July 2004

Human 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 bånn, was 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
BarnasRett and by nkmr, also in July 2004.


Human rights are a popular topic of conversation in Norway these days, not least the rights defended by the European Court of Human Rights ( ECtHR ) 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 defend themselves.

Why is this?

The hushing up
We Norwegians 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 public.

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 ECtHR 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 ECtHR, have got in the field of fredom of speech in Norway.

The second 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 municipality 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 untrue).

– 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 ECtHR 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 ECtHR 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.

The Kurds
The organisation Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP) takes cases against Turkey to the ECtHR 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 ECtHR, the Kurds also try to win acceptance for statements whose content is something like:
Habitual violations of Article 6 have been allowed to develop in Turkey, sanctioned by the authorities. When another 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 scratch."

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 life)."