Municipalities in Norway have an independent responsibility to protect and promote human rights and they play a key role in safeguarding many human rights in practice. Municipalities are responsible for implementing human rights obligations in areas such as child welfare, care for the elderly and in primary and lower secondary schools. Their proximity to local residents and understanding of local conditions means that municipalities are in a particularly relevant position with regard to addressing human rights challenges.
The Norwegian National Human Rights Institution have publicized a report about local governments and human rights in Norway. The purpose of this report is to place the human rights responsibilities of municipalities on the agenda, clarify the nature and scope of these responsibilities and highlight opportunities to strengthen local human rights implementation.
The report begins with an introductory chapter outlining the background of the project and explaining core concepts. Chapter 2 provides a brief overview of human rights in general, and Chapter 3 introduces the topic of municipalities’ human rights responsibilities. The Norwegian government has human rights responsibility for acts and omissions that can be attributed to the Norwegian authorities. This applies notwithstanding the different levels of local and central government entities. Chapter 3 describes how municipalities are bound by the same human rights obligations as the central government. Although the starting point is that human rights are implemented in national law through legislation and regulations, there is still a great need for expertise in the municipal sector in order to ensure implementation of these obligations.
In a recent ruling, the Norwegian Supreme Court assessed whether a claim for compensation for violation of human rights was to be directed towards the state or the municipality.1The background for the lawsuit is that the municipality had for several years registered the applicants as mentally disabled without basis and had reported to the county governor that they needed guardianship. The Supreme Court did not assess whether the applicants were entitled to compensation, or whether Article 13 of the ECHR gave basis to claim compensation under Norwegian law (the substantive issue of the case), only whether such a claim could be directed directly at the municipality (the procedural issue of the case). The decision can be read in Norwegian here: Kommune kan saksøkes for påståtte menneskerettsbrudd | Norges Domstoler The Supreme Court stated that under Norwegian law, the municipality is, in the same way as the state, bound by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The Supreme Court emphasised that according to Norwegian tort law, it is the legal entity that has carried out the relevant act or omission that will be liable for damages. In the Norwegian NHRIs’ view, the decision from the Supreme Court contains an important preventive element, as municipalities will now have an additional incentive to respect and secure human rights. The case shows that even if it is the state that is liable under international law, this will not be decisive in the assessment of liability under national law in specific cases concerning compensation for human rights violations.
Human rights materialize in many different areas of life, and they take different forms. Common to many of them is that they protect a right or a freedom, which states and municipalities must not limit or deny. This is often framed as “negative” obligations. But human rights can also impose obligations on states and municipalities to act, for example by implementing the right to family life through child welfare measures. This is known as “positive” obligations.
The state, and by extension municipalities, may only interfere with human rights if the requirements for interference are met. First, the relevant authority must ensure that such interventions have a basis in law, provided that no other legal basis may be built upon. In addition, the interference must serve a legitimate purpose and be proportionate. The proportionality assessment is complex and requires that the interference is assessed against the disadvantage for the individual. There must be a reasonable balance between societal purposes and consideration for the individual. The principle of always applying the least intrusive intervention, is central. This means that the exercise of authority must not be more intrusive than is necessary to achieve the specific purpose. These considerations are central to, for example, the use of coercion in the municipal sector, within health, care for the elderly, and child welfare.
Over the past year, the corona pandemic has provided new experiences and insights related to the handling of human rights in municipalities, including whether and how human rights considerations have been made. Based on these experiences, municipalities can further develop and strengthen their human rights work.
The Norwegian National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) has conducted a quantitative survey to map knowledge regarding human rights among municipal officials, and to measure how human rights are included and expressed at the systemic level in municipalities. As far as we are aware, there are no other surveys on this topic in Norway.
200 municipalities were invited to participate in the survey. Of these, 145 municipalities answered the survey. The respondents can be divided into four leadership functions in each of these municipalities – municipal directors,2Municipal director / city council leader (possibly in collaboration with central administration). Responded on behalf of the Central Administration. When we in the following refer to «municipal director», the answers apply to the entire central administration. mayors,3Mayors responded on behalf of their own position. leaders of the municipal child welfare services4Head of child welfare (the person who has been granted authority under the Child Welfare Act: § 2-1 fourth paragraph). Responded on behalf of the role of child welfare manager. and leaders of the services responsible for health care of elderly.5The head of health care responded on behalf of the role of unit leader for all nursing homes / municipal manager for health and care. A total of 218 informants answered the survey,6Although the number of municipalities (145 municipalities) participating in the survey with one or more respondents is relatively high, only one municipality participates with all four functions. The tendency is for one function to participate per municipality (61% of the municipalities), followed by two respondents (29%) and three respondents (10%). which is a response rate of 27 percent.7Most leaders of the services responsible for elderly health care answered the survey and the fewest municipal directors. The statistical uncertainty of the estimates will consequently be highest for municipal directors and lowest for leaders of the services responsible for elderly health care. The main findings of the study are:
The municipalities are aware that they have a human rights responsibility: A clear majority of the respondents (95%) know that municipalities have an independent responsibility to implement human rights when the municipality exercises public authority in selected areas. The findings indicate that key political and administrative leaders are aware of their human rights responsibilities.
Varying degrees of knowledge about human rights: About 60 percent of respondents generally think they have “fairly good” knowledge of human rights. This also reflects that most of the respondents know something about international conventions. Knowledge of child welfare cases where Norway has been convicted in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) varies. About 70 percent of child welfare leaders know of most of the ECtHR judgments, while for example only about 20 percent of mayors state that they are familiar with the content in the verdicts. About 60 percent of municipal directors, mayors and healthcare leaders have some knowledge of the recommendations from the UN to Norway. About 20 percent of mayors are not familiar with the UN recommendations.
Most respondents know about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: The respondents report high level of knowledge of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The level of knowledge about the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and ILO Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is very low.
The majority have participated in courses: Around 60 percent of municipal directors, about 80 percent of child welfare leaders and 50 percent of healthcare leaders have participated in courses on human rights during the last three years. For mayors, the figure is lower. Only about 20 percent of mayors state that they have taken courses in human rights during the same period.
Training, time and finances are challenges: When it comes to challenges related to the actual implementation of human rights in particular, three factors are most frequently mentioned: lack of systematic training of employees, time pressure and lack of financial resources.
Lack of manifestation of human rights in steering documents: There are few municipalities among those participating in the survey that have included human rights in the municipal plan or adopted a separate action plan or strategy on human rights, despite this plan being one of the most important steering documents a municipality has.8Only 35 municipal directors answered this question and the response rate is thus somewhat lower. It is therefore difficult to determine, based on our survey, how many municipalities have included human rights in their municipal plan.
Prioritised information: Municipal directors and mayors have described briefly and in their own words what they believe will be useful in strengthening the municipality’s work with human rights in the future. Knowledge building, prioritisation of human rights in the municipality’s management, collaboration across the municipality and financial grants are listed. Roughly half of the municipal directors and mayors confirm the need for more information on how human rights can be used as a tool in the municipality’s work. About 70 percent of respondents believe that information about human rights for municipal employees should have a high priority. The finding shows that there is a desire among top leaders in municipalities to strengthen knowledge about human rights in the future.
The biggest challenges are in the smallest municipalities: The survey shows that in most areas, the largest municipalities have come the furthest in introducing human rights thinking in their work and in formalising routines for this.
Child welfare and health care are the most challenging sectors: The child welfare sector clearly constitutes the sector that municipal directors and mayors state as most challenging from a human rights perspective. Roughly 60 percent of municipal directors and mayors believe that child welfare is the area that constitutes the biggest challenge associated with municipalities’ provision of services. Four out of ten respondents point to institution-based health care as the most challenging.
Lowest level of knowledge among mayors: The mayors score the lowest on knowledge of human rights and have the lowest participation rate in courses on human rights. About 20 percent of mayors have neither knowledge of the judgments against Norway from the ECtHR nor of the UN recommendations to Norway.
Based on the findings, the Norwegian NHRI sees several points for improvement:
- Ensure systematic human rights training for employees working in municipalities.
- Strengthen knowledge about human rights among local politicians.
- Allocate more resources, including legal expertise, to strengthen municipalities’ work with human rights.
- Include references to human rights obligations in steering documents.
- Strengthen the implementation of human rights in demanding sectors such as child welfare and health care sectors, as well as in the smaller municipalities in the country.
The findings of the Norwegian NHRI’s survey provide an indication of what the country’s municipalities, The Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS) and central authorities should continue to work on to strengthen the implementation of human rights locally. Chapter 4 presents the findings from the survey in more detail.
International organisations, such as the UN and the Council of Europe, have in recent years shed light on the important role of local authorities in strengthening the national implementation of human rights. Chapter 5 of the report describes how the UN, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the Council of Europe work with the role of local authorities in the implementation of human rights. Although the UN and the Council of Europe’s monitoring systems are primarily aimed at central authorities, because states are party to the conventions, the various human rights committees and special rapporteurs address local authorities in their concluding remarks to states, and also in some of the general interpretative statements.
Chapter 6 describes the concept of human rights cities, which is a global initiative, where one of the main elements is to clarify the guidelines provided by international human rights conventions for local government responsibility. The chapter gives a review of how some human rights cities work in practice. These are Graz in Austria, York in the United Kingdom and Bergen in Norway. The review shows that an operational human rights city or municipality will focus on human rights in its policy formulations and provision of services with a goal of strengthening the quality of life of the entire local population. Chapter 7 highlights structural and systemic measures that municipalities can carry out to strengthen the implementation of human rights. In light of the Norwegian NHRI’s survey and a review of best practices from other cities and various recommendations previously put forward by the UN, the Norwegian NHRI makes the following recommendations:
Municipalities should strengthen their general knowledge, legal competence, capacity and systematic training in human rights.
Municipalities should strengthen their efforts in implementing human rights.
Central authorities should ensure that regulations administered by municipalities secure implementation of human rights obligations, allocate sufficient resources to municipalities to strengthen the implementation of human rights and ensure adequate information on human rights obligations from state to municipality.
In Chapter 8, we elaborate on our recommendations and provide examples of how these can be implemented.
Because human rights can be secured as well as violated in Norwegian municipalities, the work of making visible and contributing to the safeguarding of municipalities’ human rights responsibilities is something the Norwegian NHRI will prioritise in the years ahead. The Norwegian NHRI, as a national human rights institution, has a role as an expert body and advisor, and can play a role in supporting municipalities in strengthening the implementation of human rights.9See for example: The Human Rights Council (HRC), Role of local government in the promotion and protection of human rights – Final report of the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, (A/HRC/30/49), and European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), Human rights cities in the EU. A framework for reinforcing rights locally, 2021.
The Norwegian NHRI hopes that the report can assist municipalities that want to strengthen their human rights work locally and work more holistically with human rights. We emphasise that the purpose of the report is not to go into depth on various subject areas or address specific issues related to human rights protection in municipalities. The report aims to highlight general features that we believe are central to municipalities’ knowledge and organisation of human rights work, and not least to point to good solutions in this regard.10In our survey, in addition to examining the knowledge of and work with human rights more generally, we chose to look more closely at municipal employees’ freedom of expression, children’s right to participate in child welfare cases, as well as prevention of violence and abuse and use of coercion in municipal care services and institutions. These are human rights issues that Norwegian NHRI has worked on previously, and which we wanted to follow up further and which fall under the municipal responsibility. To avoid the report becoming too comprehensive, the findings from the last three parts of the survey will be published in separate smaller reports or on other platforms. We hope that such an overall perspective can make a useful contribution to municipalities’ important human rights work in the years to come.