The revelations in the Norwegian financial newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) of Terje Rød-Larsen’s links to Jeffrey Epstein are a reminder that personal goals, dreams and ambitions can become entwined in professional choices in unfortunate ways – including for well intentioned foreign policy actors.
The International Peace Institute in New York, the think tank Terje Rød-Larsen led for years, has received millions of kroner from sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s foundation. The man who in his time contributed to negotiating the incredible Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO has seen his international status fall from ‘star diplomat’ to that of a hustler kicked out of his own institute.
For the Norwegian authorities, the problem is that over the years, Rød-Larsen’s think tank has also received over NOK 130 million of Norwegian government funding. This has caused both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Office of the Auditor General to instigate investigations into Rød-Larsen’s working practices and networks.
For those of us who have been following Norwegian peace diplomacy for a while, this fall from grace did not come as a total shock.
After the Oslo peace process, Rød-Larsen pursued a career that included stints at the Norwegian MFA, in the government of Thorbjørn Jagland, and at the UN as an under-secretary-general and UN Special Coordinator for the peace process in the Middle East and the Palestinian territories, before he established himself at the International Peace Institute in New York.
But this career trajectory is only half the story about how Rød-Larsen has gone about his business. The Norwegian negotiator’s professional practice has been the subject of debate previously.
When it was discovered through the research project ‘Peacemaking is a Risky Business’ that all the documents from the Oslo peace process had disappeared from the MFA’s archives, assuming they ever arrived there in the first place, the searchlight turned onto Rød-Larsen.
All investigations suggested that the documents in some strange way had ended up in the star diplomat’s personal possession. The National Archivist ordered an inquiry into the matter, but Rød-Larsen did not wish to cooperate. He admitted unwillingly that he had a significant private archive of documents relating to the secret negotiations in Norway.
He did not wish to hand these documents back to the Norwegian state, however, even after the National Archivist pointed out that not doing so was a violation of the Norwegian Archives Act. As a result of Rød-Larsen’s privatization of key documents from the peace process, any person or institution who wants access to the documents must have Rød-Larsen’s full confidence and consent.
In all probability, the missing documents challenge the prevailing myths about Norway’s role, including the perception that the Oslo process was fair for both Israel and the PLO, and that the Norwegian negotiators functioned as a balancing factor.
Our point here, however, is not only that Terje Rød-Larsen’s fall from riches to rags did not come as the greatest surprise, but that the reliance of peace diplomacy on specific individuals can sometimes be problematic.
For many years, there has been open talk about the ability of Norway’s role as a peace negotiator to boost Norway’s international reputation and general importance in international politics, and to provide utility value for its allies. It has been more difficult to talk about how this diplomatic niche also entails some relatively unique opportunities for meteoric career advancement and personal triumphs, which sometimes also fuel competitive instincts, feuds and discontent.
- Certain Norwegian peace negotiators have felt themselves ‘stabbed in the back’ by politicians back home, who themselves had wanted to play a role in particular negotiations.
- Others have sent home reports about how diplomats from neighbouring countries have attempted ‘coups’ over Norwegian-initiated processes.
- In the past, there were even examples of Norwegian diplomats suggesting that Norway should pay significant sums of money to other countries’ peace commissions in return for being permitted to continue in important roles.
Fortunately, this type of practice has become far less common as peace diplomacy, both in Norway and internationally, has become significantly more professional. Even so, peace diplomacy remains a business that demands long-term commitment and the presence of specific individuals.
How these people conduct themselves is thus not a matter for indifference, and many actors in their area will often have an opinion about how they go about their business.
Hilde Frafjord Johnson has described rumours within the UN system that she was a difficult ‘bitch’ when, after having played a key role in the peace process in Sudan, she got the job of heading the UN’s peacekeeping forces in South Sudan.
In situations where a lot is at stake, there are many opportunities for such rumours and opinions to arise. Sometimes they don’t have any roots in reality, while at other times they have an element of truth.
On the one hand, the peace negotiator’s role is a vulnerable position: one sticks one’s neck out when becoming part of an existing conflict dynamic. One the other hand, opportunities for stardom and hubris are also present. Accordingly it is important not only to congratulate international peace negotiators, but also to subject their roles and practices to careful scrutiny.
In cases where peace negotiators are actually partisan or unethical, carry out their roles with an eye to their own advantage, or attempt improperly to influence their posthumous reputations, such conduct should be brought to light.
It is very unfortunate if specific individuals get opportunities to build their diplomatic or political careers on shaky ethical foundations. While institutions such as the UN, the OSCE, the EU, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NOREF attend to and further develop their existing routines and frameworks, journalists and researchers must continue to ask critical questions.
Research constantly contributes to new knowledge about the ethical aspects of peace negotiating, and about the necessary basic components of a well functioning peace agreement. Here the negotiator’s personal interests and ambitions do in fact play a role. The negotiator’s position is vulnerable, but also powerful.
Conducting oneself in a deliberately partisan manner, orchestrating the ‘disappearance’ of important documents of public interest, or accepting large sums of money from sex offenders such as Jeffrey Epstein, shows poor judgement and a lack of understanding about the relationship between personal and public interests.
Ada Nissen & Hilde Henriksen Waage ‘Lite land, stor vilje. Norges internasjonale fredsengasjement’ [‘Small country, strong will’, in Norwegian] in Pharo, Bjerga, Engh, Hatlehol & Offerdal (eds): Historiker, strateg og brobygger. Festskrift til Rolf Tamnes 70 år (Oslo 2021: Pax forlag).
- This text was first published in Norwegian in the daily Dagens Næringsliv: “Fredsmeglingens fallgruver” 7 May 2021.
- Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext