08/05/2011 02:50 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2011

Lessons From Norway

Two weeks on, Norway is still reeling from the extraordinary and horrifying attacks that killed 77 people and injured 150 others. However, these events raise issues beyond Norway -- about growing intolerance across Europe, the rise of far-right and populist political parties, as well as the vexed questions of multiculturalism and integration.

One immediate risk is that European leaders will rush to respond to the attacks with counterterrorism or criminal justice policies that undermine human rights. To his credit, the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has said that the country will respond to the atrocities by strengthening, not weakening, its commitment to democratic principles. The victims' families have also emphasized the need to respect human rights and the rule of law, and the confessed attacker is being prosecuted under Norway's existing justice system.

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 undermined -- sometimes grievously -- international human rights standards and commitments. This included complicity in torture, forced return of terrorism suspects to countries with poor records on torture, lengthy detention without trial, and trials that fell well short of international due process standards. In the light of events in Norway, it is important for governments to avoid repeating these errors.

A second risk is that European leaders will go too far to curtail free speech or political activity by those who hold views deemed "extremist" but stop short of advocating violence. Again, Prime Minister Stoltenberg has stressed the importance of differentiating between holding extremist views and seeking to carry them out through violence. Over the last decade, however, many European governments have brought in measures to target radical forms of Islam that fail to draw that distinction. Extreme views that do not directly incite violence are best countered through robust debate, rather than by limitations on free speech.

The events in Norway also raise issues about the consistency of response to different types of extremism. When news of the Norway attacks first broke, many commentators were quick to assume that they were the work of an Islamist extremist or terrorist group. Over the past decade, public debate and policy have focused very heavily on violent Islamism as the greatest perceived 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. However, 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.

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.

A 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 given insufficient attention to 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.

It is also worth noting that some 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.

Worryingly, mainstream politicians in Europe 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.

It is also 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, France, and Belgium have mandated integration in ways that have proven both discriminatory and counterproductive, for example through bans on certain forms of religious dress.

Effective integration should aim at giving migrants a real stake in their new home, encouraging participation rather than exclusion. Integration requires 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, but also for universal human rights and equality under the law.

The people of Norway have shown remarkable courage and good sense in their early response to the terrible attacks in Oslo and on Otaya Island. Elsewhere in Europe, we should take note, avoid the knee-jerk responses that have proven so counter-productive in the recent past, think more intelligently about countering extremism in all its forms, and do more to promote justice, rights and social cohesion.

David Mepham is UK director at Human Rights Watch.