January 18, 2016 James Langton, The National
The outspoken winner of the lifetime achievement award has dedicated her life to bettering mankind.
Looking back to the macho world of politics in the 1980s, it is worth recalling that there was, in fact, more than one Iron Lady.
And in Gro Harlem Brundtland, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher met a formidable political opponent who could match her for steely determination and feminine wiles.
The former Norwegian prime minister and director of the World Health Organisation, United Nations special envoy and now this year’s winner of the Zayed Future Energy Prize for lifetime achievement, has a well-earned reputation for speaking her mind, especially when it is something she feels passionate about.
Back in 1986, she used a state visit by her British counterpart to raise several contentious issues between the two countries, from oil and fishing rights to sanctions against the apartheid regime of South Africa and the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland.
But it was the issue of acid rain, caused by pollution from British power stations blown into Norway by prevailing winds that provoked what could be described as the biggest clash of iron. Remarkably it was Mrs Brundtland who emerged victorious, as Thatcher agreed to clean up her act.
Some see Mrs Brundtland’s personality as rooted in the very nature of Norway, at times a hard, unforgiving place of mountains and ice that imbues a special kind of resilience in its inhabitants.
In her case, this comes with a reputation for blunt speaking.
At the 1994 UN conference on population in Cairo, Mrs Brundtland raised the thorny topic of abortion, castigating delegates with the message that “morality becomes hypocrisy if it means mothers suffering or dying in connection with unwanted pregnancies and illegal abortions of unwanted children”.
Her speech was applauded by some, but greeted with anger in other quarters, including the prime minister of Pakistan at the time, Benazir Bhutto, who called it “un-Islamic” and Iran, which demanded that it be struck from the conference record.
Her stance as an environmentalist was questioned when Mrs Brundtland approved the hunting of minke whales using harpoons, despite an international ban, insisting that “protecting the environment does not mean not touching anything”.
When combined with her left-wing politics, such a high profile has proved dangerous. Five years ago, a right-wing terrorist, Anders Breivik, gunned down 69 young men and women attending a summer camp on an island near Oslo.
At his trial it emerged that Mrs Brundtland had left the camp only a few hours earlier. Breivik had intended to murder her in the most gruesome manner, before posting the footage on the internet.
Awarding her the lifetime achievement award is a recognition that Mrs Brundtland has devoted almost all of her 76 years to serving others.
As her country’s first female leader it is also appropriate that she should also be the first woman to receive the US$500,000 (Dh1.836 million) prize.
Like her father, she trained as a medical doctor. Her early childhood was shaped by the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. Both parents initially joined the resistance, then fled to neutral Sweden.
“I was also lucky,” she said at an award ceremony in 2013 “to be brought up in a family of strong convictions, deeply held values of solidarity, justice and equality.”
After passing her medical qualifications she worked as a general practitioner while raising her four children, but became increasingly drawn to politics and Norway’s left-leaning Labour Party.
After serving as environment minister, she became prime minister in 1981 and, at 41, its youngest. Her minority government lasted barely six months, but Mrs Brundtland went on to win two more terms of office, the first notable for a cabinet almost half of whose members were women.
In the five-year gap between her first and second administration, Mrs Brundtland accepted an invitation in 1983 by the UN secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, to set up the World Commission on Environment and Development.
It was a time when concerns about environmental damage and the pressure on the Earth’s resources were becoming political issues.
After four years, the commission’s final report, Our Common Future, defined the then-new concept of sustainable development as a balance between the drive for economic growth while preserving the planet’s fragile ecosystem.
The Brundtland Report, as it would be known, laid the foundations for the first Earth Summit at Rio in 1992, and, 10 years later, at the second summit in Johannesburg.
Its author, meanwhile, returned to Norwegian politics, winning elections in 1986 and 1990. Such was her presence that among voters she was known simply as “Gro”. To those who questioned whether a woman could lead a nation of four million, she said: “There simply isn’t time to be a mother, a wife and a politician at the same time. My husband and children have to take a back seat.”
That singlemindedness, accompanied by reported 16-hour days, was not without cost. In 1996 she resigned as prime minister saying it was time to make way for a new generation of leaders and expressing a desire to spend more time with her family. Four years earlier she had given up the leadership of the Labour Party shortly before her son, Jurgen, killed himself at 24.
At 59, Mrs Brundtland’s life took a new direction when she was elected director-general of the WHO. Her five years in office were marked by series of public health initiatives, in particular on smoking.
“A cigarette is the only consumer product which when used as directed kills its consumer,” she said. New employees at the WHO were told quitting smoking was a condition of employment.
Today, she remains as active as ever. In 2007, she was invited to join The Elders, a group of senior former world leaders first headed by Nelson Mandela, with the aim of providing solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems, with an emphasis on human rights.
That same year, she was appointed as a UN special envoy on climate change, to assist in negotiations with governments in securing international agreements to limit global warming.
She remains a board member of the United Nations Foundation and a director of the Council of Women World leaders, a group whose membership has expanded to nearly 40 since she first took office 34 years ago.
The citation for the Zayed Future Energy Prize notes that the award was given “for her long-term and steadfast commitment to sustainability and sustainable development”.
Mrs Brundtland has her own, typically forthright, view of what it takes to succeed over so many years: “Determination, even courage, is of the essence. Great visions and speeches alone are not what really count the most. Vision without a plan, or a plan without action, is not much to admire.”