Interview with Mr. Bjørn Midthun, Minister Counsellor,
The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Japan
Have you ever thought how peace is ‘facilitated’ behind news headlines about a peace process? What challenges and success are there when working with the parties? This interview highlights Norway’s role in peace facilitation which has been instrumental in some of the recent peace processes such as in Colombia and the Philippines.
ー How did Norway’s engagement in peace diplomacy start?
I think there are three major points that made Norway’s unique position: firstly, Norway has no colonial past. It is seen having no other motive to engage in peace facilitation other than actually achieving peace; secondly, it is a small country and perceived to pose no major threats to other countries; and lastly, Norway has had ‘surplus capacity’ to dedicate resources for such activity. In addition, political support from the Government was also necessary which I will come back to.
There was no specific plan to engage in any of the peace process at the beginning. Whether to engage in any peace process always required an objective and realistic assessment. When we engaged in the case of Middle East, our aim was to get the parties to the table. We did not expect the parties to discuss all issues nor resolve any disputes from the beginning, but our focus was to sustain a dialogue and provide a place to do so. This is how the 1993 Oslo Agreement came about where Yāser ‘Arafāt and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands.
We learned a lot and gained great insights from this event, and since then Norway started engaging in the peace process in Sri Lanka, Colombia and the Philippines, etc. Yet, Norway engages in such process only when it is approached by the parties. That is because it is always the parties that pursue a peace process, not a mediator. We don’t say yes to all suggestions either. When I was posted in India, Norway’s possible engagement in the Kashmir conflict was mentioned. Norway decided not engage as we considered that we didn’t have any special knowledge about the conflict. Our role is always that of a facilitator instead of a negotiator.
ー What actually do you do when mediating or facilitating peace?
Peace mediation or good offices may sound difficult, but what we do is actually the down-to-earth common sense activity – it is to build trust with between the parties and assist the parties in starting the process by themselves. That may involve establishing contacts at all levels and searching for common grounds. You see people and hear things by yourself, and assess the situation. Based on that you make suggestions considering all aspects possible including historical precedence. It may move slowly but you do that to the best of your ability.
This requires the dedication of man power and support of the political leadership. Having the Nobel Peace Prize Committee being located in Oslo may have helped in sustaining a good image of Norway. But please note that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is independent from the Government.
Yet, those processes may not always be easy. For instance, after some time, Israel regarded Norway being biased toward Palestine and Sri Lanka felt Norway being biased toward LTTE. And there were times when the parties had different intensions or different ideas to reach ‘peace’. Because of how the peace process turned out in Sri Lanka, Norway, being a mediator, got a quite bad press and such media may have reduced Norway’s ‘capital’ in some way.
ー What brought you to this job being a diplomat? What keeps motivating you?
I really loved history. I literally love seeing, feeling and exploring how the world is evolving. It is very natural for me to be interested in world affairs as I believe there is interconnection in the world. For instance, I am interested in the recent case in Ukraine – How do other counties react? What are next steps? What is the role of Norway? What can we do? Those questions always interest me. After I was posted to Japan, I have learnt so much about Japan, China, Asia and the South China Sea conflicts, etc. I am very grateful for the opportunity I have now to learn about Japan and this region.
<Comment by the interviewer>
When I was working in South Sudan where Norway also played a major role in the 2005 Peace Agreement, Norway was seen with respect and maintained being ‘a good friend’ of South Sudan. Someone holding such a space provided a relief to many of us in such a volatile political environment. After all it strikes me that it is the accumulation of every day efforts that has made Norway’s ’capital’ to be a peace broker, and it is always the parties or the countries that decide the future of the country. Mr. Midthun himself showed us the spirits of ‘Norwegian diplomacy’ beyond words.