(London) – Human Rights Watch today released the following questions and answers in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Norway:
The terrorist attacks in Norway on July 22, 2011, which killed 77 people and injured more than 150 others, were a horrifying assault on the right to life. The events in Norway also highlight wider concerns about growing intolerance in Europe, the rise of far-right and populist political parties, and the often acrimonious debate about multiculturalism and integration. In the wake of this tragedy, Europe as a whole, both leaders and citizens, should ask tough questions about the risks arising from current political trends, and how best to respond while upholding human rights.
What are the risks to human rights in Europe following the Norway attacks?
The most immediate risk is that European leaders will rush to respond to the attacks with counterterrorism policies that undermine human rights.
The Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has said that the country will respond with more democracy, victims’ families have emphasized the need to respect human rights and the rule of law, and the confessed attacker is being prosecuted under the existing criminal justice system.
But in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and subsequent attacks in Madrid and London, many governments in Europe as well as the United States responded with policies that raise serious human rights concerns. These include complicity in torture, forced return of terrorism suspects to countries with poor records on torture, lengthy detention without trial, and trials that fall short of international due process standards. Governments should resist the temptation to respond to these attacks with policies that raise similar human rights concerns.
The second risk is that European leaders will clamp down on speech and political activity by those who hold views deemed “extremist” but stop short of advocating violence. Prime Minister Stoltenberg has stressed the importance of differentiating between holding extremist views and seeking to carry them out through violence. But across Europe, governments have enacted measures targeting those espousing radical forms of Islam that fail to draw that distinction. Governments in Europe should remove restrictions on non-violent speech rather than applying them more widely.
Does Europe take a consistent approach toward far-right and Islamist extremism?
When news of the attacks broke, many commentators were quick to assume (wrongly) that they were the work of an Islamist extremist or terrorist group. Over the past decade, public debate and policy have centered squarely on violent Islamism as the greatest threat to European security. Efforts to stem radicalization in the EU since 2001 have focused almost exclusively on Muslim communities, and helped create an equation—often implicit, sometimes explicit—between Islam and terrorism.
In fact the overwhelming majority of terrorist attacks in Europe are committed by domestic separatist groups, as well as left- and right-wing extremist groups or individuals. The Norway attacks are a reminder that mass casualty attacks in Europe are not confined to groups with an Islamist agenda.
At the same time, opinion surveys and political debate across Europe reveal rising xenophobia. This trend is linked to concerns about the integration of migrants, fears about loss of cultural identity, and the economic crisis. The attacker's published views suggest that his ideology shares many common characteristics with far right groups, including xenophobia and hostility toward Islam.
The March 2011 terrorism report from the EU’s police intelligence agency, Europol, asserted that the “overall threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane,” but noted that such groups were becoming more professional and that there is a risk they could gain popularity by “articulating more widespread public apprehension about immigration from Muslim countries in Europe.” It may well be that security services have overlooked the threat of organized right-wing groups, as well as the potential for increasing xenophobia around Europe to provide a fertile ground for “lone wolf” extremists bent on violence.
Isn’t the growing support of populist parties simply a reflection of democracy in action?
Populist, anti-Muslim, anti-Roma, and anti-immigrant parties have had recent electoral success across Europe. Such parties are part of government coalitions in Italy and Switzerland, have a formal cooperation agreement with the ruling coalition in the Netherlands, and have made significant gains in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. These parties made significant gains in the 2009 European Parliament elections in Hungary, the UK, and elsewhere. Marine Le Pen, daughter of the founder of the anti-immigrant National Front and current leader of the party, has been considered a strong contender for the 2012 presidential elections in France.
Meanwhile, as many political observers have noted, mainstream politicians have often responded by appropriating, rather than challenging, far-right prejudices, in some cases contending that this is the best way to minimize the appeal of extremist parties. In fact, the resulting mainstreaming of hate politics has helped legitimize and foster a climate of intolerance in which violence against Muslims, Roma, and migrants is more likely to occur.
Bans on such speech are not the answer. But mainstream politicians in Europe should exercise leadership by challenging extremist views and policy responses rather than adopting watered-down versions of them.
Isn’t it important to allow free debate about matters of public concern?
Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of an open society. Everyone, including public officials, should have the right to express even deeply offensive and hurtful opinions without fear of criminal sanction. That includes obtaining information and expressing opinions on the internet. A broad spectrum of views is vital to ensuring vibrant political debate and representation in government.
There are limits, however. Elected officials have special responsibilities, and their speech is rightfully subject to more scrutiny. Those who directly incite violence should be prosecuted. But reprehensible speech that falls short of calling for such violence should be countered politically and socially, not through the courts.
There is no evidence that the Norway killer turned to violence because he lacked a peaceful, political outlet for his views. Mainstreaming the politics of hate to appease those who might otherwise turn to violence is not the answer. Instead, European leaders should increase their vigilance concerning intolerance and hatred, whatever the origins, and address the challenges facing increasingly heterogeneous societies in Europe through policies and laws that are grounded firmly in respect for human rights. This requires encouraging open and fact-based debate, acknowledging and respecting diversity, and ensuring that no one experiences discrimination.
What do the attacks tell us about multiculturalism and integration in Europe today?
It is deeply troubling that the views of the man behind the Norway attacks in many ways echoed mainstream debate in Europe around multiculturalism and integration. Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have all recently declared that the policy of multiculturalism is a failure. A number of European governments, including the Netherlands and France have mandated integration in ways that have proven both discriminatory and counterproductive.
Much of this debate and the policy responses have focused on Europe’s increasingly visible Muslim minorities, notably through discriminatory religious dress bans in France, Belgium, parts of Germany and elsewhere.
Integration policies that require certain communities to shed fundamental aspects of their identity are unlikely to succeed. Sustainableintegration should aim at giving migrants a real stake in their new home, encouraging participation rather than exclusion. Integration requires both adjustment by newcomers and accommodation by their new communities—it is a two-way process that, to be successful, must be based on respect for diversity, and for universal human rights and equality under the law.