Towards a stronger and more focused Norwegian human rights policy?
by Hilde Selbervik, CHR-Michelsen Institute, Norway May 1998

In October 1997, the newly elected Norwegian coalition government (of Christian Democrats, Liberals, and the Centre Party) appointed Ms. Hilde Frafjord Johnson as Minister of International Development and Human Rights; the first special Minister for Human Rights in the world. This change led to some adjustments within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

What do they mean in terms of the role and importance of human rights in Norwegian aid and foreign policy? What were the motives behind these changes? Can we expect a stronger, more focused, indeed more uncompromising human rights policy on the part of the Norwegian government, or are the changes merely cosmetic?

The new minister is subordinate to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, within the same ministry. The post replaces that of the former Minister of Development Co-operation but the portfolio comprises more than just bilateral and multilateral aid. Responsibility for human rights issues and humanitarian assistance has been transferred and added to aid in general. It previously rested on the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Now, human rights and humanitarian assistance have been united in a subsection under the new minister.

The appointment of a special Minister of Human Rights suggests that the new government intends to accord higher priority to human rights issues. This has been confirmed by the Prime Minister.

The broader definition of the ministerial portfolio also implies a strengthening of the position of the erstwhile aid minister, whose prestige was low. With its limited area of responsibility, the minister was often characterised as ‘stinking rich, but politically irrelevant’. This appears to have changed, since there was even competition for the new post among the coalition partners!

It is particularly peace negotiation, humanitarian assistance, and conflict resolution that have given Norway some international prestige. Conservative political commentators, however, basing their judgement on a rather narrow definition of foreign policy, have been highly critical of the Norwegian high profile on humanitarian issues, arguing that traditional foreign policy concerns have been neglected. These critics may welcome the recent change because it will leave the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proper to concentrate on the ‘real’ issues.

At the same time, human rights activists are satisfied that more prestige has been added to human rights.

In sum then, are the changes welcomed in all quarters? Hardly. Transferring responsibility for the very sensitive and difficult area of human rights from the Minister of Foreign Affairs to a ‘junior’ minister, may be construed as a degradation of human rights issues, even if this was not the intention. Acquiring a stronger position for handling high profile issues, is not likely to compensate for the reality of what is a junior position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For human rights there are obvious dangers. When the Minister of Foreign Affairs is relieved of responsibility for human rights, it may reinforce the predominance of hard foreign policy issues, such as the interests of Norwegian foreign trade and investment, and correspondingly weaken the case of soft issues such as human rights. Even though the new centrist government has issued fairly strong statements that such developments are not intended, this may become an unintended consequence.

What were the motives behind the changes? There is no reason to question the government’s intentions and seek hidden agendas or sinister motives behind the move. The new government has in fact increased both capacity and competence on these issues within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and development co-operation and human rights have always been matters very close to the heart of the Christian Democrats, who are the dominant partner in the coalition. This party holds the position of Prime Minister, as well as those of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minster of International Development and Human Rights. The Christian Democrats are thus in a strong position to influence the coalition’s foreign policy.

An often stylised and oversimplified discourse within the study of foreign policy centres on whether foreign policy is driven by idealism or self-interest. Of course, in all countries there are elements of both. It is rather a question of scale, emphasis and degree. It is often claimed and rarely disputed, that like-minded countries pursue a foreign policy driven more by idealism and humanitarianism than bigger countries such as the US and Britain, whose security and commercial interests have been more dominant.

Can the recent changes within the Norwegian Foreign Ministry be interpreted as a move by the new government towards even greater emphasis on idealism in foreign policy? Or are the so-called like-minded countries in 1990s also increasing their commercial interests in developing countries, to the extent that they will be confronted with the same dilemmas as the bigger powers?

It has been suggested that the policy of the new government might indicate a shift towards a firmer policy in favour of humanitarian efforts, in contrast to that of the former Labour government’s, which was based on a more pragmatic mix of humanitarianism and national self-interests.

It was the previous Labour government, which gave content to the so-called ‘Norwegian model’. This model is based on the view that in the pursuit of Norwegian interests, idealism and self-interests can go hand in hand, in contrast to bigger donors which are confronted with too many conflicting interests, which a small state like Norway is free of.

The former Deputy Foreign Minister, Jan Egeland, who personally played a prominent role in peace-making and conflict management in the previous government, has elaborated this view in his book Impotent Superpower – Potent Small State, written years before he entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The argument is that for a small state humanitarian commitment will function as a tool to unite self-interest and idealism. An ethical foreign policy stance is seen as a vehicle for giving Norway influence in more important international forums.

The main difference between the former Labour government and the current coalition, might be that the latter admits that there might be a conflict between a country’s self-interest and its humanitarian goals. In Ms. Frafjord’s statement to the Norwegian parliament in January this year she stated her government’s priority: “we must be prepared to pay a price for our policy, in both economic and political terms. In certain situations our giving priority to human rights may have a cost in the form of lost opportunity for Norwegian firms”.

Immediately before visiting China last year, the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, to be accompanied by a group of prominent representatives of the Norwegian business community, stated unequivocally that human rights concerns would take precedence over trade and business interests. After arriving in China he was no longer so sure.

This may be a sophisticated form of the art of silent diplomacy, or perhaps it is what silent diplomacy is all about. It does not seems like a change towards a more principled stand on these issues. It is more likely an acknowledgement of the truism that idealism and self-interests are not always compatible after all. When economic interests are at stake they always come first. But since the new government has been in operation for just a few months, drawing firm conclusions is premature.