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Deaths Could Challenge Norway's Views On Justice

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If the shooting and bombing rampage that killed dozens of people in Norway last week had happened in the United States, the man who confessed to the assault could be facing the death penalty. Instead, the maximum sentence Anders Behring Breivik faces — at least initially — is 21 years.

The alleged crimes of Breivik, 32, have stunned people who view Norway much as the Scandinavian country views itself — as a bastion of nonviolence and social liberalism. Many are equally shocked that Breivik could get such a light sentence for the crime — although it could be extended by five-year chunks if a court ruled Breivik remained a continuing threat.

But Norway’s open views on crime and punishment date back more than a century, with the abolition in 1902 of executions in time of peace. Following World War II, Norway was a founding member and leading voice in the Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights, which, among other precepts, requires signatories to foreswear the use of the death penalty in peacetime.

The viewpoint arose out of the countless atrocities of World War II, said Nida Gelazis, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“The idea was that somehow Europeans could get along better if they could focus on institutions that create norms that bind them,” she said.

In Europe, where most countries have a much lower homicide rate than the U.S., “there’s sort of a general consensus that the death penalty is barbaric and that it is something that a modern democracy shouldn’t participate in,” she said.

“People are unwilling to support a state that has the power to take your life, regardless of the crime statistics,” she said.

Norway’s murder rate is extremely low even by European standards. The country averaged 0.69 murders per 100,000 people per year between 2006 and 2008, according to Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union. In comparison, France averaged 1.37 homicides per 100,000 perople, and Lithuania averaged 8.76 homicides per 100,000 people. The U.S. had a murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate of 5.4 per 100,000 people in 2008, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics.

Norway, like a few other European nations, has eliminated life imprisonment. Spain, Portugal and much of the former Yugoslavia have also done away with life sentences, but Norway’s maximum of just 21 years incarceration is an outlier even among the more liberal European states.

“I think it’s just a reflection of the Norwegian ethos and the Norwegian self image,” said Mike Newton, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School. Norway, he said, “doesn’t culturally tend to focus on crime and criminality and certainly not criminality of this magnitude.”

Newton said the events of last week are likely to shake things up.

“What this may do is overcome some of the cultural resistance that might have been in place of people who said simply, ‘We don’t need to worry about that,’” he said. “Well, clearly it’s been demonstrated that the Norwegians do need to worry about it.”

Newton said it is possible that if convicted, Breivik could “in theory” be held longer than 21 years. Or, the especially horrible circumstances of this case could simply prompt a change in the law before Breivik goes to trial.

“That would not be inappropriate and it would certainly not be a deprivation of fundamental human rights,” Newton said. “Even if it’s directed against a particular offense or a particular set of circumstances, that’s totally permissible.”

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