Øystein Bø on Ethics in Counter-Terrorism

State secretary Øystein Bø in The Ministry of Defence held this speech in Fanehallen, Oslo May 25th 2016 on Ethics in Counter-Terrorism.

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President, speakers, distinguished scholars,

Thank you for the invitation to address this conference on Ethics in Counter Terrorism. I would like to thank the International Society for Military Ethics in Europe for arranging the conference. The topic at hand is important and complex. I am grateful to all of you for attending. Looking at the list of speakers over the last three days, I would personally have liked to have the opportunity to spend some more time with you, and to listen in on the discussions.

The Norwegian Defence Sector has long traditions in Military Ethics. The importance of the Norwegian Field Chaplaincy and the Norwegian Defence University College in promoting this area of expertise should not be underestimated. As you will know, The Journal of Military Ethics is edited partly from Norway. That would not have been possible without the efforts of those two institutions.

We are also privileged to have our own Council of Ethics for the defence sector, who, under the able leadership of Professor Camilla Serck-Hanssen deliver substantial contributions in the field of military ethics.

Ethics is highly relevant to the Norwegian Government when making political decisions concerning any use of military power – nationally as well as internationally. Being in the position to decide whether or not to use military power - in any situation - hands us great responsibility. I can assure you that we do not take this responsibility lightly.



Terrorism affects millions of civilian lives world-wide. The despicable acts of terrorists around the world cause horrible suffering to innocent people. Our own societies are also affected. Young people have been radicalized and recruited as foreign fighters. Europe has been attacked with violence and terror. Terror is not only a domestic issue, and geographical distance is no longer a security guarantee. While countries have borders, threats and risks stemming from terrorism do not!

One example is the threat emanating from the Greater Middle East. This area, which includes the northern parts of Africa, is torn by war and conflict. ISIL is threatening to throw a whole region into chaos.

We are constantly reminded of their extreme and violent ideology, and of their reach. This has been illustrated by gruesome attacks on civilian populations in Syria and Iraq, as well as several horrendous attacks on European soil.

When confronting ISIL and other terrorist groups we need to adopt a broad approach, applying a wide range of measures.

The ISIL challenge is not restricted to Syria and Iraq. It spans Northern Africa, from the East to the West, through the Middle East and up to Afghanistan.

Norway decided a few weeks back to increase our military contribution to the fight against ISIL.

Norway has troop contributions in Mali, in Jordan/Syria, in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We see our presence in these different locations a part of the broader effort against terrorism and extremism.

I can assure you that the ethical dimension is at the forefront in all our decisions to deploy Norwegian soldiers in such operations.

Today, the terrorist threat from ISIL is on top of everyone’s head. I would, however, like to turn back to July 22, 2011. On that day, a massive terror-attack was, for the first time, carried out on Norwegian soil.

Our history has shaped a Norwegian society in which soldiers should not be used in controlling our population. This principle is also set forth in our constitution. The horrendous terrorist attacks on 22 July did, however, spark a broad debate on the role of the Norwegian Armed Forces in countering terrorism within our own borders.

It is, no doubt, important to the Norwegian government to uphold the clear distinction between civilian and military tasks. It is the task of the police to prevent general crime, including terrorism and terrorist acts.

In some contexts, however, our armed forces must be able to support the police in their work.

Cooperation between Norwegian police and defence is regulated by law. Some military units are given limited police authority. Examples of this are the Norwegian Coast Guard and the Border Guard on the Russian border.

In general, military personnel will not be used in assisting the police in controlling civilian crowds.

Military personnel may, nevertheless, upon request, assist the police in order to prevent and combat significant threats. This includes securing objects and infrastructure, searching and apprehending people who represent a risk to the population, or to considerable public interests, and in cases of accidents, rescue operations and natural disasters.

In addition, we have allocated military capabilities to support and enable the police in carrying out maritime counter terror operations.  



Norway has a long standing commitment to the United Nations and to the development of international law.

As part of the international community, we are committed to protecting civilians. We seek peaceful solutions to conflicts where possible, and a legitimate mandate when using military power in conflicts.

The awareness of our fundamental values, as codified by the Norwegian Constitution, are part and parcel of every decision regarding the use of military force. Democracy, the rule of law and human rights are values that we carry with us into NATO, and into our operations. The Norwegian defense sector also has its own core values. Our values do not only define the premises for how we should act; they also define who we are.

It is precisely when facing terrorism that the commitment to our values are tested. Terrorism is challenging our democracy, our openness, our basic rights and our identity.

So, how do we meet these challenges? To me, it stands clear that the moment we forget our historical heritage, the moment we forget our principles and our values, and the moment we fight terrorism on the terrorists' terms, we are not only letting the terrorists win, we also devalue ourselves as a nation and as a community.

Taking part in counter terrorism, at home as well as abroad, we need to preserve the fundamental principles of our societies.

Protecting our values and the openness of societies is never more important than when they are under pressure. We also need to be honest to ourselves and accept that we will never be able to avert all risks. Absolute security is not possible in any society.

Therefore, we must be careful not to prevent radicalization and extremism through fear, censorship and violence. When facing terrorism, democracy, openness and social integration are among our most important tools.



We live in a time in which our values, principles and policies are challenged, both in conflict and within the political discourse. In this context the work of ISME, in this case EURO-ISME, deals with the real and the difficult issues; the grey areas as well as the clear-cut ones.

Your work identifies dilemmas and provides guidance to resolving them. Participants at this conference represent various nationalities, interests, qualifications ​​and perspectives. You address ethical issues from different positions, you improve understanding and you look athow we can approach our common challenges regarding Ethics in Counter-Terrorism. Thus, the value of your contributions - and this conference – should not be underestimated.

Military ethics is an integral part of the core competence of the Norwegian Armed forces. Ethics is integrated at all levels of our military education system. Doing this, we hope to give our leaders, officers and personnel the tools they need to take the right decisions and actions, in all their missions, both at home and abroad.


I would once again like to thank you allyou’re your contributions to this conference. I would also like to thank the International Society for Military Ethics in Europe, and all who made this conference possible.

I hope you have had a great stay here in Oslo and wish you all a safe journey home.

Thank you for your attention!