Norwegian Foreign Policy – Focused on Human Rights

Dr. Arjun K. Sengupta

Dr. Arjun K. Sengupta is Member of Indian Parliament, Visiting Professor of International Research on Human Rights and Development al the Centre for Development and the Environment, UiO, and Chairman of the Inter-Governmental Working Group on the Right to Development, Geneva

I shall be giving my comments, from the perspective of a developing country, as that is what I am most familiar with. However, Norwegian foreign policy, as any other country’s foreign policy, has to be formulated in terms of its own national interest, both for security and economic reasons and also of course, guided by a motivation to be able to exercise influence in the international relations and to be recognized as a significant power in the contemporary world.  Norway, in that sense is in a unique position, because as I understand it, Norway’s interest in playing the role of a powerful nation influencing international relations is very much consistent with what the developing countries may see as its most desirable role.

In relation to the other international agencies such as the UN, World Bank, IMF and Regional Development Institutions, Norway has to harmonize its position with other countries in Europe, if not always with other North Atlantic nations.  Indeed in intra-European relations as well as its relations with North-Atlantic nations, Norway’s national interest, especially, economic and commercial concerns, relate to its position as a major hydro-carbon power which will no doubt play a determining role.  I could think of many situations where Norwegian interest may conflict with the interest of other European   countries as well as with North Atlantic  nations.  While  dwelling on these issues, I come directly to the ones that matter most for the developing countries.

Most of the advanced countries’ foreign policies are seen by the developing countries as advancing their national interests in terms of the commercial relations of exports and imports and  the interest of their multi-national companies. Very rarely their assistance can be separated from their commercial interests, and more often than not they are seen as working together in WTO, IMF and the World Bank in dealing with the developing countries. Again, Norway is often regarded as an exception, mainly  because it had no empire to defend and it has very few commercial interests that go beyond the intra-industrial countries’ transactions and exchanges whichas in most cases  are not dependent upon the actions and reactions of  developing countries.  Norway’s oil resources or sources of revenue or industrial and agricultural products, have very little dependence on the developing countries. Therefore, Norway is seen to be able to take a certaom position towards the developing countries, which most other industrial nations cannot.  In the formal stand on policy issues in either WTO or the IMF/World Bank, Norway may not always be in a position to take an independent stand from other industrial countries. But behind the scene, developing countries believe, that Norway can play a very effective role in enhancing the industrial countries’ common position vis-à-vis the developing countries.

In its relations with developing countries, as also with other nations in the world, Norway’s role may be much more effective than it is today if it has a clear focus and if it is seen as a champion of that focus by all other nations.  Most countries in their foreign policies approach specific problems case by case, without any over-arching common perspective, except that such policies  are not expected to counter their own domestic interests. Even when these countries talk about actions against poverty and hunger or technological progress of the developing countries, they are rarely perceived as going beyond their domestic interests and the developing countries are also engaged with them through a trade-off between their national interests whether immediate or with a  medium or long-term  perspective. The difference that Norway can make in this context is because of Norway’s genuine interest in human rights. All developing countries believe that Norway is an example of upholding human rights principles, not just because there seems to be an ideological commitment  that the country has  to those principles, but also because it has very few aberrations in its domestic policies from those human rights principles. There may be occasions and in practice some difference of opinion may exist but overall it is the perspective of the developing countries that the Norwegian commitment to human rights principles is genuine and completely trust-worthy.

Within this perspective I believe Norway may now overtly and clearly make “upholding human rights” as the guiding principle of all its policies in international relations. I believe an appropriately designed foreign policy  towards upholding human rights principles will not be against Norwegian national interest. It would also allow Norway to play an enormous role of influence in international relations, which is the essence of exercising power.  Furthermore,  no other country has  made this as the guiding principle of its foreign policy, and despite their interest in human rights that has been rhetorically asserted on many occasions. If Norway adopts this position it will immediately be able to play a leadership role among the industrial countries.  The importance of this stance in foreign policy will have to be judged by the Norwegian Government in terms of its other objectives. But from the developing countries’ perspective such a characterization of Norwegian foreign policy would be  most desirable.
In the following paragraphs I shall elaborate on the different areas where Norway can play a prominent role, from this perspective:

• It will immensely enhance Norway’s role in peace-making, peace-keeping and peace-building in situations of international conflict.  Norway is already playing a significant role in this area, but if that role is seen to be embedded in championing the human rights principles, this role will not only attract universal respectability, but also be much more effective for influencing the contending  parties.  Peace-making in most conflicting situations may appear to be related to conflict in the  narrow interests of  contending parties, though they are often couched in terms of principles of sovereignty, independence or ethnic domination. A human rights approach would begin with these stated principles and then it can get into the specific details which can often be resolved if the contending parties trust each other sufficiently to carry on a dialogue for a solution. Norway as a trusted champion of human rights principles can facilitate this dialogue in which all the contending parties would be interested. The process would often be seen as one of  narrow conflict  but Norway’s role an intermediary would be much more effective because it is not  interested in specific narrow conflicts and  instead it is pressing for basic principles of human rights. It is not difficult to spell out the principle in terms of concrete situations for Norway’s role in Tamil/ Sri Lankan conflict or Palestine- Israel relations. It can be clearly shown that the effectiveness of Norway’s role would depend very much upon the trust that Norway could secure from the contending parties which would very much be influenced by Norway’s overall role as a champion of human rights.

• In both peace-making and peace-building, the countries in a conflict require not only building up institutions and the expansion of economic and commercial activities, but also upon the solidarity of the people towards nation-building and a constitutional process that would be regarded by all  agents as beneficial to them. If these institutions and constitution-making proceses are embedded in human rights principles of equity, non-discrimination and transparent governance together with freedom of association, expression and religion with access to justice and fair treatment by law, it will have a much greater chance of being acceptable by all the agents in the conflict.

• The situation in Afghanistan can be clearly seen as a potential case of successful application of human rights approach. All countries in the world are now interested in helping Afghanistan with resources, technology and finance and some of them are also trying to impose a formal democracy on this situation of conflict. Norway will, of course, have to go along with all these but if it can help in building some human rights institutions and the legal system respecting the human rights principles, its contribution probably will be most sustainable in the conflict situation of Afghanistan. Even in the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan, if from the beginning there is an emphasis on the human rights principles of equity, non-discrimination, participation and accountability, it will surely be much more effective than otherwise. However, development projects or reconstruction exercise must be conceived through participation, without discrimination among the beneficiaries with a clear principle of accountability and transparency built into them. Similarly for the promotion of trade, agriculture or industry, the policy should be clearly formulated to promote equitable distribution of the benefits.  Norway can actively engage in these efforts giving models of human rights-based development. It is not necessary that Norway has to increase its aid to Afghanistan disproportionately but what is important is that Norway should be able to give a lead in the formulation of effective policies.

• In this perspective, Norway’s relations with other developing countries which are not in a conflicting situation can also be clearly identified. Norway should be able to help the countries which adopt development policies based on human rights principles, it should be able to finance or arrange to secure the finance for projects which are implemented with equity and non-discrimination, participation and transparency as well as verifiable accountability. In addition, Norway could help the countries to build-up systems of access to justice and the claiming of rights for their people, promoting the principles of legal empowerment  that have now been worked out at the High-level International Committee on that subject.

• In addition to helping the Governments concerned to build up institutions and process of fulfillment of human rights, the Norwegian Government may think of helping directly the institutions concerned. For example, it might assist the National Human Rights Commissions in building-up their capacities to enforce human rights. It can help, wherever possible, the local Governments directly to build and operate structures that are involved in promoting human rights and dispute settlements. In many cases Norway may complement the assistance of other industrial countries or international agencies by bringing in the components involved in the exercise of human rights.

• In this context I may refer to the notion of a Development Compact which has been discussed in the Human Rights Commission to give a concrete shape to the rights-based international cooperation. If a developing country formulates projects or programmes consistent with human rights standards to secure different kinds of freedoms such as freedom from hunger, illiteracy and ignorance, and ill-health and disease as human rights, then a number of developed countries may assure them the required financial assistance and  procedural changes in trade and technology transactions, in the form of a Compact. Norway can play a very effective role for mobilizing these countries in the form of an international support group for helping the developing countries concerned.

• Besides the Governments of the developing countries, Norway should be able to assist the non-governmental organizations, especially those which are playing a major role in formulating the rights-based approach to development programmes, in securing access to justice  for the people and in mobilizing them to assert and exercise their rights. This is a very large field where Norwegian assistance can be a great help to non-governmental organizations whose role is now very well acknowledged by all countries of the world.

• Finally, Norway should be able to assist institutions and NGOs engaged in research on human rights and development mainly because this is a totally un-explored territory. There are many other institutions in developing countries that are working on economic and social development programmes. But there are very few institutions which are approaching these problems from the human rights perspective where the outcomes of the process are regarded as human rights and achieved consistently with human rights principles. There is a knowledge-deficiency in this area depending upon the specific context of different countries. Norway can play a major role in galvanizing this process of research and development.

Sist oppdatert: 03.01.2008
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