must be put to our current government.
Ziabari: Oil prices are decreasing significantly, hitting a four-year low of $55 per barrel. Around a quarter of Norway’s gross domestic product (GDP) comes from oil revenues, but Reuters recently claimed that the oil price crash will not affect the Norwegian economy seriously, because the budget is not reliant on oil income while $860 billion from oil sales have already been accumulated. What’s your take on that?
Bondevik: Norway has over many years established a petroleum fund called the Government Pension Fund Global, which gives room for maneuvering in fiscal policy when oil prices drop. It is possible to draw on this fund when required, and low oil prices over a period will consequently not have a serious impact on Norway’s economic situation.
Ziabari: What’s your assessment of the new turn in Iran’s foreign policy? Norway’s foreign minister, Børge Brende, has just visited Iran. Will this trend continue to grow?
Bondevik: I hope that relations between Iran and the Western world will improve. I visited Iran myself last December. It is my clear impression that the current president and his government want to open up toward the international community and has the intention of signing an agreement with US on the nuclear issue. But we also know that the country has a political system with the Supreme Leader, the Council of Guardians and the Revolutionary Guard as main power institutions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.