Freedom in the World
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A court in April 2008 handed down Norway’s harshest penalty to date for corruption, and a government minister resigned in June following evidence of misconduct. In July, 20 asylum seekers were injured in an attack on an asylum center near Oslo that may have been ethnically motivated. Tensions between the country’s Muslim community and the press resurfaced during the year over issues of freedom of expression and depictions of the Prophet Mohammad.
Norway’s constitution, the Eisvold Convention, was first adopted in 1814 during a brief period of independence after nearly four centuries of Danish rule. Subsequently, Norway became part of a Swedish-headed monarchy. The country gained independence in 1905 and has since functioned as a constitutional monarchy with a multiparty parliamentary structure. Norway became a founding member of NATO in 1949.
Norwegian citizens narrowly rejected membership in the European Union (EU) in 1972 and 1994, despite government support for joining. Norwegians wanted to preserve their sovereignty and feared that membership would threaten the country’s energy, agriculture, and fishing industries. As part of the European Economic Area, Norway has nearly full access to EU markets, and 75 percent of Norwegian exports go to EU countries. However, while Norway has adopted almost all EU directives, it has little power to influence EU decisions.
During September 2005 legislative elections, the center-left Red-Green coalition—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 of 169 seats. The previous governing bloc—a center-right coalition consisting of the Conservative Party, the Christian People’s Party, and the Liberal Party—captured only 26.8 percent of the vote and 44 seats. The other major winner in the elections was the anti-immigration Progress Party, which took 22.1 percent of the vote and 38 seats, making it the single largest opposition party in Parliament. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg reshuffled members of his coalition government in October 2007, resulting in a historic female-majority cabinet, with 10 female and 9 male ministers.
In July 2008, up to 50 men infiltrated an asylum center near Oslo wielding steel rods, knives and other weapons, injuring 20 asylum seekers. Authorities suspected that the attacks may have been ethnically motivated and came after a Kurdish asylum seeker allegedly bothered two Chechen women in the center. Overcrowding at the center—which holds 250 asylum seekers—was cited as a possible cause of the violence; there was a 30 percent increase in the number of asylum seekers in Norway in 2008 over the previous year.
Controversy over free speech resurfaced in 2008 when all of the major newspapers refused to reprint the notorious Mohammad cartoons in February along with major Danish papers out of fear of Muslim unrest. The cartoons had caused an international controversy after their first printing in Denmark in 2006, leading to protests across the Muslim world and boycotts of several Danish goods. However, Adresseavisen, a regional paper, caused outrage by publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad wearing explosives in June, in response to attacks on the Danish embassy in Pakistan earlier in the month.
Norway is an electoral democracy. The national Parliament, called the Storting, currently has 169 members, an increase of 4 over the number elected in 2001. The lawmakers are directly elected for four-year terms through a system of proportional representation. A 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 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, has its 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. The government supports Sami-language instruction, broadcast programs, and subsidized newspapers in Sami regions. A deputy minister in the national government deals specifically with Sami issues.
Norway remains one of the least corrupt countries in the world. However, isolated incidents of bribery and misconduct have occurred, and Norway’s role in the international energy and mining industries has also received particular scrutiny. In April 2008, a court sentenced businessman Ivar Henriksen with Norway’s harshest corruption sentence of eight years imprisonment for embezzling over $3 millionfrom a drilling rig contract that his Nedre Romerike Waterworks company had received; Henriksen’s son received a four-year sentence on the same charge.It was also revealed that Henriksen owned a hunting farm in South Africa that he had secretly financed with Waterworks money. Separately, the oil and energy minister, Aslaug Haga, stepped down in June when it was revealed that she had been involved in illegal building projects at her summer and permanent homes and had allegedly been involved in back-room dealing to gain support for Winter Olympics in Norway and hiring favoritism for a colleague in her party.Nevertheless, the country’s task force against economic and environmental crime revealed in August that new cases were down to 16 in 2008 from 42 the previous year. Norway was ranked 14 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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. A government ban on political advertisements, designed to ensure equal access to the media for all candidates regardless of varying resources, violates the European Convention on Human Rights, which Norway has signed. Internet access is not impeded by the government.
The monarch is the constitutional head of the official Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway, and at least 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. A course on religion and ethics focusing on Christianity is mandatory for students, but was found to be in violation of international human rights conventions, including the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights, which prompted the Norwegian government to implement curriculum reforms in 2005 and subsequently consider further reforms.Separately, in March 2006, the UN Human Rights Committee warned that the section of Norway’s constitution requiring Evangelical Lutherans to raise their children in the faith could be a breach of the ICCPR. In January 2006, a State-Church Commission had recommended abolishing the current relationship between the church and state and establishing separate systems. In April 2008, an agreement was reached stating that the country’s basic values were based on a Christian and humanistic heritage; the agreement also gives the church the power to select bishops and deans, once the power of the government. Official changes to the constitution are expected in 2009.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. Norwegians are very active in different nongovernmental and volunteer organizations. Labor unions play an important role in consulting with the government on social and economic issues, and about 60 percent of the workforce is unionized.
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 on the advice of 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 in 2008.Prison conditions generally meet international standards.
Overcrowding in asylum centers has become a concern in Norway and possibly led to the attack on an asylum center near Oslo in July 2008. The year showed nearly a 30 percent increase in asylum seekers over 2007. Polls suggest that discrimination in housing and employment against ethnic minorities is widespread. In 2006, an ombudsman for equality and antidiscrimination was established to counter ethnic and sexual bias; the new post replaced the Center against Ethnic Discrimination, which had previously dealt with these issues.
The Gender Equality Act provides equal rights for men and women. In 2005, 37 percent of the seats in the Storting were won by women, a slight increase over the previous elections. The government reshuffling in 2007 resulted in a historic female-majority cabinet. A law that took effect in 2006 requires that at least 40 percent of board members at about 500 large companies traded on Norway’s stock exchange be women. By the end of 2008, 90 percent of companies had complied with the change and the rest had received written warnings. Some companies have changed their status from publicly traded to ordinary limited to avoid compliance with the new law. Norway is a destination point for the trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The country, however, remains a leader in antitrafficking efforts, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report.