A Nordic Comeback on Human Rights

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An Icelandic flag hangs outside a shop in Reykjavik, October 27, 2016.
© 2016 AP Photo/Frank Augstein

The Nordic countries proudly express steadfast commitment to human rights as a priority in foreign policy, but have been disappointingly inconsistent in practice.

Sweden launched a feminist foreign policy in 2014 – a laudable approach that failed to have much impact in countries with serious rights abuses. Denmark and Finland focused their policies on several thematic priorities without leading on country situations. Norway, with a tradition for discrete participation in peace mediation, has avoided country-specific leadership on human rights issues except for South Sudan since 2019.

At a time when the United States has abdicated claims to leadership on human rights, the United Kingdom is preoccupied with Brexit, France is quick to lay claim to being the birthplace of human rights but largely disappoints, and Germany is concerned with keeping the EU together, the Nordics need to step up.

There are encouraging signs these countries might be ready to re-engage in denouncing grave abuses and lead international efforts for country-specific scrutiny and accountability.

And it all started with the smallest of the lot, Iceland. 

Human Rights Watch has of late been engaging with each Nordic country, encouraging them to lead on specific countries. Notwithstanding the unique circumstances leading to its election to the United Nations Human Rights Council – a seat vacated mid-term by the United States in June 2018 – Iceland has led not only the drafting and negotiating process of an important resolution on the Philippines, addressing the widespread abuses under the “war on drugs” led by President Duterte, but also a first-ever joint statement expressing concern over the widespread extrajudicial killing and other abuses of activists and human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia.

If Iceland with a population of 365,000, found the bandwidth to lead on two issues simultaneously, its larger Nordic neighbors can surely match both its courage and performance.

There are reasons to be encouraged on that front. In June, Finland supported the creation of a Libya investigation by the Human Rights Council to document violations committed by all parties and preserve evidence. Denmark, currently a member of the Council, is considering addressing ongoing rights violations by Saudi Arabia. And now that Norway has been elected to a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for the 2021-22 term, we hope it will become a principled voice for human rights and lead on country-specific situations.

In the absence of leadership by larger states, it is incumbent on smaller states, individually and collectively, to ensure that multilateral tools remain relevant to address dire human rights situations. The Nordic countries have done so in the past; it is time for them to do so again.