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H.D.S. Greenway

A history of peace

Conflict resolution is part of Norway’s national DNA

Mourners surround a sea of flowers in front of Oslo Cathedral yesterday. Mourners surround a sea of flowers in front of Oslo Cathedral yesterday. (Reuters)
By H.D.S. Greenway
July 26, 2011

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IT SEEMS so unfair that Norway should become a target of terrorism. Once the scourge of Europe, when Vikings pillaged their way across the continent, Norway is the world’s number one exporter of peace and reconciliation. Wherever there is a conflict you may find a Norwegian up to his elbows trying to solve it.

For a country of only 5 million, Norway - home to the Nobel Peace Prize - punches way above its weight in the humanitarian arena, which makes last week’s terrorist attack that killed 76 people so jarring.

Norway’s best-known peace effort was the Oslo Accords of 1993, when representatives of the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization met officially for the first time, in secret, with Norway as facilitator. The resulting agreement, which was supposed to lead to a Palestinian state, was signed in Washington by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin under the benevolent gaze of President Clinton.

“We gradually saw the peace process stall and the enemies of reconciliation win,’’ said Jan Egeland, a former diplomat and now director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He said there were “strong anti-peace forces among Israelis and Palestinians alike.’’ But the Oslo Accords still remain a blueprint for future efforts.

Other peace-facilitating efforts have included Sudan, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, and the Caucasus. “We failed more often than we succeeded,’’ said Egeland. Still, he had the satisfaction of seeing a Guatemalan cease-fire agreement signed in Oslo’s town hall.

Not that Norwegians can’t be counted on in a fight. Norway is a NATO member. There is a Norwegian contingent in Kabul, and Norwegian war planes were involved over Libya. But peace-keeping efforts always trump going to war as far as the Norwegians are concerned.

How did this all come to pass? First, Norway used to be one of the poorest countries in Europe, until North Sea oil made it one of the richest. But an egalitarian spirit still prevails from the days when poverty enforced it. Today, a strong Labor movement and one of the highest tax rates in Europe, as well as an efficient welfare system, does the enforcing. Lutheran guilt about their recent good fortune inhibits any desire to show off wealth, Norwegians say.

Secondly, modern Norway never had an empire, and achieved its independence from Sweden only in 1905. Norwegian missionaries were to be found in all the world, and today, with the secularization of the missionary spirit, Norwegian zeal has been channeled more into saving bodies than souls. “Norwegians have always had sympathy for the downtrodden,’’ said Morten Wetland, Norway’s ambassador to the United Nations.

No discussion of Norway, or its humanitarian record, would be complete without reference to the extraordinary explorer, scientist, diplomat, and Nobel Prize winner, Fridtjof Nansen. He died in 1930 at 68, but not before leaving an indelible record of achievement. A champion athlete, he gained fame as an Arctic explorer before he turned to marine biology, contributing to our understanding of neurology.

Nansen was involved with Norway’s separation from Sweden, and played a major role in persuading Denmark’s Prince Charles to accept the newly vacant throne of Norway.

As High Commissioner for Refugees, Nansen was in charge of the great wash of humanity turned over by World War I. “Never in my life have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering,’’ he said, and he went to work. Nansen devised the “Nansen Passport’’ for stateless persons, which allowed thousands of paperless exiles to travel. Artist Marc Chagall and musician Igor Stravinsky were among the beneficiaries.

Nansen devised the great population exchange between Turkey and Greece, after their war in 1922, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. In 1938, the office he founded, the Nansen International Office of Refugees, also won Nobel’s most prestigious prize.

Bringing peace and conflict resolution is part of Norway’s national DNA. Still, not even the best intentions can inoculate a country from mass murder, the scourge of the 21st century.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.