Strengthening compliance, improving coherence: Norway’s White Paper on human rights

by Geir Sjøberg, Policy Director - Human Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway and the URG team By invitation, Contemporary and emerging human rights issues

geir sjoberg@mfa noIn April last year, the Norwegian Storting (parliament) endorsed a Government White Paper on human rights. The document, entitled, ‘Opportunities for All: Human Rights in Norway’s Foreign Policy and Development Cooperation’ is the country’s first human rights White Paper for fifteen years. The White Paper (which can be read here) is a part of a renewed national effort to protect and promote human rights. In 2014 Norway also moved to revise the 1814 Constitution to incorporate certain human rights provisions, and to establish a new national human rights institution (NHRI), fully compliant with the Paris Principles. Together, these steps serve to reaffirm Norway’s commitment to human rights both domestically and internationally, in line with the political priorities of the Government for the period 2013-2017.

The White Paper was developed through a broad and participatory process involving the Prime Minister’s Office, relevant line ministries, all MFA departments, Norwegian embassies abroad and missions to international organizations, and, last but not least, civil society. At the very outset of the process of developing the White Paper, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Børge Brende invited NGOs to submit proposals for consideration. Around 40 took up this offer.

Opportunities for all

The White Paper makes clear that a commitment to human rights lies at the heart of Norway’s foreign and development policy. In this respect, the White Paper takes universal human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the obligations and commitments of States under international human rights law, as the starting point, reflecting the principle that: ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ – as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The White Paper emphases two points in particular: the vital importance of improved compliance, on the part of all States, with international human rights obligations and commitments; and the importance, for Norway, of ensuring that efforts to promote such compliance are integrated into all aspects of the country’s foreign and development policy (i.e. coherence).

Strengthened compliance, improved coherence

The White Paper identifies weak domestic compliance with international human rights obligations as a central challenge to human rights around the world. The Paper recognises a ‘growing gap’ between decisions and recommendations made by UN bodies and mechanisms (based on a State’s legal obligations) and implementation on domestic/local level.

The Government’s efforts to promote compliance are focused on three main areas: individual freedom and public participation; the rule of law and legal protection; and equality and equal opportunities.

The specific thematic priorities under each of these three areas are laid out in Chapter 3 of the White Paper. A basic tenet of the approach is that civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights, are universal, indivisible and interdependent and that they must be treated globally in a fair and equal manner. Fundamental freedoms, such as the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and participation in public affairs are essential for the promotion and protection of other human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights. Moreover, the important work and legitimate role of human rights defenders in society is emphasised, and their recognition and protection is a cross cutting priority for the Government.

In addition to the promotion of compliance, the White Paper also emphasises (in Chapter 4) Norway’s determination to seek greater human rights impact through improved policy coherence. The approach seeks to integrate human rights across all relevant foreign policy areas, including: security policy; peace processes; humanitarian efforts; development policy; and private sector engagement. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 address the work at three key levels; globally, regionally and bilaterally.

UN human rights system

A key focus of and platform for Norway’s pursuit of its human rights priorities is the UN system. This includes work at a normative level – to elaborate and defend established universal human rights norms, while avoiding issue proliferation and the overcrowding of the UN’s agenda; and work to strengthen the effectiveness of the UN’s implementation mechanisms – to ensure that international norms are matched by local realities. On this last point, the White Paper makes clear that support for improved implementation is the responsibility of the UN system as a whole, not just the dedicated human rights institutions. Good examples of this mainstreaming imperative are efforts such as the UN Secretary-General’s Human Rights Upfront Action Plan and the UN Development Group’s Human Rights Working Group (see more information here).

While underscoring the importance of mainstreaming, the White Paper also recognises the centrality of the UN’s human rights pillar, and the Human Rights Council – a body which has proved to be ‘a more effective and relevant [body] than many people had expected.’ The Paper recalls Norway’s efforts to strengthen the efficiency, effectiveness and credibility of, and the resources available to, the Council, especially as the body approaches its 10th anniversary later this year. Norway is therefore advocating a significant increase in the share of the UN’s resources allocated to human rights, thereby strengthening the UN human rights pillar, including efforts to assist States in fulfilling their obligations and follow up of the recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review.

The Government draws particular attention, in the context of efforts to reform and strengthen the Council, to the body’s membership. Norway pledged to ‘work for greater transparency’ concerning Member States’ compliance with the criteria for Council membership (as set down in GA resolution 60/251), with each State’s voluntary commitments, and with their international human rights obligations. A concrete outcome of this pledge is the portal, election guide and end-of-year report, recently launched by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway with the Universal Rights Group.


Norway is taking a range of steps to realise the priorities and principles outlined in the White Paper. In addition to the launch of, Norway has in the fall of 2015, inter alia, led on the adoption of an important substantive resolution at the General Assembly on the recognition and protection of human rights defenders, and issued a National Action Plan on business and human rights (can be read here). Strategies in other areas are in the process of being drawn up, including in relation to the strengthening of freedom of expression and the independent media. The Foreign Ministry’s Guidelines for the protection of HRDs are also being updated and will be reissued in 2016.

As we continue our efforts, Norway will, as always, strive to engage, cooperate and work with all our international partners – States from across the regions, intergovernmental bodies, academia and civil society organisations. Only by working together, with all parts of the international community, can we realise the objectives and priorities laid out in the White Paper.

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