It is an honor for me, on behalf of the Norwegian Government, to address this important conference.
At the outset, let me begin by paying tribute to this year's Rafto Price Laureate - The Bahrain Human Rights Center. I know that you work under extremely difficult circumstances, and that the promises of what became known as “The Arab Spring” have not been fulfilled. I admire your courage and efforts!
The support for human rights and democracy has been a consistent and high priority in Norwegian Foreign Policy for many decades. On behalf of the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Børge Brende, I can assure you that the new Government will continue and strengthen this work. Human rights is identified as one of the new Government’s priorities, both in Norway and in our foreign and development policy. I look forward to working with civil society and other partners to translate these commitments into action.
The support to human rights’ defenders is one of the key areas of our human rights agenda, and it guides our work across the whole spectrum of human rights issues.
The former UN Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan once said: “When human rights defenders are violated, all our rights are put in jeopardy and all of us are made less safe”.
Human rights defenders – be they journalists, lawyers, representatives of Civil Society or others – work tirelessly across the globe against discrimination, corruption, torture, arbitrary detention, disappearances and other forms of human rights violations. They work for justice, freedom of expression and the right to enjoy a decent life with access to food, water, housing, education and adequate health care.
Their cause is to improve the lives and freedom of others. They are essential actors in promoting tolerance and in ensuring that human rights are implemented on the ground.
Human rights defenders, such as the Bahrain Human Rights Center play a key role in the turbulent political changes we have witnessed in the Arab world these days - and they need the world’s full attention.
Our work in support of these important and courageous individuals and organizations rests on several pillars.
First, at the multilateral level, we must continue to strengthen the normative basis and universal legitimacy of this work:
The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998. Norway chairs negotiations on resolutions promoting and defending human rights defenders in the General Assembly and in the Human Rights Council.
Over the last two years, we have been able to help pass important resolutions in the UN that strengthens the legitimacy of human rights work and the right to peaceful protest around the world.
In November 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution put forward by Norway, which established the right to peaceful protest in the work to promote and protect human rights.
In March of this year, we helped negotiate another important resolution, which was adopted by consensus, this time in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which states clearly that national legislation must be consistent with international human rights law and cannot be used to restrict the legitimate work and activities of human rights defenders.
And this autumn we are working hard on a new resolution in the UN. The draft resolution focuses in particular on the situation of women human rights defenders.
These resolutions are important because they strengthen the basis for the work of the human rights defenders on the ground and confirm the duty of states to protect human rights’ defenders and their work. But we do, of course, acknowledge that resolutions are not enough.
To pass resolutions in The UN is important, but these resolutions must be respected and implemented.
Indeed, the lack of respect for human rights commitments will be a key concern in our human rights work.
We must connect these commitments to the actual human rights protection on the ground. Norway, therefore, supports organizations that work with human rights’ defenders around the world.
Support to human rights defenders is high on the agenda of our Embassies around the world, and we have elaborated guidelines for how this work should be carried out. I know the importance of this work from my recent experience as Norway’s ambassador to Kenya.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have in the Arab world over the last 2 - 3 years, including in Bahrain, seen a unique mobilization of people's aspirations for democracy and the enjoyment of their human rights. The courage demonstrated and the opinions expressed deserve our continued and full support.
As far as the situation in Bahrain is concerned, we in Norway have voiced our concern and clearly expressed what we expect of the government of Bahrain and the ruling Al Khalifa family.
According to Amnesty International and news reports, peaceful demonstrations were stopped through excessive use of force and a great number of protesters were arrested, among them doctors and nurses treating victims of violence. This is not, of course, in line with international human rights’ principles and must not continue.
We appreciate that the Government of Bahrain has taken some initiatives, including establishing a Commission of inquiry that came up with several recommendations last year. The problem is that the implementation of these recommendations has not been sufficient. We call on the Government to follow-up on these recommendations, and fulfill their human rights obligations.
This year's Rafto conference has been named "Bahrain’s Arab Spring - The inconvenient revolution", highlighting the connection between business interests and Governments’ approaches to human rights violations.
This is an issue that has become gradually more important over the last few years. Human rights work can of course on occasions create difficult challenges and dilemmas for Governments. The same is true in the world of trade and commerce.
But Human rights protection and business interests cannot be seen as opposite worlds.
While we must acknowledge and confront challenges and negative issues, we must also focus on the opportunities that responsible business represents, both for development and human rights protection in years to come.
The tools are gradually coming into place. It was recognized, with the introduction of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011, that enterprises have an independent obligation to respect Human Rights. The Principles help clarify the respective roles and responsibilities of states and companies in respecting and safeguarding human rights. While states are the formal duty-bearers, and should provide effective and appropriate judicial mechanisms to protect their citizens from business-related human rights violations, companies should develop plans and policies for how to prevent and mitigate any adverse human rights impacts of their operations.
The Norwegian Government expect Norwegian companies to seek to prevent or mitigate any adverse human rights impacts either through their own activities or as a result of their business relationships with other parties.
I can assure you that the new Norwegian government will have human rights high on our foreign policy agenda, also in parts of the world where we have extensive business interests.
In this process, we need a close dialogue with all stake-holders, including the business community and civil society.
This conference is an important opportunity to discuss vital issues. I look forward to listening to your ideas and recommendations.
I wish the Rafto Foundation and all of you a successful conference and best wishes for the prize ceremony.