Five Years of Challenging Power

Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide addresses the Oslo Freedom Forum.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to address the Oslo Freedom Forum. This Forum has evolved into a crucially important event, which is well reflected in the impressive participation it gathers from around the world.

I would like to start by thanking Thor Halvorssen and his team for creating this arena for discussing the most important human rights issues of our time. And thank you all for choosing to meet here in Oslo.

My first message to you is: we are behind you.

Promoting freedom, human rights, democracy and the rule of law is at the very top of Norway’s foreign policy agenda.

Our engagement in this area is both a reflection of solidarity and of self-interest. As a small, but globally engaged country, we firmly believe that living in a world that respects the fundamental principles of human rights is good for us – as it is good for everyone else on this planet.

Just as we need international law to regulate relations between countries, we need human rights standards to regulate relations between states and their citizens. – To challenge power.

This spring has been a particularly intense period for human rights diplomacy.

We are seeing contradictory tendencies, as we are living in a time of transition, a time of fundamental global shifts.

We are seeing clear signs of progress.

But at the same time, we are also seeing significant backsliding. Both are taking place at the same time.

At times, we are finding that principles and stances we used to take for granted are being challenged, even when we thought they were clearly respected.

Some debates have to be held over and over again.

Just as we are beginning to grasp the realities of a 21st century world, new dilemmas are emerging, and old issues are being reintroduced in new settings. Hence, we need a truly global dialogue about human rights.

Promoting human rights for all requires taking a stance. It means that we must be willing to speak up and to make our values clear – even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

Just as you are doing at this conference.

But in addition to this, it is also a matter of engaging in long-term processes that are sometimes tiring, and in bilateral or multilateral processes to bring about change.

Norway seeks to promote global respect for human rights through multilateral and bilateral channels.

I would like to use my own human rights-related programme over just the last six weeks as an example to illustrate the work that is taking place on the multilateral front. These are just a few examples that can help to structure my speech today.

Firstly, on 21 March, a landmark resolution on the protection of human rights defenders was passed in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva after negotiations led by Norway.

Every day, individual human rights defenders are being prosecuted, organisations dissolved, companies taken to court or media representatives being silenced. All because they have simply asked the wrong questions, claimed their rights or upheld the rights of others.

Why is this particular UN resolution important?

To begin with, it is the strongest and most substantial resolution in its field ever. It clarifies the obligations of states to protect human rights defenders and to refrain from activities that hinder their legitimate work. The resolution thus creates an important tool for human rights defenders on the ground – in the countries where they work.

The resolution is living proof that it is still possible to agree on important normative texts in the UN.

But as we all know, a resolution does not change the world.

These texts, however, may be used to put pressure on governments to live up to the commitments they have made.

At the same time, I am the first to admit that working through the UN may also entail challenges for those of us who work for human rights for all.

Some member states have recently launched what they refer to as the “traditional values agenda”. Their argument is that some so-called traditional values should trump basic human rights. The argument goes against the fundamental principle of the universality of human rights.

Similarly, we see how conservative voices are joining forces across nations and faiths to counter the progress made over the last half century on gender equality, the rights of women and sexual and reproductive rights.

Again, some struggles have to be fought over and over again.

Having said that, I still appreciate the fact that those with agendas like that of “traditional values” are taking them to the Human Rights Council – so that we can meet and come with counterarguments. It shows that even though we have different views and values, we share the same arena for discussion.

It is my conviction that we need global platforms to resolve global issues. If the platforms are not good enough – well, then we need to strengthen them.

Secondly, in April, Norway hosted the European Regional Conference for the International Labour Organization. The topic was “Jobs, Growth and Social Justice”.

Worker’s rights are also human rights. The conference called for creating quality jobs, improving social dialogue and respecting labour rights at a time in which European countries are struggling to overcome the current economic crisis – hopefully without destroying their social fabric.

Thirdly, in mid-April, Norway hosted an unprecedented International Conference on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity together with South Africa here in Oslo. More than 200 representatives of states and civil society organisations from 84 countries came together and discussed the specific human rights challenges faced by sexual minorities.

“Human Rights for All” is the doctrine we are basing this work on. Not human rights for some. Or some human rights for all. But human rights for all people, all the time.

It is a simple idea. Yet an incredibly difficult goal to achieve.

The UN has a key role to play in this context, too. Together with key states and strong civil society partners, Norway hopes for a breakthrough in the Human Rights Council in the follow up to the LGBT Conference.

Fourthly, again on 15 April, the International Commission against the Death Penalty convened here in Oslo, and launched its report “How States abolish the death penalty”. Drawing on concrete experiences from 13 countries that have taken steps to abolish the death penalty, the report provides a guide to countries that wish to follow in the footsteps of those states that have already stopped killing in the name of justice.

Work to combat the death penalty is another of our main priorities. We are now preparing for the World Congress against the Death Penalty in Madrid in June, of which Norway is one of the co-organisers.

In this field, too, the global trends may seem confusing. On the one hand, more and more countries are actually abolishing the practice of capital punishment, either through changing their laws or through imposing moratoriums. This is good. But at the same time, some of those who have still not abolished this practice are executing more people today than only a few years ago.

Fifthly, today, as we meet here, we are organising another big conference on “Right-wing Extremism and Hate Crime: Minorities under Pressure in Europe and Beyond” right across the street. Human rights are under pressure even in Europe.

We are seeing worrying signs in a number of countries. Pressure on minorities, extremism and hate crime are on the rise in parts of Europe. This is often linked to the financial and social crises at play in many European countries. The lesson of the 1930s is a stark reminder that this continent is responsible not only for some of the best, but also some of the worst events in our collective memory.

But let us not be simplistic – people are individually responsible for their actions and beliefs, and economic distress should be no excuse for not respecting the rights and equal worth of people who are different from the majority.

Freedom of expression and the role of the media is on the Norwegian agenda, as it is on your agenda here. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right.

Moreover, freedom of expression is essential for the realisation of other rights and freedoms.

Freedom of expression not only allows people to express themselves freely – it is also essential for fostering mutual understanding and tolerance, democratic processes, good governance and conflict resolution, as well as economic development.

Freedom, however, comes with certain responsibilities.

Limits on direct incitement to violence and murder are necessary in a democratic society. Drawing the line between the absolute principle of freedom of speech and the protection of other democratic values is an extremely difficult task.

Where do we draw the line?

Hate speech is infiltrating our social media arenas, and racism and other abuse are frequent occurrences. Hate speech should be met with opposition. That is a duty we all have. The silent majority must speak up – silence can, at times, be confused with endorsement.

Finally, and sixthly, on Thursday this week, I will attend the Ministerial meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. We will discuss “Democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe” and explore how European countries and regional organisations can best tackle the growing challenges on our own continent.

A key theme here is how the Council of Europe – an institution that, at least on paper, has some of the strongest human rights instruments available – can put them to better use in an era in which some of the key principles of the organisation are being challenged by its own member states.

To conclude, these excerpts from our agenda – six events over just the last six weeks – give an impression of ongoing work to promote human rights across different fields, and across the globe. Wherever. Whenever. And in everyone’s interest.

But this is only half the story. We also have a strong emphasis on human rights at country level. Our embassies around the world are instructed to focus on human rights in their daily work.

In order to assist them, we have issued guidelines for the Foreign Service on how best to support human rights defenders in practice.

We have also issued specific guidelines for our efforts to combat the death penalty, and to fight discrimination against religious minorities and against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people (LGBT).

Friends,

As I said at the outset, standing up for our values and speaking up when somebody’s rights are violated is an intrinsic part of protecting human rights.

But human rights diplomacy must be more than just shouting loudly and pointing fingers.

We always have to look at what actually works; how we can do the best possible job to promote human rights and where and how we can achieve concrete results.

It is relatively easy to write press releases but difficult to impose our will on others. That is where our challenge lies. We must speak out clearly about unacceptable breaches of human rights.

But we also need to engage with governments in order to inspire and support change where it is possible. And my experience is that by holding governments accountable for the obligations they themselves have undertaken by entering into global or regional human rights instruments works much better than the argument “I know better than you do”.

Promoting human rights is about meeting countries with unsatisfactory human rights records in the international arena or in bilateral encounters. At times, it is about offering support, such as assistance in carrying out constitutional processes, security sector reforms and strengthening the rule of law. These are, after all, the arenas in which key human rights principles are upheld – or violated.

And finally, it is about finding the right entry points and exploring our ability to make a difference in each individual context.

Having given the Norwegian perspective on promoting human rights, I wish you a constructive dialogue and concrete results here at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Thank you.

***

For more information on all the speeches see the Oslo Freedom Forum 2013. For more information on all the events and meetings mentioned above, see the Foreign Ministry’s website.

 

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