Between activism and ambivalence: The Nordic states and international human rights

by Johan K. Schaffer

Paper to be presented at the Workshop for Inter-disciplinary Researchers „Mobilization of Law in Pluralistic Society,“ 19-20 May 2017, Evangelische Hochschule Berlin (Protestant University of Applied Sciences, Berlin)

In this paper, I ask why Nordic governments seem no longer to be forerunners in the expansion of the international human rights regime, in light of their historical engagement. Existing research tends to portray the Nordics as exceptional in terms of either their international commitment to human rights norms, or their domestic reluctance toward constitutionalism, judicial review and legal individual rights, and grounds their exceptionalism in deep-seated value traditions within Nordic societies.

This paper instead argues that the Nordic states’ external and internal rights policies are interconnected, and can better be understood as resulting from a multi-level, dynamic process in which societal agents actively mobilize ideas which, to the extent their advocates are successful, become entrenched in domestic and foreign policy. Moreover, this politics takes place not only within five polities evolving from strong, corporatist welfare states to globalized, pluralist societies, but also within a changing international landscape, where the international human rights regime has successively expanded its mandate and membership, sometimes beyond what its founding members intended or even anticipated.

The paper covers the Nordic states’ changing role vis-à-vis the global and European human rights regime over the long purée, and the effect this role change has had for domestic politics: Cautious prudence in the founding years after the Second World War; increasing foreign policy activism for human rights combined with mobilizing the doctrine of dualism as a domestic bulwark expanding international law from the 1960s; denial and anger when the boomerang hit back in the 1980s, as international human rights bodies handed down their first judgments against Nordic states; and, from the 1990s and onward, a gradual domestic institutionalization, at varied pace, of international human rights norms in constitutional and legal practice, opening up new arenas for political contestation through legal mobilization.

The paper concludes by discussing what this domestic constitutionalisation of international human rights norms may imply for the Nordic states’ internal and external human rights policies in the future.


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