Human rights apply no matter where we come from, what sexual orientation we have, which class we belong to, and whether we are ill or healthy. We have the right to believe in whatever we want, to express our meanings, to get access to fundamental health care services, and the right not to be tortured, to mention a few examples. The purpose of human rights is to ensure fundamental values such as freedom and equality. Human rights concern the relationship between states and individuals: states have the power to decide over and control individuals, but only within the boundaries of human rights. These boundaries bind states and grant individuals rights. Thus, only states, and not individuals, companies or organizations, can violate or fulfil human rights obligations. In Norway, several human rights are guaranteed in the Constitution, as well as in ordinary legislative acts. In addition, Norway is a party to many international human rights conventions. Through these legal documents, the authorities are committed – both vis a vis their own citizens and the international community – to respect and ensure human rights. History has shown us that states, even democratic ones, are capable of committing outrageously cruel abuses and injustices towards individuals, in particular minorities. The concept of human rights is to create limitations on state power, to avoid such abuses. The very idea that there exist some fundamental human rights, either endowed by a god or as something inherent in human beings, can be traced all the way back to Antiquity. The human rights framework as we know it today is, however, of a different character. When we talk about human rights today, we usually mean legal rights that bind states, either as a result of democratic processes, or through international commitments.
In Norway, a few human rights articles were included in the Constitution when it was adopted in 1814. The founding fathers were inspired by the notions of freedom and equality stemming from the Enlightenment Era. Later on, the horrific experiences from the Second World War became important for the development of human rights on a global level. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and the declaration was followed by several human rights conventions. The European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are some of the most important conventions. Norway is a party to these and several other human rights conventions.
In 2014, on the occasion of the Bicentenary of the Constitution, the Norwegian Parliament amended the Constitution and included a number of human rights. The rights that were included in the Constitution were already part of ordinary legislation. The purpose of the amendment was to strengthen the role of human rights in Norwegian law, as the Constitution is the most fundamental legal source and ranks higher than ordinary legislative acts. Another aim was to ensure that the Constitution reflects important values in Norwegian society.
It is common to distinguish between civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other. Both categories of rights are legal binding, but the nature of the state parties’ obligations are different.
Among the civil and political rights, we find, for example, the right to life, the prohibition against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, freedom of speech, the right to private and family life, and the right to property. The authorities must, firstly, respect these rights. This means that they must not act in a way that violate the rights. Secondly, the authorities must actively ensure the rights. To mention an example, the obligation to respect the right to private life restricts the authorities’ power to monitor the communication of individuals. The obligation to ensure the right to private life obliges the governments to establish a legal framework that protects us against surveillance from other private persons or companies.
The economic, social and cultural rights include the right to work, education, an adequate standard of living and the highest attainable standard of health, and several other rights. As the ability to fulfil most of these rights in many cases will depend on economic resources, the scope of the legal obligations will usually vary from states to states. Most of the economic, social and cultural rights shall be realized progressively.
Further on, prioritizing the allocation of resources in for example the health system is, to a certain extent, a political and not a legal question. In other words, budgetary allocations are for the politicians, not the courts, to decide. These differences make the economic, social and cultural rights of a slightly different character than the civil and political. Still, it is important to underline that the economic, social and cultural rights are equally binding for the states as the civil and political ones.
Most of the countries in the world have ratified the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights (CCPR) and the UN Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). A brief look at the global situation illustrates, however, that in practice, both the ability and the will to realize the rights differ considerably between states.
Compared to many other countries, Norwegian governments respect and ensure human rights to a large extent. In addition to the CCPR and the CESCR, Norway is a party to, inter alia, the United Nations Convention against Torture (CAT), the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Thus, Norway has a comprehensive legal framework that can be enforced by independent courts, both domestic and international ones. In addition, Norway is subjected to control mechanisms in especially the Council of Europe and the United Nations system.
Still, human rights are violated also in Norway. For example, both the UN Committee against Torture, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, and the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution have over a long period of time claimed that the use of solitary confinement in Norwegian police custodies and prisons is too extensive. Being isolated from other human beings can potentially have damaging health impacts, and can amount to an inhuman or degrading punishment. There are also human rights challenges concerning the conditions in detention centres and mental health and social care institutions. The Parliamentary Ombudsman has, for example, reported on use of coercive measures in some mental health care institutions that give grounds for concern.
The reasons why Norway and other states violate their human rights obligations vary. Different explanations may be reluctance towards human rights, lack of resources, insufficient knowledge or incorrect assessments. Whatever the reason may be, it is important that citizens are free to criticize the authorities’ exercise of power. Independent courts, the media, civil society, academics, national human rights institutions, and international organizations play a key role in protecting human rights.
In order to ensure that human rights are fulfilled, it is of utmost important to have monitoring bodies both at the national and the international level. The United Nations has recommended that all states establish a national human rights institution (NHRI) vested with competence to promote and protect human rights.
In Norway, the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution plays this role. We are an independent, public institution, established by the Norwegian Parliament to promote and protect human rights in Norway. Other public bodies promoting human rights in Norway include the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Ombudsman for Children and the Equality and the Anti-discrimination Ombudsman. In addition, Norwegian courts shall control that legislation and administrative decisions comply with human rights obligations.
At the European level, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) is an important supervisory body. Individuals who consider that a State party to the European Convention on Human Rights has violated his or her human rights, may lodge an application with the court, after having exhausted domestic remedies.
Within the United Nations system there are several human rights monitoring mechanisms. Every core international human rights treaty has its own committee, usually referred to as treaty bodies. The State parties must submit regular reports to the treaty bodies and explain which measures they have adopted to implement the human rights provisions. The committee will then adopt recommendations on further measures to be implemented by the Government. The committees may also consider individual complaints alleging violations of the treaty, provided that the Government has accepted this complaints procedure. Norway has accepted the individual complaints procedure for the Human Rights Committee, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee against Torture. To bring a complaint against a state that has accepted the individual complaints procedure, the applicant must have exhausted all domestic remedies.