Opening remarks at Oslo Freedom Forum

Opening remarks by Prime Minister Erna Solberg at Oslo Freedom Forum, 23 May 2017.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg at Oslo Freedom Forum 2017
Prime Minister Erna Solberg at Oslo Freedom Forum 2017. Credit: Statsministerens kontor

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Ladies and gentlemen, friends of democracy, defenders of human rights,

It is a great pleasure for me to address the Oslo Freedom Forum. 

I am pleased to see such an impressive gathering of representatives from civil society, the media, academia, governments and the private sector. Amongst us are also people who have lived under, or are still living under daily pressure and threats. Thank you for coming to Oslo to share your experiences. To tell your stories.

May is the month of democracy and freedom in Norway. On the 8th of May, we mark our liberation after the Second World War. On the 17th of May, we celebrate our Constitution. This document paved the way for our independence. It also laid the foundation for the development of Norway as a society that embraces the values of democracy, openness, equal rights and welfare for all. It is therefore fitting that every May, Oslo Freedom Forum participants fill the city with the spirit of courage, freedom and hope.

Democracy and respect for human rights are crucial for securing peace and stability, both within and between states. Good governance and the rule of law are vital for development, economic growth and innovation.

Still, democracy is complicated, time-consuming, and – at times – very frustrating, not least for us politicians. But it is our best tool for making the most of the human capital in every country.

All of us in this room can agree that holding elections or passing laws does not in itself constitute democracy. A vibrant and robust democracy is a mosaic:

  • a balanced mix of strong institutions,
  • an independent judiciary and an elected government
  • and parliamentarians with the interests of the people at heart.

There can be no democracy without a diverse civil society, freedom of assembly and a free press.

Furthermore, individual freedoms are the bedrock of any true democracy. A democratic society is one in which every individual can enjoy freedom and equal opportunities to shape the direction of their own life.

 

In many parts of the world human rights defenders face great danger. This is unacceptable.

Standing up for human rights in the face of danger and repression requires tremendous courage. You have to be brave to document the atrocities committed in the war zones of South Sudan, Syria or Yemen. To raise your voice for gender equality in Saudi Arabia, or to go out on the streets in Venezuela to defend democratic rights and the constitutional order. You also have to be brave to criticise the way security challenges and freedom of expression are being handled in Turkey. Several of you in this room muster courage like this every day, and we should all applaud you for it.

I am concerned that governments –­ whose responsibility it is to protect and implement human rights – are pursuing policies that actually do the opposite.

Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest must be respected and protected.

Civil society has an important role to play in holding governments to account. We, the authorities, should be grateful for the work that you are doing as defenders of human rights.

The protection of human rights defenders is a key priority in Norwegian foreign policy. Under our leadership, the UN has adopted far-reaching resolutions on human rights defenders.

This would not have been possible without close cooperation with civil society. Now we must all act to implement these resolutions at national level.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world is currently facing a growing implementation gap between agreed norms and the realities on the ground.

We see that human rights and established institutions are coming under pressure. Freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary are being undermined in a number of countries.

We cannot allow journalists, bloggers and media workers to be attacked, killed, imprisoned or labelled as terrorists, simply for doing their job.

I am deeply worried about a political discourse that ignores the important role of the media in society, and instead undermines the media by fuelling hate speech and spreading fake news.

We should all be troubled when politicians invoke the ‘will of the people’ in order to put themselves above democratic institutions or constitutional principles. This is a dangerous form of populism. It undermines democratic checks and balances, and weakens the very fabric of society.

These trends need to be reversed.

We must defend and strengthen our international human rights institutions. We must safeguard the internationally agreed principles in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Two years ago, my Government launched the first white paper on human rights for 15 years. It puts human rights at the centre of Norway’s foreign and development policy. Ensuring respect for human rights is now an explicit foreign policy goal in itself. It is also a vital tool for achieving sustainable development, peace and security.

 

As prime minister, I have been privileged to meet several extremely courageous human rights defenders. Some of them are well known and widely respected; others are lone voices defending vulnerable minorities.

Last year in New York, I was particularly moved by Caleb Orozco who challenged the law on same-sex activity in Belize, and won the case in the Supreme Court. This led to the decriminalisation of same-sex activity in the country, and set a historic precedent in the Caribbean. Mr Orozco shared his personal journey as the face of the LGBTI movement in his country. For years, he has found the courage every day to face violence, threats and isolation because of his outspoken activism.

It is meeting people like Caleb Orozco that gives me hope.

I am impressed by the way the Oslo Freedom Forum develops networks between defenders, technology companies and entrepreneurs. It is my hope that these networks will grow ever stronger, creating ever greater space for individual freedoms around the globe.

And, I hope that this in time will reduce the burden on all of you who have had the courage to speak out against oppression.

Thank you.