Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
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In September 2005, a center-left coalition of parties led by the Labor Party won national elections, displacing the center-right alliance that had been in power since 2001. The country suffered hundreds of casualties in Thailand during the Asian tsunami in December 2004.
After being ruled by Denmark 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.
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.
During September 2005 legislative elections, the center-left Red-Green coali-tion-led by the Labor Party and including the Socialist Left Party and the "green" Center Party-won 47.9 percent of the vote and 87 seats. The election marked the first time that Labor had entered into a coalition since the end of World War II. The previous governing coalition-a three-party center-right coalition that included the Conservatives, the Christian People's Party, and the Liberals-captured only 26.8 percent of the vote and 44 seats. The other major winner in the election was the anti-immigrant Progress Party, which won 22.1 percent of the vote and 38 seats, making it the largest single opposition party in parliament. The BBC reported that education, care for the elderly, and the state of the economy were the key issues of the electoral campaign.
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 October, a top Norwegian envoy, Trond Furuhovde, held talks with the Sri Lankan government and the separatist LTTE (Tamil Tigers), which had stalled.
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.
In 2005, Norway was ranked first in the UN Human Development Index for the fifth year running. Its high standard of living is due in large part to the discovery of energy deposits in the 1960s; Norway is currently the world's third-largest oil exporter. 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.
During the Asian tsunami in December 2004, Norway suffered hundreds of casualties in Thailand-a popular vacation spot for Norwegians. Norwegian officials were criticized for their supposed lateness in responding to the disaster.
Citizens of Norway can change their government democratically. The national parliament, called the Storting, currently has 169 seats, an increase of 4 over the number elected in 2001. The members of the Storting are directly elected for four-year terms by a system of proportional representation. One-quarter of the members are then selected 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. 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. Norway was ranked 8 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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 2004, Statoil was found guilty of corruption charges and fined 20 million kroner ($2.9 million); no former executive was indicted. Most recently, in July 2005, SINTEF, one of Norway's leading research organizations, was accused of bribery after it sent money to a company in the British Virgin Islands to help win oil contracts in Iran.
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. 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, and one-half of the cabinet must belong to the Church. Other denominations must register with the state to receive support, which is determined by size of membership. Until recently, a course on religion and ethics focusing on Christianity was mandatory for students. In November 2004, the European Court of Human Rights determined that the course requirement contravened human rights principles. In response, the country adopted legislation affirming that the course does not preach religion. In addition, the government has promised, for the 2005-2006 school year, to introduce a new curriculum for the course and to make rules for exemptions easier. A commission appointed in 2002 to review church-state relations was expected to give its assessment to parliament by the end of 2005. Academic freedom is ensured for all.
The constitution guarantees freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Norwegians are very active in different non-governmental and volunteer organizations. 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 August, a prominent Liberal Party politician called for a review of the right to strike in Norway; the review was called in reaction to a long transit strike in 2004 that affected the transport of goods to local businesses.
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 U.S. State Department's 2005 human rights report, 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 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. Nevertheless, the country's immigration chief announced in July that the country needs more immigrants, both skilled and unskilled, to maintain population levels and competence. The Aftenposten, one of five regional daily newspapers in the country, reported that the announcement was met with scorn by some immigrants who struggle to find jobs in Norway despite their education and knowledge of Norwegian.
A new marriage law, which includes a clause under which the couple 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. During the last elections, 37 percent of the seats in the Storting were won by women, a slight increase over the previous elections. 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.
Norway is a destination point for the trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The country, however, remains a leader in anti-trafficking efforts, according to the U.S. State Department's 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report. In February, Norway convicted eight people in the largest trafficking case in the country to date. The leader of the group, which included Georgians, Lithuanians, Norwegians, and a Turk, was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment. In January, the government launched a formal trafficking victim assistance program that includes assistance centers and a 24-hour hotline.