Freedom in the World
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Issues concerning immigration and asylum and Norway's foreign policy continued to spur debate among Norwegians in 2004. In June, the government ordered the end to a labor dispute between oil workers and companies that had threatened to halt production. Thousands of journalists went on strike in May over disagreements regarding pension benefits.
Following Denmark's rule from 1450 to 1814, Norway enjoyed a brief spell of independence during which the Eisvold Convention, Norway's current constitution, was adopted. Subsequently, Norway became part of a Swedish-headed monarchy. Norway gained independence in 1905 and has since functioned as a constitutional monarchy with a multiparty parliamentary structure.
The current, center-right government took power in October 2001 after the Labor Party suffered its worst election result in 90 years. The ruling coalition is made up of the Conservative Party, the Christian Democratic Party, and the Liberal Party, which together hold 122 seats. Kjell Magne Bondevik, of the Christian Democratic Party, is in his second term as prime minister. However, the largest party in parliament remains the Labor Party, with 43 seats. The constitutional monarch, King Harald V, ascended to the throne in 1991.
Norwegian citizens narrowly rejected European Union (EU) membership in referendums in 1972 and 1994, despite government support for joining. In addition to wanting to preserve their sovereignty, Norwegians feared the threat that membership would pose to the country's energy, agriculture, and fishing industries. As part of the European Economic Area, Norway has nearly full access to European markets. Nevertheless, while 75 percent of Norwegian exports go to EU countries and Norway has adopted almost all EU directives, it has little power to influence EU decisions as long as it remains outside. To maintain the current ruling coalition, which includes pro- and anti-EU parties (the Conservatives and the Christian Democrats, respectively), the government agreed not to reopen the question of EU membership during the term of the current parliament, which is scheduled to end in September 2005. However, Labor Party leader and EU supporter Jens Stoltenberg provoked a parliamentary debate on the issue in March 2004. The public remains divided over this issue.
A founding member of NATO, Norway has an active foreign policy. The government has sent envoys and negotiators to help resolve some of the world's most contentious disputes, most recently the conflict in Sri Lanka. In November, Foreign Minister Jan Petersen visited Colombo in an attempt to revive stalled peace talks. Earlier in the year, in July, public concern about the security of 150 Norwegian engineering troops in Iraq led to their transfer to Afghanistan. Norway runs 10 percent of the world's charities and gives one of the highest levels of overseas development aid as a percentage of its gross domestic product, a policy that has the support of 80 percent of the Norwegian public.
Norway was ranked first in the UN Human Development Index for 2003 and 2004. Its high standard of living is due in large part to the discovery of energy deposits in the 1960s.The government has put 80 percent of oil revenues in a petroleum fund that is invested overseas, thus helping to ensure that the benefits are enjoyed for many years.
Norwegians can change their government democratically. The 165-member parliament, or Storting, is directly elected for a four-year term by a system of proportional representation. It then selects one-quarter of its members to serve as the upper chamber, or Lagting, while the remaining members make up the lower chamber, or Odelsting. Neither body is subject to dissolution. The leader of the majority party or majority coalition in the Storting is appointed prime minister by the constitutional monarch, currently King Harald V. Although officially the head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the monarch performs largely ceremonial duties.
The indigenous Sami population, in addition to participating in the national political process, have their own consultative constituent assembly, or Sameting, which has worked to protect the group's language and cultural rights and to influence the national government's decisions about Sami land and its resources.
Norway remains one of the least corrupt countries in the world, and Norway was ranked 8 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, a 2003 Gallup survey found that nearly half of all Norwegians believe that bribery in the business world will be an increasing problem in the coming years. In 2003, a police probe into the Iranian operations of the state oil company Statoil led to the resignations of the chairman, the chief executive, and the head of the company's international division amid allegations of bribery. In June, Statoil was found guilty of corruption charges and fined 20 million kroner ($2.9 million); no former executive was indicted. The next month brought news of two U.S. government investigations into the affair, as Statoil is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed. The state subsidizes many newspapers, the majority of which are privately owned and openly partisan, in order to promote political pluralism. However, subsidies have been cut in recent years, and there are fears that some special-interest publications will be forced to close. A government ban on political commercials, designed to ensure equal opportunity to the media for all candidates regardless of varying resources, violates the European Convention on Human Rights, which Norway has signed. In May, nearly 40,000 journalists and 84 media companies went on strike after mediation failed to produce an agreement on pension benefits. Norway continues to ban hard-core pornography in movie theaters, on television, and on video and DVD.
The monarch is the constitutional head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway, the state church. One-half of the cabinet must belong to the Church, whose adherents make up 86 percent of the population. Other denominations must register with the state to receive support, which is determined by size of membership. By law, a course on religion and ethics, which focuses on Christianity, is mandatory for students, with no exemptions. In July, members of the right-wing Progress Party in the city of Krisiansand advocated banning Islam in Norway. Academic freedom is ensured for all.
The constitution guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly and association, as well as the right to strike. Unions play an important role in consulting with the government on social and economic issues, and about 60 percent of the workforce belongs to unions. In June, the government ordered an end to a week-long labor dispute between offshore oil workers and oil companies, spurred by the prospect of a lockout that would halt production in the world's third-largest oil exporter. A state arbitrator was assigned to settle the dispute, which centered on worker demands for better pension rights and job security.
The judiciary is independent, and the court system, headed by the Supreme Court, operates fairly at the local and national levels. The king appoints judges under advisement from the Ministry of Justice. The police are under civilian control, and there were no reports of human rights abuses committed by any domestic law enforcement authorities. According to the US State Department's 2004 report on human rights practices, prison conditions generally meet international standards.
The government helps protect the heritage of the Sami population through Sami language instruction, broadcast programs, and subsidized newspapers in their regions. A deputy minister in the national government deals specifically with Sami issues.
In November, authorities barred a group of Jewish citizens from participating in a public commemoration of the Nazi riot of Kristallnacht in Oslo. A government mandate forbade the display of any Jewish symbols, including the Star of David and the Israeli flag, during the commemoration, citing safety concerns.
Although the majority of Norwegians have a positive attitude toward immigrants, citizens are increasingly in favor of a stricter immigration policy, according to Statistics Norway. In December 2003, the government announced that asylum seekers denied residence in Norway would no longer be able to remain at immigration reception centers after an earlier report found a record number of asylum seekers registered at these centers. Polls suggest that discrimination in housing and employment against ethnic minorities is widespread. In August, the government ordered all townships to provide language and job training to new immigrants.
A new marriage law, which includes a clause under which both couples must vow that they are getting married voluntarily and have an equal right to a divorce, has been criticized by the Roman Catholic Church. The Gender Equality Act provides equal rights for men and women, and a Gender Equality Ombudsman enforces the law. Traditionally, 40 percent of the cabinet is female; 8 of the current 19 ministers are women, and women make up 36 percent of the Storting. A new law requires that at least 40 percent of a firm's board of directors be women; the figure currently stands at about 7 percent.