Speeches and statements

Statement at “Defending the Human Rights Defenders”

Minister of Foreign Affairs Anniken Huitfeldt's statement at the breakfast-meeting “Defending the Human Rights Defenders” hosted by the Nobel Peace Center May 16, 2023.

Thank you, Ingeborg and Kjersti. Dear Mary,

Ladies and gentlemen, friends in the human rights community

‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights presents both a fact and a vision. These words are as relevant today as they were 75 years ago.

They were not chosen by accident.

They were famously crafted by Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues. Building on their experiences of war. And on their vision for peace.

Let me also highlight the contribution of Indian feminist and author Hansa Mehta.

She was the Indian delegate to the UN Human Rights Commission at the time. And it is she who is credited with changing the language. From “all men are born free and equal” in the initial draft, to the text we know today.

A significant change – and sadly, still pertinent in 2023.

Like Hansa Mehta, individuals have always played a key role in promoting human rights.

Standing here, in this room, we are reminded of the many Nobel Peace Prize laureates who have fought for human rights, peace and democracy.

Last year’s laureates Ales Bialiatski, Memorial and the Center for Civil Liberties.

And before them: Wangari Maathai, Shirin Ebadi. Lech Walesa. Andrei Sakharov. René Cassin. Martin Luther King. Carl von Ossietzky.

To name but a few.

At a time when authoritarianism is on the rise, we must continue to take inspiration from their work.

In more and more countries, we are seeing less freedom of expression, in particular for women. We are witnessing wider repression of civil society – and more media censorship. We are also seeing increased attacks on journalists and media workers, which in turn can lead to self-censorship.

It is clear that authoritarian leaders are learning from each other. 

As I have said before: authoritarianism is a means of compensating for weakness. Only weak leaders feel threatened by the freedom of others.

Some argue that we should not engage with authoritarian leaders. As I see it, defending freedom of expression by boycotting dialogue is somewhat of a paradox. I will continue to raise human rights abuses with those in power.

And I will continue to stress that the efforts of leaders to restrict independent media and civil society only serve to highlight their weakness.

They also attest to the effectiveness of civil society and human rights defenders as checks on power and drivers of change.

There are many examples of progress achieved by human rights defenders.

  • In Colombia, a case brought before the Constitutional Court by a civil society alliance led to the decriminalisation of abortion.

  • In Belize and Botswana, human rights defenders successfully challenged the validity of discriminatory laws used to criminalise same-sex relations.

Regrettably, we also have countless examples of setbacks:

Authoritarian leaders have used restrictions on women’s access to abortion and contraceptives as a political tool.

Women and LGBTI persons are often the first to lose their rights when illiberal leaders shun democracy.

The rise of authoritarianism is a threat to us all.

It undermines a rules-based world order, based on international law and respect for human rights.

The war in Ukraine brings home what’s at stake.

Before Russia’s illegal war of aggression, a vibrant and active Ukrainian civil society played a key role in Ukraine’s democratic development.

Today, those organisations are instrumental in documenting human rights violations and abuses committed by Russian forces. Collecting evidence. And ensuring that victims receive assistance.

They are key partners in the international efforts to ensure accountability.

Last May, I visited Bucha. I will never forget what I saw and heard there.

Last year, when I met Oleksandra Matviichuk, the leader of the Center for Civil Liberties, she stressed the need for justice and accountability to secure lasting peace.

I fully agree.

The work of human rights defenders is crucial to succeed in building sustainable societies.

But all too often, defenders pay the highest price.

Front Line Defenders reported that 401 human rights defenders were killed last year worldwide. Many others were threatened, attacked or detained for doing their work.

We are currently updating the Ministry’s guidelines for Norway’s efforts to protect and support human rights defenders.

Promoting a safe and enabling environment is a priority for Norway.

Our diplomatic missions play a key role in supporting defenders at risk.

I hope the panel discussions today will provide insights that can inform the new guidelines.



The principles set out in the declarations we are celebrating today remain our best tools for promoting peace and sustainable development.

To all human rights defenders here: you are on the frontlines in safeguarding democracy. I thank you for your tireless efforts to defend our shared values and norms.

Thank you to the organisers for the opportunity to set the stage for your important discussions.