Democracy and the rule of law

There are more people living in democracies based on universal suffrage and periodic elections today than ever before. At the same time, the quality and sustainability of democracy is being eroded in countries all over the world, including in Europe. Norway’s international efforts to promote human rights and sustainable development are closely tied to our efforts to promote democracy and the rule of law.

Norway’s policies are based on the conviction that respect for the individual’s fundamental rights and democratic principles are prerequisites for lasting peace and stability. Many of the ongoing conflicts and crises today have their underlying cause in a lack of the right to participate and to legal protection, and in discrimination, as well as violations of fundamental rights and freedoms.

Although the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘election’ are not explicitly mentioned in the Sustainable Development Goals, their essence is reflected in the targets and indicators for SDG 16 and 5. The 2030 Agenda is a development agenda and is also, to a large extent, a human rights and democracy agenda.

Democracy and the rule of law are prerequisites for giving individuals the chance to influence and shape their own lives, both by means of voting and between elections. This applies not least to young people. The right of women and their opportunity to participate in and influence democratic processes are also essential in this context.

Free and fair elections, independent political parties, universal suffrage and the opportunity for people to exercise their right to vote are all necessary to ensure representativeness. The Norwegian Resource Bank for Democracy and Human Rights  sends out Norwegian long-term and short-term election observers every year, under the auspices of the OSCE (to its member states) and the EU (to all other countries), to observe the run-up to and holding of elections in a number of countries.

However, what happens between elections is just as important. Sustainable democracy is context dependent and comes in many variants. Nevertheless, there are certain elements, in addition to the will of the majority, which must be in place for democracy to function as a system:

  • A liberal democracy is built on a fundamental respect for the rights and freedoms of the individual.
  • The rule of law is the backbone of a sustainable democracy. An independent judiciary is a prerequisite for safeguarding respect for the rights of minorities.
  • Civil society organisations and an independent media serve as important control mechanisms, playing a part in the public debate between elections and encouraging inclusive and informed democratic processes.
  • Freedom of assembly and freedom of association are prerequisites.
  • Institutions must have the necessary expertise and capacity.
  • The absence of corruption – among the elected representatives, the judiciary and in the public administration – is essential for ensuring equal treatment.

Norwegian efforts to promote democracy reflect the principles set out in the Granavolden political platform and the white paper Opportunities for All: Human Rights in Norway’s Foreign Policy and Development Cooperation (Meld. St. 10 (2014-15)), in particular the principles of individual freedom and public participation, and the rule of law and legal protection.

No democracy is flawless, and democratisation is rarely a linear process. We must be prepared for setbacks, but must also speak out clearly when they occur. It takes a long time to build up a democratic culture, especially in the wake of generations of authoritarian regimes. Setbacks can occur very rapidly. History has taught us that we cannot take a stable democracy for granted. Therefore it is important to pay attention to emerging trends globally, regionally, and in individual countries as well. Is the situation developing in the right direction or is it deteriorating and, if so, has this been deliberately sought?

Some countries lack democratic structures altogether, while others have some form of framework, but with serious deficiencies at all levels. A small country like Norway cannot do everything alone. Therefore cooperation with or support through multilateral actors is vital. Our bilateral efforts within specified areas should be a part of a greater whole.

Democratisation is not merely about constitutions, legislation or institutions; it is also a maturation process that can take generations after the transition from an authoritarian regime. Therefore we should not underestimate the importance of education. It is vital that children and young people are given a basis on which to make informed choices and learn the meaning of democratic participation.

Priority areas

  • provide support to promote democracy that is based on the rule of law, including an independent judiciary;
  • promote fair and effective legal systems based on respect for human rights;
  • help to enhance legal protection and transparency in the court system in individual countries, particularly through court observation and support for the courts administration;
  • help to develop national monitoring and control bodies;
  • secondment of experts on the rule of law, democracy and human rights to international organisations, including short-term and long-term election observers to missions under the auspices of the OSCE and the EU;
  • seek to ensure that national authorities promote and respect freedom of assembly and association, both in legislation and in practice;
  • promote respect for freedom of assembly and association through the UN, other international organisations and partnerships with civil society organisations;
  • support the development of legislation and institutions that safeguard the independence of the media, combat censorship and promote public access to information;
  • help to protect and strengthen the framework conditions and civic space for civil society organisations;
  • work to ensure that women are given equal rights to political and economic participation, including equal rights to enter into agreements, own land and inherit property;
  • combat and prevent corruption among elected representatives, the judiciary and the public administration;
  • work to disseminate knowledge about human rights, with a special emphasis on supporting the development of knowledge about human rights for teachers and key actors within the justice sector, civil society organisations and the media.

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