Rights in Norway – as Low as they can Go
By Marianne Haslev Skånland
The author is a
professor of linguistics at the University of Bergen.
A version in Norwegian of this article: Menneskerettigheter i Norge på
published in July 2004 in the Bergen issue of a
special magazine presenting Norwegian
cities, and is
also available on this home page.
The English version has previously been published by
by nkmr, also in
rights are a popular topic of conversation in Norway these
days, not least the rights defended by the European Court
of Human Rights (
ECHR ) in
Strasbourg. The focus, though, is on how fit we
Norwegians are to instruct other nations. Of realistic,
reasonably objective assessment of the conditions at
home there is little evidence, likewise of a systematic
effort to pull the Norwegian legal instruments up to the
standard they should have in the field of human rights.
In fact our society experiences a steady stream of cases
in which Norwegian citizens' elementary rights are
violated and the victims left confused and unable to
Why is this?
have a poor understanding of the importance of steady, free
and open flow of information made readily available to the
public at large. In general experience, the sustained
publishing of detailed information about unfair and abusive
treatment on the part of the authorities in a country has
shown itself the be an effective means of getting those in
power to behave better towards the population they are to
serve. Experience has also shown that few other remedies
work, at least not if not accompanied by making matters
But freedom of speech has no great currency in our country.
Propaganda descending on us from our authorities
continually tells us that confidentiality in sensitive
matters is an excellent virtue and the pressure to make
citizens shut up is very great. Two cases brought against
Norway at the ECHR have at least made clear that one is
permitted to characterise publicly a doctor's professional
activities in strongly critical terms, and that it is
allowed to quote from official documents even should they
reveal irregularities on the part of our authorities.
That, however, is about as far as we, with the help of the
ECHR, have got in the field of fredom of speech in Norway.
important factor missing among Norwegians is a sceptical
attitude towards authorities and an understanding of what
the concomitants of power and bureaucratism are. We tend to
take for granted that the authorities' representatives -
public servants - automatically dispense welfare and
service to the population; helpless disbelief is what hits
us when that is not so.
A citizen who is deprived of his right perhaps tries going
to the press, to the local or national executive bodies,
and to politicians, but with scant result.
He then respectfully goes to the courts. Norway has defined
itself to be "under the rule of law" and law is there to
serve the ordinary life of ordinary people. The citizen,
however, experiences the results to be quite different from
what he expected. The state of affairs regarding our legal
institutions can be illustrated, I believe without
distortion, through a few quotes from representatives of
the legal professions [translations are mine]:
– The City of Bergen is not bound the Human Rights
Convention, since it was signed by Norway, not by Bergen -
(stated by a lawyer representing Bergen in a case in which
serveral people who had as children been placed in
"children's homes" in Bergen demanded compensation for what
they had suffered there).
– We cannot go against the police or the public prosecutor
in this way - these people are among our acquaintances -
(stated by the defence counsel of an innocently accused
man, when one of the man's witnesses was able to prove that
the police investigator's report of a questioning was
– If the Supreme Court were to let the risk of liability to
pay compensation decide what freedom our Parliament should
have to pass laws, we would be off the track completely. -
(stated by Inge Lorange Backer, a civil servant in the
Ministry of Justice, in an article in the law journal Lov
og Rett 10/2003. The compensation in question was one which
the ECHR might award people who could forseeably complain
to Strasbourg that they were victims of punishment in
violation of the Human Rights Convention. Earlier in the
article he writes: – The costs and inconveniences of an
unnecessary reorganisation can be far greater than the
costs paid out in compensation. - - My cynical eye reads
this to mean that here we have a high-ranking civil servant
in the Ministry of Justice saying: Norway should just go
ahead and pass any laws we want regardless of whether they
might conflict with the human rights convention, and we
should just shrug our shoulders if this leads to
condemnation of Norway in Strasbourg since the compensation
awarded to successful applicants by the ECHR is negligible.
- Quite so: It is enragingly modest. Perhaps our States
would withdraw from the Court if they were made to pay
victims of their human rights offences a compensation which
matched the sufferings the state has inflicted?)
The trusting individual is reduced to hopelessness by these
kinds of preposterous legalism.
organisation Kurdish Human Rights Project
cases against Turkey to the ECHR on behalf of Kurdish
applicants with Turkish citizenship. Reading about the
efforts of the KHRP is instructive.
They have as their explicit program to bring out
information, in every relevant forum, about human rights
violations against Kurds in the five countries with large
Kurdish populations. One way they accomplish this is by
going to the Court of Human Rights, since Turkey is a
member State of the Court. They have taken case after case
to Strasbourg and have fought every inch of the way.
The organisation is independent of Turkish legal bodies and
Turkish society, it is based not in Turkey but in London.
Its board and advisory group have a heavy representation of
British legal experts. These same jurists often function as
the applicants' advocates in the Court process. The KHRP
and their helpers therefore evidently know well how the
Court works by now and they plan far-sighted strategies to
have the nature of the violations known and understood.
The early Kurdish cases were often not admitted to the
Court. But the Kurds persevered. The cases kept coming and
won through to serious consideration. Now, Turkey is quite
regularly found guilty of violations of e.g. Article 6 (the
right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial
tribunal), Article 13 (the right to an effective remedy
when a violation has occurred), Article 3 (prohibition of
torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment),
Article 2 (the right to life). The efforts of the Kurds are
formidable. There must be somebody over there in London who
is interested in justice.
In their cases before the ECHR, the Kurds also try to win
acceptance for statements whose content is something
violations of Article 6 have been allowed to develop in
Turkey, sanctioned by the authorities.
couple of hundred cases are on the table in Strasbourg
showing examples of such violations, perhaps that will in
itself serve to demonstrate that it is a question of a
habit having been allowed to develop?
The Kurds have the edge on us. They have never been under
the illusion that they are dealing with a loyal state. They
have understood that "We must do everything ourselves, from
Norwegian citizens must learn from the Kurds and organise
themselves in a similar manner. The human rights Articles
just mentioned, and several more, must be fought for in
order to be respected in Norway too, against an unwilling,
disrespectful, obstructive and offending State. I look
forward to the time when case after case arrives at the
Strasbourg Court saying: "In Norway,
with the full sanction of the Norwegian authorities, a
routine has been allowed to develop of violating Articles
6, 3, 13, 10 (the right to
freedom of speech/information) and
8 (the right to
respect for one's private and family