Last week a Norwegian court ruled that all prisoners are equal before the law and have the right to have their human rights respected. To many this was outrageous. The prisoner in question was Anders Behring Breivik. The man who in 2011 bombed the Norwegian Government Headquarters killing 8 before going on a shooting spree on Utøya Island where the Labour Youth Party were holding their summer-camp. There he killed 69 more. I could have been the 70th. Yet I stand up for Breivik’s rights as a prisoner, and as a human.
The author, Utøya survivor Bjørn Ihler, is dedicated to peace and human rights. He currently lives in Turkey.
In the public debate, in social and professional media, among politicians and even lawyers there has been much confusion, frustration and outrage over Breivik getting his day in court. Much of this is due to what can be described as Breivik’s untimely whining over issues unrelated to the legal core of the case, such as having to eat microwaved meals and having an old Playstation.
Others were outraged because of the scope and nature of Breivik’s past crimes. Those outraged by that forget that Breivik has already stood trial for his crimes in 2012. This time he was suing the government for committing crimes against him by giving punishment in addition to what had previously been his sentence.
Breivik has certainly fuelled the outrage and confusion, and did a good job of undermining his own case in the courtroom. It has demanded a show of strength on the part of the judge and the Norwegian legal system to show that the court was capable of looking past all the noise and Breivik’s past crimes, to thoroughly consider the issues.
Breivik sued the state for breaking with The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), an agreement protecting human rights, specifically Article 3 and 8. The court ruled in favour of Breivik in the case of Article 3, which prohibits torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. These are very serious allegations, not as many seem to think merely a case of whining and wanting attention, even though such motivation might very well also have played its part for the plaintiff.
A key elements in the court's ruling was the fact that Breivik has been isolated for almost five years, only interacting with the very few visitors he has had, including his lawyers, through a glass wall. This was viewed in the context of his mental health situation. The court also found that Breivik had been subjected to regular strip searches that were not founded in security concerns. In the context of the overall aspect of his situation in prison this was seen as degrading treatment as determined by the convention.
Breivik did not win in the case of article 8 which concerns respect for privacy in his family life, home and his correspondence. He was in other words not ruled free to communicate freely with supporters and others on the outside. This was based on the fact that the heavy control of Breivik’s correspondence is considered a reasonable prevention of terrorism, even in instances where he’s communicating with close relatives.
What the ruling shows is that the courts of Norway takes their own principles, and the human rights of its prisoners seriously. This was illustrated by the court taking the case in the first place, and by the fact that the court ruled that the State has to pay the costs of the trial for Breivik. Again something that has caused outrage, but a measure taken by the court to ensure that every prisoner, even those, like Breivik, who would be unable to cover the costs of a trial, has the right and ability to get a hearing if there is cause for concern over their human rights.
To me it has been important to stay true to the principles I held before the attack in 2011 in my process of recovery and in reconciling myself with what happened. These are principles that led me to politics and the summer-camp in the first place. Principles Breivik directly attacked through his actions and manifesto. Right after the attack, Norwegians stood shoulder to shoulder, declaring in the name of the founding principles of humanity that; we should fight terror with more democracy, more openness and more humanity.
To go to the lengths we have gone in this case shows that we are trying to stay true to these principles, while the court at the same time rules that we could get better at it. The ruling shows strength. It shows an unwillingness to let terror change who we are and how our society works. It shows that all are equal before the law, that that we’re all worthy of the same human rights, that the legal system is available for all and that we’re all under the protection of the law. It shows that we are all equally human, regardless of who we are, a key element as we proceed in our fight against terrorism across the world.
After the attack I have devoted myself to doing whatever is in my power to make sure others don’t have to live through what I lived through in 2011. To me that has been the best way of honouring those we lost, and those we still lose to violent extremists across the world. It’s evident from what I’ve learnt through my work, my research, interactions with former extremists, and from the growth of the following of both Da’esh and far right extremist groups across the western world that we have to reconsider the way in which we react to violent extremism. The war on terrorism failed. Violence only breeds more violence and it’s our job to break the cycle.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t defend ourselves against direct threats and attacks, but it’s time we find less repressive, more long-term solutions. We consistently fail at doing that, by responding to terror with wars, mass surveillance, profiling, racism, and hatred founded in sensationalist journalism and the outrageous messages of right wing populist politicians. Instead we should respond with humanity and stability, and by staying true to the principles we built our democracies on. Principles of equality. This also extends to those who wish to break down our democracies through violence.
By fighting for the human rights of Breivik we lead by example. We send a strong message that we see the humanity of everyone, even those we strongly disagree with, our enemies even. Maybe it can inspire less democratic countries than Norway, maybe it can inspire those who reject our values and prompt us to feel inclusive to those who feel excluded. They have the same right to human rights, and to justice as everyone else. We already have measures in place to deal with terrorists and other criminals, we have a justice system founded in democratic principles. In this case it’s been put to the test, and this trial shows that it passes that test.
To many this stance has been surprising, and I understand that. In 2011 I lost friends to Breivik, he took aim at me and his bullets barely missed me. He could have killed me. Many suggest that torture and capital punishment would be appropriate responses, but to me that would be sinking to the levels of terrorists. It wouldn’t serve any purpose to take another life. Breivik did what he did because he thought it was justified. Would we be any better if we did the same to him thinking we were justified? I refuse to follow the path of terrorists.
People ask how we can find justice after something like the 2011 attack. My answer is usually that we can’t, but we can learn to reconcile with it, we can fight against violent extremism, and live on knowing that we didn’t let this change who we are. To me the impact of Breivik’s crimes would have been greater, and the loss of his victims even more painful if he through his heinous acts had been able to change who I am and the principles I believe in.
With our humanity in hand it’s time we look to the future and break out of the cycle of violence. It’s time we stand up and clearly say that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that we all are created equal, regardless of our crimes, what religion we belong to, what the colour of our skin is or where we might have come from, that we are endowed with certain unalienable Rights. Only through that can we in the long term build peaceful societies and put an end to violent extremism.