Anniken Huitfeldt, Norwegian Minister of Children and Equality
20 April 2009
Interview in Norwegian
1. What specific measures have been taken at the national level to combat racism and discrimination in Norway?
In many areas Norway has been a front runner, both in the Nordic and European setting, when it comes to adopting measures to combat discrimination and promote equality.
The fight for equality and against discrimination, have always been important. This is also the case for the Government I represent. Real and genuine equal opportunities provide for the optimal utilization of human resources and capacities regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.
A strong legal protection against discrimination is essential, but not sufficient to ensure equality in key social arenas.
In order to obtain a better, co-ordinated and more efficient approach across all the different discrimination grounds, the Government decided in 2007 to bring both equal opportunities and non-discrimination under the same roof, and awarded the Ministry of Children and Equality with the corresponding tasks and competences. This means that discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, ethnic origin, religion etc. is gathered in one Ministry.
An important milestone in the fight against discrimination in Norway was achieved with the Discrimination law and the establishment of a National Equality and Discrimination Ombud / body. The legal protection against discrimination has been strengthened through a new law on discrimination and accessibility. The law is set to counteract discrimination of persons with disabilities in all areas of society.
Today, protection against discrimination on the basis of personal characteristics or perceptions is scattered throughout different laws. This is neither rational nor appropriate.
Therefore, I very much look forward to the proposal of the Legal Committee on Discrimination for a more encompassing and coherent legislation on discrimination due to be presented by 1 July 2009.
Various governments in Norway have put forward action plans against racism and discrimination in order to strengthen efforts in this field. Work against discrimination is closely linked to government efforts to promote integration and inclusion of the immigrant population in the labour market and in schools and education. In 2006, a separate Directorate of Integration and Diversity was established.
Preventing discrimination also means that society should offer minorities the same protection as the majority population. The Government is therefore working actively against oppressive and discriminatory practices, such as violence, forced marriages and genital mutilations, within minority communities.
The Government will shortly submit a new plan of action to promote equality and prevent ethnic discrimination running from 2009 to 2012. A goal with a new action plan is to increase awareness of the need for active measures to promote equality and prevent discrimination. Moreover, it is a goal to contribute to the best possible implementation of the new activities and reporting which is introduced in discrimination law from 1.1.2009 , and in accordance with the so called Activity and Reporting Commitments (ARCs) of the Gender Equality Act. The new duty requires public authorities, private and public employers and employment agencies to work actively to promote equality and prevent discrimination. Should we succeed in the fight against discrimination, the ARCs must be given high priority. They must be integrated in the ongoing efforts in all businesses, and the work must be ensured a good foundation.
2. How would you assess the current level of discrimination in Norway?
To measure the nature, extent and causes of discrimination is difficult. No one can give a precise estimate of the extent of discrimination in Norway . Besides, much discrimination is indirect and difficult to uncover.
In many contexts it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between inequality caused by lawful treatment and inequality due to improper treatment.
There is well developed data in Norway about the living situation of immigrants and Norwegian-born with immigrant parents. However, differences in living conditions between different groups are not a proof that discrimination occurs. To count the number of decisions from the Equality and discrimination ombud / Committee will not provide an adequate description of the scope of discrimination, because the threshold for submitting a complaint on discrimination is often high.
In Norway we also have recent data on perception of discrimination, but these data do not say anything about how many of the subjective experiences that is actually discrimination.
I believe we just have to live with the fact, that it is difficult to measure discrimination. By using different methods and data sources we can get an indication of the nature and extent of discrimination in Norway , and where efforts should be directed. This is really what occupies the government. To increase knowledge about the nature, scope, and not least the reasons for discrimination will be central in the new action plan.
3. How would you assess the national acceptance of cultural diversity in Norway?
Again, it is difficult to give a precise answer. The annually conducted survey on popular attitudes to immigrants and immigration may give some indication. The survey by third quarter of 2008 shows that:
• Three of four of the population do fully or fairly agree that "most immigrants make a useful effort in Norway ".
• Seven out of ten do completely or partially agree that "most immigrants enrich the cultural life in Norway ".
• The proportion showing aversions against getting an immigrant as neighbour is six percent.
This survey also contains questions that can be compared with the European Social Survey, and it shows that Norway is ranked as one of the more tolerant countries in terms of attitudes towards immigration.
4. How have cultural organisations and political groups responded to the challenges of diversity in Norway?
The government's starting point is that diversity in the population is a resource and a source of development and renewal. There is a democratic problem if groups in the population of Norway are excluded or under-represented in key areas of society. The government is working for Norway to be an inclusive society, where everyone has equal opportunities to contribute and to participate in work and in society.
The public and political debate in Norway shows that issues related to immigration, integration, racism and discrimination are of great interest to many. Views and opinions are split and the debates have at times reached a rather high temperature.
The fact that Norway has become a multicultural society puts politicians in front off new challenges and dilemmas with political, cultural and religious connotations. What do you do when minority norms and values are not compatible with those of the majority? This is especially challenging when issues such as gender and gender equality, recognition of homosexuals rights, women's right to decide over their own body and sexuality and freedom of speech is taken up for debate. Never the less, we need to remain confirm in assessing that Norwegian law applies in Norway . Minorities who live in Norway must be ensured the same protection against discrimination and oppressive practices that the rest of the population.
I believe it is important that these issues are being debated. Debates can give us new insights and understanding of the dilemmas we face. The debate is also about the society we want.
At times we are experiencing that some political parties in Norway are flagging intensely their restrictive attitudes towards immigrants and immigration during political deliberations. The biggest challenge is then that the debate easily ends up with generalizations and stereotypical descriptions of persons with minority background. It has also been a tendency in the public debate to link Muslims on the one hand with terrorism and violence of the other. Further more, the media writing on minorities and minority groups, has not always served to challenge stereotypes and generalizations either.
5. What contribution can Norway’s experience of cultural diversity make to the fight against discrimination at the European level?
First of all, I think that the action plans for actively combating discrimination is an important tool in the fight against discrimination. The agenda will be set for the “Fight Against Discrimination” and numerous stakeholders will be committed to this important work.
Secondly, I will demonstrate that the government is cooperating with the social partners to combat discrimination in employment and to ensure the increased recruitment of minorities to both public and private sectors. This is extremely important in order to reach out to as many employers as possible.
Open dialogue and contact between authorities and representatives of immigrant organizations, minorities and different communities of faith and life philosophies are also a priority strategy for the government in its efforts to prevent the formation of enemy images and to prevent conflicts.
The ECRI 4 Country Report on Norway (2009) highlights the fact that Norway has made a commendable effort to combat rightwing-extremist groups. What we call “Worry Conversations” is a structured tool for police conversations with youth and their parents about risky behaviour. The purpose of these talks is to make young people aware of the consequences of belonging to a right extreme environment and to achieve that kids are pulling out. The results have been very positive.
6. How can the Council of Europe 's campaign "Speak Out Against Discrimination" help in the fight against discrimination?
The media is, through the range and scope of information, contributing to the shaping of society's attitudes towards minorities. For many, the media image conveyed will be the only knowledge they have of persons with minority background. This gives the media a huge responsibility.
Positive: The media can therefore play an important role in shading and breaking down stereotypical attitudes and prejudices, and to expose abuse and discrimination.
Negative: On the other hand, fierce competition between media companies and the fight for readers and viewers quite often gives way to simplification, aggression and confrontation in the media. To the extent this means that minorities primarily are being described in negative contexts, the media acts contra-productive by maintaining and reinforcing tendencies of xenophobia, social distance and discrimination.
Possible action: First and foremost, this is the question of knowledge and attitudes. It is therefore important that the media and media organizations are working actively with information and awareness in this area - possibly in cooperation with authorities in this area. Recruitment of journalists with minority background can also be an important contribution. The Council of Europe anti-discrimination campaign focuses precisely on these issues and can therefore be a positive and important initiative to promote tolerance and combat discrimination.
If the minorities should have the opportunity to participate actively and on equal terms in society, it is essential that the media reflects the diversity of the population. Minorities must have the ability to reach the public with their views and their information. This will contribute to transparency and "normalization" of minorities, and thereby facilitate the integration into society. Objective and balanced dissemination of information about immigrant groups is practically the best protection against discrimination and harassment.
7.Looking to the future, what are the prospects for improved social cohesion in Norway?
I'm pretty optimistic, primarily because the government conducts an active policy to reduce the differences in society. The Government will abolish poverty by enhancing the public safety net. Work and participation in the labour market is in general the most important means to reduce social differences. The fight against unemployment is therefore a high priority task
Compared with many other countries in Europe, unemployment in Norway is very low despite the financial crisis. Per 4 quarter of 2008: 1.5 percent among the population outside the immigrant group was registered unemployment. Among the immigrants 4.8 percent was unemployment.
Despite low unemployment figures, we know that some groups in society have greater problems in the labour market than others. The objective of an inclusive working life is therefore still important.
Nobody shall be treated differently on the basis of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, colour, disability or sexual orientation.
Besides, the welfare society of the future will be completely dependent on everybody`s opportunities to take out their full potential.