Human Rights: What are the Dilemmas for Norwegian foreign policy?

11/17/2008 // Speech on Norwegian human rights policy by Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre University of Bergen (Norway), 11 November 2008


[FILM CLIP. GUATEMALA. Marielos Monzon]


Dear friends,
A warm welcome to all of you who have come here to set the spotlight on human rights, on the system of norms and rules designed to ensure protection of the individual and of human dignity – for you, me and everyone else.

We have all just seen and heard what one individual has been forced to experience. Marielos’s story provides a glimpse of what the fight for human rights is all about. It was a powerful testimony. She is so calm and dignified as she sits there telling her terrible story.

This dignity – bordering on defiance – tells us something else: that oppressive regimes seeking to bully people into silence can never succeed. They may intimidate many, but there will always be voices that dare to speak out.

Marielos’s father was a prominent human rights lawyer. She lost him when she was only 10, liquidated by a death squadron. Since then, Marielos’s own work as a journalist has brought her too into the firing line of the death squadrons.

Masked men held a gun to her young son’s head. After that, she fled the country with her children. But she later came back and continued her work. And as we heard in the film, Marielos’s teenage daughter is also thinking of becoming a journalist.

Like her mother and her grandfather, she plans to use the pen and the computer, the written word, to continue the fight for human rights.

In 2007, Marielos from Guatemala came to Oslo – at our invitation – to take part in the Global Inter-Media Dialogue together with journalists from all over the world. We were deeply impressed by what we heard about their efforts in support of freedom of expression and human rights.

Most of you here this evening are students. There is not much difference between Marielos and any one of you. You are young, full of ambition, hopes and dreams. But your lives are so different.

There is a lesson to be learned here. We must never look on the fight for human rights in our own country as something that has been won once and for all. It must also involve supporting efforts in other parts of the world, where there is still a real battle to be fought and people are risking their lives.

*****

Last Thursday I met another person with extraordinary courage – Ingrid Betancourt.

She is travelling around telling her story after nearly seven years as a prisoner of the FARC guerrillas in the Colombian jungle. She came into my office, tired after spending the night on the plane from New York, but she had a presence and charisma that I have hardly ever experienced before. The same charisma that was apparent in interviews with the media at the weekend.

The first thing she said was, “You and I have studied together!” And she was right. She was a student at Sciences Po in Paris from 1980 to 1983, and I was there from 1981 to 1985. We didn’t know each other as students. But she wanted to spend the first 15 minutes of our conversation talking about our student days, our teachers, the café just across the street that the students used to frequent, about our ordinary day-to-day lives as students.

After her studies, she returned to Colombia, and worked in administration and politics right up to the point when she was kidnapped during her election campaign. I returned to Norway, and worked in administration and politics back home.

I am telling you this because it made such an impression on me to realise that two people’s lives can come so close and yet take such dramatically different directions.

I live in a country where I am free to enjoy the benefits of all human rights. She went back to a country where human rights are grossly violated.

Ingrid talked a little about her nightmare experience. About the humiliations. About what kept her going: her faith in God, her faith in the inherent good in people, her good memories. And about how she has urged her children to take the greatest possible advantage of the best education the world can offer.

*****

That was only last Thursday.

For me, there is a clear line running back from last week to the autumn of 2005. One of the first things we did when this Government took office was to draw up guidelines for all our embassies on how we can best support and protect human rights defenders on the ground. These guidelines are helping to put into practice the words of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. This pioneering document, which was negotiated with Norway playing a leading role, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The Declaration has provided inspiration and motivation for many brave people.

This work is important, and it is one way that we can really make a difference for these fearless people. Because it all boils down to this: how much an individual can achieve, can manage, can endure.

Violations of human rights may affect whole groups and populations. But any group is made up of individuals.
 
And my work in the Red Cross, in the World Health Organization (WHO), and now as Foreign Minister has taught me how vital individual efforts are. Every single individual’s efforts count.

Protecting brave individuals who are prepared to stand up for human rights is an effective way of opposing oppressive regimes.

*****

Efforts to improve working conditions for human rights defenders will continue to be a high priority for Norway. These people play an invaluable role in countries where the state fails to fulfil its obligations. And the problem is that states do fail in this way.

For it is states themselves that have the prime responsibility for ensuring that human rights are realised and respected. It is states that sign, adopt and ratify conventions.

So what are the implications for Norway as a state? And for my responsibilities as foreign minister?

*****

Firstly, Norway is committed to respecting human rights through a number of international agreements. As foreign minister, I have a responsibility to ensure that Norway meets these obligations. It is the Government and the Storting’s task to ensure that we take this responsibility seriously.

Secondly, respect for human rights is one of the key values underpinning Norwegian society. The underlying values are what give our policies meaning. This is why our foreign policy focuses on the vulnerable, the oppressed, the weakest in society. And it is why our foreign policy is designed to build respect for the inviolability of the individual.

Thirdly, human rights are an important foreign policy interest. In the long term, a stable international legal order – which is in Norway’s interests – can only be developed by countries that respect fundamental human rights. There are clear links between respect for the individual, efforts to promote peace, and a just world order.

This is what I want to talk about this evening. In principle, it may not seem as if there is much to discuss, since I am sure that most of us here agree on the ideal goals and fundamental values. But in real life, there are dilemmas to resolve and difficult decisions to make. I would like to share with you some thoughts about this – the decisions that have to be taken when strategies are being formed and choices made.

*****

2008. This is no ordinary year. This is the year when we can celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And today’s date – 11 November – is no ordinary date. It is the date the First World War ended, when Germany signed the armistice treaty in a railway carriage near Compiègne at 11.00 in the morning. And at 11.00 this morning, the whole world stopped to remember not only those who died in the First World War, but also all those who have died in subsequent wars.

But foremost in my mind is the fact that this year, on the night between 9 and 10 November, it was 70 years since Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, and of the destruction of synagogues and Jewish shops, a night of darkness in Europe. The commemoration here in Bergen was led by the Norwegian NGO SOS Rasisme. But while people were remembering Kristallnacht 70 years ago down by the Blue Stone sculpture, others were painting swastikas on Fyllingsdalen Church, Løvås School and a building in Nebbestølen. This in itself is a stark reminder.

We must never give up the fight for human dignity.

After the Second World War, the documentation of the abuses perpetrated by the Nazis and the Fascists created a unique international climate and the momentum to do more than just reflect on what had happened; it created the momentum to take action.

The feeling of: Never again! The world cannot allow anything like this to happen again! The conviction that if they had taken a stand together, the countries of the world could have stopped it.

The UN was established and the UN Charter was signed. It expressed the belief that every individual has rights that are inviolable by the state, and that it is the state’s responsibility to safeguard these rights.

But the UN Charter said very little about what these rights were. Therefore the UN General Assembly established a working group to draw up an international declaration of human rights.

The group included representatives from Iran, India, Russia and Egypt. A mix of countries that may give us cause for reflection today.

After tough discussions and meetings day and night, the members of the group managed to agree on a text. And on 11 December 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Sixty years ago.

Human dignity, non-discrimination, equality and justice. Core values for everyone, everywhere, always. This was a radical achievement 60 years ago. Indeed it is still radical today; we still need change to move closer to our goals.

The time frame is relatively short, and we should not forget that we have made a great deal of progress: today the countries of the world are bound by a whole system of norms and a profusion of institutions. All based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So far, there are 162 states parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Only two countries have not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The principles that the individual has rights and that the legitimate exercise of state power must be based on respect for these rights is thus generally accepted, although this can sometimes be difficult to believe.

This makes it even more important to remind ourselves that these rights were never, and still are not, “Western” values. They are universal values. We cannot call 162 countries “the West”. They make up nearly the whole world.

*****

But real life has once again shown that “Never again!” is not a guarantee.

The worst can happen – yet again.


[FILM CLIP. SREBRENICA]


We have seen scenes from Srebrenica, in Bosnia, in Europe. A new war in Europe.

You who are students will remember what happened. And what didn’t happen. And how we were apparently powerless to stop it.

And not only there. There have been many setbacks for human rights since the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948.

The film clip showed one example. Rwanda and Darfur are others. DR Congo today must also be included. Think of the figures again: five million killed, 1.5 million internally displaced. Think of it as an endless line of individual people; five million plus 1.5 million individual violations of human rights.

Serious violations of human rights take place in most countries of the world. The challenges are huge. Besides, the global balance of power has changed.

Countries such as China, India and Russia have increased their power and influence. The fight against terrorism that arose out of the smoke of September 11 has weakened the leadership of Western countries in the field of human rights. Not just because they are in a political minority, but also because the pictures from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Abu Ghraib in Iraq are eating away at our ability to show leadership.

The impression has arisen that it is a case of “the West against the rest” and “the West against Islam”. Religion has gained importance as an indicator of difference.

We must have the courage to base our human rights efforts on principles. But we must also have the courage to adapt to a new, pragmatic political reality.

The goal – human rights – remains the same. What this new situation requires of us is that we are able to adapt to new ways of working. Towards the same goal – the protection of individuals.

There is one question that is raised again and again. Should Norway speak out strongly and clearly – either alone or together with other like-minded countries? Or is it better to build alliances and enter into dialogue?

These are not questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. The answer will vary. But we must have the courage to discuss this before deciding on our strategy.

*****

We are being confronted with serious dilemmas, and one of them is this: How can we protect our citizens against terrorism and at the same time fulfil our human rights obligations?
 

[FILM CLIP. ABU GHRAIB. GUANTANAMO]


One question is a direct challenge to our system of norms and limits to acceptable behaviour: Can any action be justified if the threat is serious enough?

The answer is no.

This line of thought and action will lead us completely astray. Is there, for example, any such thing as “a little bit of” torture – as referred to in the film clip you just saw? Is it all right to kill civilians in a conflict if only 10 or 12 die?

The answer is no.

A number of international treaties, conventions and agreements set absolute limits.

The absolute prohibition on torture is one such limit. The absolute prohibition on directing attacks against civilians rather than military targets is another. Limits have been laid down for our conduct even in war.

But let us agree on something else: all countries are obliged to protect their citizens against terrorism. Norway included. This follows from our commitments under international law.

Indeed, I would put it as strongly as this: the most important task of any government is to safeguard its citizens. Providing protection against terrorism is in itself part of the human rights effort.

We must respond to threats – effectively and firmly. But also fairly.

Legal safeguards are not just individual rights. They constitute a norm that reflects the values we espouse and cherish in our society.

And this is why my next point is so important: In the fight against terrorism, human rights and the principles of the rule of law are not an obstacle. On the contrary. They are one of our most important tools. It no good for anyone – neither individuals nor countries – if some people consider themselves to be above the law or outside it.

Outside the law. The soldiers from Abu Ghraib tell of a door opening onto darkness when they stepped over the boundary. Down there, there were no longer any boundaries. 

We will never be able to fight terrorism with secret prisons, torture and inhuman treatment. Nor will we do so by depriving people of legal safeguards – the very fundament of our concept of democracy and the rule of law.

If we put aside human rights and the principles of the rule of law in the fight against terrorism, we are wiping out the distinction between ourselves and the terrorists. We are giving those who flew the planes into the World Trade Center and those who put bombs on trains and buses in Madrid and London an additional bonus.

*****

But at the same time, we must not think that Abu Ghraib could never happen here.

Cruelty and savagery are not linked to nationality, ethnicity, religion, sex or age.

The camps in North Norway during the Second World War known as the “Serb camps” are a reminder of this. The guards were Norwegian. People were humiliated and tortured. The death rates were among the highest in prison camps in Norway.

It was the Nazis who ordered that the Norwegian Jews should be deported and sent to concentration camps. But it was Norwegians who drew up the lists, drove the trucks and confiscated the property of those who were deported and never came back.

It can happen here. Indeed it has happened here.

*****

A federal court in the US recently ruled that the Guantanamo detainees could challenge their detention in civil courts, for as the judge put it, “The laws and Constitution are designed to survive (...) in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled.”

And I particularly noted this point: human rights should survive in “extraordinary times”. A society is judged on its treatment of the worst and the weakest, in the hardest times.

In his victory speech in Chicago last week, Barack Obama said: “Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”

Let us hope that he is right. That it was not the US as a nation but a few people in power who over the last seven years have led this powerful country to use torture, to set aside fundamental human rights and to declare all of us – who do not believe that September 11 justifies this – to be opponents.

But, we must remember, one of the US’s strengths is that difficult and controversial issues are raised for debate. Think of all the oppression and abuse perpetrated by authoritarian regimes that do not have investigative journalists, publicly elected representatives and a civil society that sounds the alarm.

*****

But then, dear friends, we – Norway and the Norwegian authorities – are facing another kind of dilemma I want to say a few words about:

It is a dilemma that can arise in the interface between human rights and Norway’s economic interests.

We expect our companies to respect international norms and views and to take these with them and be guided by them regardless of where they are doing business. The Government wants to set a clearer Norwegian policy on corporate social responsibility. There is a clear connection between Norwegian business activities and conduct abroad and Norway’s – our – reputation.

This is why the Government will be presenting a white paper on corporate social responsibility to the Storting in a few weeks. Norway is leading the efforts in the UN to clarify the business community’s responsibility for human rights. This is pioneering work.

Throughout Norway’s history, the foreign service has sought to promote the interests of Norwegians abroad – seamen, missionaries, petroleum engineers. And we will continue to do so. We will help to forge contacts between Norwegian companies and government actors locally. To do so we depend on a good, broad contacts, and we must have the vision to create new contacts. In 2007, we opened an embassy in Algeria. In 2009, we will be opening an embassy in Kazakhstan.

At the same time, we have to ask ourselves: Is there a conflict between establishing closer contact and our engagement in human rights?

I visited Saudi Arabia in April. I met its leaders and representatives of Norwegian companies. But also included in my programme was a meeting with some brave people who are seeking to promote human rights.

Since travelling to the Middle East and the Caucasus, I have reflected on these dilemmas that we are now encountering in Norwegian foreign policy.

Energy issues are affecting relations between countries – countries such as Algeria, Kazakhstan, Angola, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Iran and the Gulf states. Countries Norwegian industries are turning to as they increase their focus on international operations, after having built up their expertise over several decades of operations on the Norwegian continental shelf.

However, many of these countries are also known for political oppression and social injustice. It has been claimed that there is an inverse ratio between the price of oil and respect for human rights.

*****

My view is that it is very rarely best to stay away. I believe we must take an approach that can lead to a political dialogue where it is possible to speak out clearly and raise different issues – including difficult ones, including violations of human rights.

Speaking out clearly may provoke certain countries. But my experience is that it is possible, not least because almost all the world’s countries have undertaken to abide by universal human rights standards.

This is why we give priority to this aspect of our relations as we develop cooperation with countries like Algeria and Saudi Arabia. Together with actors in Algeria, we held a seminar on the principles of the rule of law in Oslo. It was given press coverage in Algiers and Paris. And we also raise the cases of people on Amnesty International’s lists.

Yes, these are small steps. But they underline that human rights are part of the picture when we develop relations with other countries. And they can provide support for the brave men and women who are fighting for these values.

*****

Another dilemma is: How should we speak out? How should we react?

The choice of foreign policy tool should be based on the nature of the human rights violation and an assessment of what would be most effective in the concrete situation.

Loud protests against ongoing violations can save lives. Support for individuals can have an important symbolic effect and can send an important signal.

This is why Norway protests, on grounds of principle, against countries that practise the death penalty for minors, pregnant women and the mentally ill. We protest when people are executed in a particularly brutal manner, for example by flogging or stoning.

We have done so many times. And it is best to do so together with others, to have greater impact. And we do so even when Norwegian companies have major investments in the countries concerned.

But we must keep our focus on our goal. In some cases, loud protests can be counterproductive. They can shut down channels of communication and put lives in danger. Therefore we need to use a broad range of foreign policy instruments.

*****

[FILM CLIP. DR CONGO]


Once again, the news of brutal assaults in the Democratic Republic of Congo is all over the media. What we hear and see is are almost beyond comprehension. According to the UN, DR Congo is the worst place in the world for children to grow up. Think of the figures: five million people killed and one and a half million people forced to flee.
 
Systematic mass rape. The whole range of human rights violations. The humanitarian consequences are catastrophic.

Five years ago – in the Red Cross – I worked to reunite families who had been separated while fleeing the war that was raging there at the time. It left a deep impression. Parents and children had become separated from each other, in the middle of the night, and ended up hundreds of kilometres apart. Some found each other again. Others didn’t.

Today, we see people attacking UN headquarters in Goma in despair over the UN’s inability to provide protection. The UN is asking for additional resources and more soldiers. Africa’s states are meeting in an attempt to push through political solutions.

This year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is giving NOK 135 million to support humanitarian efforts in DR Congo. A week ago we allocated an additional NOK 15 million for emergency assistance. We are considering contributing more – on an ongoing basis.

Here, too, it is a matter of finding those individual agents that can provide a glimmer of hope that a different course is possible. That is what makes the awarding of this year’s Rafto Prize to Pastor Bulambo Lembelembe Josué from DR Congo so fitting. No doubt many of you met him here in Bergen recently.

For a number of years, Norway has supported his projects to help former child soldiers and female rape victims, and to promote reconciliation. Pastor Bulambo is worried that everything he has built up after past hostilities, with the help of Norway and others, is in the process of being destroyed. Girls are being raped – again on their way home from being treated at hospital.

In order to combat rape, we must also combat impunity, as we heard a woman say in the film clip we just saw. The perpetrators must be brought to justice.
 
This shows how inextricably human rights work is linked to the goal of achieving an international legal order.

Reconstruction must be based on a solid foundation. It must be based on respect for the law and for human rights. Failure to prosecute signals that attacks of this kind are tolerated. And that means they will happen again.

Over a number of years, Norway has actively supported global efforts to prevent the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes remaining at large. Norway played a key role in the process that culminated in 1998 with the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was established in 2002.
 
The Court has already made its mark by taking a number of important initiatives. In DR Congo, Uganda, Sudan and the Central African Republic.

But here we are encountering yet another dilemma. Can the risk of ending up on trial mean that warlords and others see no alternative but to prolong the war?

In Uganda, Joseph Kony, self-appointed prophet and leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has threatened to carry out new attacks unless his arrest warrant is lifted.

This summer, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor requested an arrest warrant for genocide to be issued against President al-Bashir of Sudan. If he is formally charged, it will be the first time a sitting head of state risks being convicted for genocide.
 
The cases against Kony and al-Bashir give a clear message: today, no peace mediator can use unconditional amnesty as an “ace up their sleeve” to keep the parties at the negotiating table. International law sets clear limits. Amnesty cannot be granted for the most serious international crimes.

On the other hand, the parties to a conflict can hold a peace process hostage in order to protect themselves from prosecution in an international court. And even if the parties manage to reach a peace agreement, there are many other challenges – and dilemmas, questions without simple answers.

But these questions highlight how crucial it is to continue to promote and develop law and justice during the transition from war and conflict to peace and development. To explore how peace can be consolidated. How reconciliation can be legitimated.

The story of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission stands as a beacon in this respect. The Commission provided a possibility of amnesty for those responsible for abuses who admitted what they had done. This was an orderly process aimed at bringing the country forward after apartheid. But we can only imagine how difficult it must have been – and must still be – to see the perpetrators walk free, after merely explaining their actions.

Afghanistan presents a different kind of story. The peace agreement of 2001 said nothing about responsibility for the gross human rights violations that had taken place during more than 20 years of conflict, occupation and civil war.

In 2007, the Afghan parliament passed a law that grants amnesty for all war crimes. A number of the warlords who have been accused of such crimes are members of the parliament. They have, in other words, voted for impunity for themselves. With no reconciliation process.

And what will the Afghans do if the Taliban are brought to the negotiating table?

The paradox of peace negotiations is that it is the conflicting parties themselves that must bring about peace. Mediators can do a lot. But at the end of the day, it is the parties to the conflict that are responsible for the breakthroughs and setbacks of a peace process. This is a fact we must take on board.

*****

I have mentioned some of the most obvious dilemmas we face in our efforts to promote human rights:

The relationship between human rights efforts and business interests, security considerations, the fight against terrorism, and efforts to promote peace and reconciliation. Genuine dilemmas – but not insurmountable.

But what does this mean for our human rights policy?

The Government’s key objective is to help close the gap between norms on the one hand, and the real-life implementation of human rights, on the other.

In my view, Norway has room for manoeuvre – and opportunities to act.

Norway is a prosperous nation in today’s world, in both political and economic terms. We can make a difference, and in my view we have a responsibility to do so. Because this is the right thing to do in the light of our fundamental values. But also because this is in our own interests.

The UN is the most important arena for Norwegian efforts, and generally our efforts take UN decisions and resolutions as their starting point.

One setting where we want to become involved is the UN Human Rights Council. Here, we have put ourselves forward as a candidate for the 2009–2012 period.

The UN Human Rights Council was established two years ago, and is the successor to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which was criticised for being inefficient and undermined by foreseeable conflicts.

The Human Rights Council is an improvement in a number of ways, but it also faces some clear challenges. The composition of the Council reflects today’s world, and African and Asian countries are in the majority.

This has been a real wake-up call for us. For instance, we have had to fight anew for principles we thought were firmly established.

The most fundamental question is whether it is better to avoid this setting altogether. So far, the US has taken this line.

I am not convinced. The UN is neither more nor less than what its members make it. It is our responsibility to raise our voice. Keeping silent is no solution. Silence can soon become tantamount to surrender.

*****

At the same time, we must think in a fundamentally new way about how we work within the UN.

To take one example: for a number of years, Norway has been responsible for presenting a draft resolution on efforts to protect human rights defenders all over the world. This is an important resolution, which addresses matters of life and death for activists worldwide. Marielos’s story from Guatemala – the film clip we saw at the start – speaks to us. As does the Rafto Prize winner from DR Congo.

During the negotiations on the most recent resolution on human rights defenders, we chose not to take the traditional approach, namely, first to ensure that we had the support of those closest to us, that is to say like-minded countries. Instead, we took the following three steps:

Firstly, we held broad consultations with all countries. We had open lines of communication with everyone, including those countries that we knew from experience could create the greatest problems. By establishing a good dialogue with these countries, we avoided deadlock.

Secondly, we carefully selected our strategic cooperation partners. We chose countries from the various regions, in order to ensure that we had a base in all these regions and that they felt a sense of ownership of the ideas we were espousing.

And thirdly, we entered into strategic cooperation with civil society organisations, in a process where they suggested possible compromises on an ongoing basis, and helped us identify areas where there was room for manoeuvre.

The resolution on renewing the mandate of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression – a resolution that has been much discussed – suffered a different fate. The Special Rapporteur was instructed to report on so-called “misuse of freedom of expression”.

The country leading this process decided to take the traditional approach: to negotiate a forceful text, in a closed circle of like-minded countries, and then present this in plenum.

But this approach is not that easy when the traditional group of like-minded countries is in the minority. Strong objections from countries that felt excluded from the process led to amendments that should never have been adopted.

Norway withdrew as co-sponsor of the resolution. If we had been a member of the Human Rights Council, we would have voted against it. In our view, the change in the mandate conflicts with established principles.

*****

What is Norway doing now to prevent further setbacks for the UN regarding freedom of expression?

Together with the Latin American countries, we worked hard to ensure the appointment of a Special Rapporteur who has great expertise and integrity. We managed this. But his task is not an easy one. He will need our support and attention.

Now, our focus will be on the Human Rights Council’s next discussion of the resolution on freedom of expression, which will probably be held in the spring of 2009. Here we must do everything in our power – with wisdom and resolve – to prevent a repetition of this year’s process. One important lesson learned is that we cannot afford to become set in a single way of working, with just one group of cooperation partners.

In our efforts to promote human rights – both in the UN and in all other arenas – we must seek to create new room for manoeuvre. To find new partners in addition to our traditional partners. To look for dialogue processes that can help us to understand how others think. To win support for our positions in a context where others are willing to listen.

Freedom of expression is a crucial value to fight for in our time. Without this freedom, our efforts to promote human rights will be virtually impossible. It is key to ensuring that democracies function with all their diversity. And it is key to safeguarding diversity in our increasingly multicultural, multifaceted societies. Such as Norway, and the ever-expanding concept of the Norwegian “we”.

This is why we need more freedom of expression, not less.

But freedom of expression must be defended in a context where there are also other fundamental rights. My view is that freedom of expression cannot and must not be limited. But there is such a thing as showing consideration – and this too is a value of great importance in our closely interconnected world.

In our meetings with people who have a different background and different experiences to our own, we need to listen – and to listen carefully. And we need to take the time to try to understand. This will improve our chances of being heard.

In the public debate here in Norway, some conclude that the best way to promote our values is to limit our contact with countries and people who are profoundly different from us.

I don’t want to be categorical here, but I can’t help questioning and challenging this attitude, both here in Norway and in the international arena.

As I have said before, political efforts to ensure respect for universal human rights, such as democracy, freedom of religion and the abolition of the death penalty, are not based on Western values, even though authoritarian leaders often claim that they are.

The best recipe for promoting these values is a broader range of contacts. More exchange. More arenas – for speaking out more clearly.

*****

Norway’s human rights dialogues with China, Indonesia and Vietnam are examples of such arenas. These meetings cover a broad spectrum of issues covering the whole field of human rights.

A couple of weeks ago, the 11th Sino–Norwegian Roundtable on Human Rights was held in China – the first since the Olympic Games. It was attended by Norwegian and Chinese experts. Prisoners’ rights, ethnic minorities and workers’ rights were among the issues raised. In addition, lists of persons about whom we are concerned were presented by our Embassy in Beijing prior to the meeting. Raymond Johansen, State Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had the opportunity to travel to Tibet, where he had political talks on compliance with human rights norms.

Just as important as meeting political leaders is meeting – and discussing and cooperating with – representatives of civil society. We do this in our dialogue projects. I do this when I visit other countries. And here too in Norway. Students and students’ societies, representatives of NGOs, political parties, the UN Association of Norway, the Rafto Foundation, the Christian Michelsen Institute, human rights defenders, journalists, and many others.

*****

It’s a painstakingly slow path to take. But it is a necessary one.

We will not make headway with our ideas unless we can prove that they work, that they are meaningful in practice.

Nor will we make headway if we just shout out our ideas, while condemning others’ viewpoints.

So who has the main responsibility for moving human rights forward?

As the Government, we will shoulder our part of the responsibility – and I will take my share of the responsibility as Foreign Minister, as a person with a social commitment. But the responsibility extends further.

[CAMERA TURNS TO THE AUDIENCE]

It extends to everyone. To you. After all, that is the basic idea of human rights – they apply to everyone, every single person, the whole long line of individuals, all of you – most of you in the middle of your studies, formative years, some of the most important years in your life. So the circle – from Marielos in Guatemala to you – closes.

The fact that you have come here and taken the time to listen to me in itself testifies to commitment. I also know that there are highly esteemed experts in the field of human rights here this evening. Who are deeply committed, highly knowledgeable and have extensive international networks.

Not everyone can see their own hands saving lives, like the human rights defenders in DR Congo do. Not everyone is putting their own life at risk, like Marielos in Guatemala.

But what are the rest of us to do? Those of us who are not working for large, renowned human rights institutions? Who don’t have formal training in this field?

Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration in 1948, put it like this, and I would like to conclude by quoting her:

 “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places
 where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” 
 
Universal human rights – close to your home, here in your neighbourhood. Well said. 

Thank you.


(Translated from Norwegian)


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