Survivors’ anger as Breivik wins rights case

Restrained? Breivik has access to separate cells for living, study and exercise. © PA

Anders Breivik killed 77 in a terrorist attack. A court has ruled that his human rights have been violated in prison. Should society’s worst criminals enjoy the same rights as everyone else?

On July 22nd 2011, Anders Breivik left his mother’s flat in Oslo, changed into a police uniform and drove a van full of explosives into the city centre. The explosion killed eight people. Later that day, he shot dead 69 more — mostly teenagers — at a left-wing party’s youth camp on Utoya island.

In 2012 Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison. He has remained unrepentant and called on others to emulate him.

Last week he fought the Norwegian state again, in court. He argued that his prison regime amounted to ‘inhuman or degrading punishment’ and contravened the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

He said he had been kept alone in his cell for 22 to 23 hours each day, awoken at half-hour intervals during the night over a long period and subjected to strip searches with female officers present. He complained about microwave meals, cold coffee and plastic cutlery. On Wednesday the court ruled in his favour.

One survivor said a ‘unique’ inmate had been able ‘to use the system against us’. A victim’s parent said: ‘The word pathetic comes to mind, because he has caused so much pain, grief and loss.’

But one survivor, Bjorn Ihler, agreed with the decision. ‘Breivik denied us our humanity and our human rights,’ he said. ‘That does not make it right for us to deny him the same thing.’

In countries such as the UK, Norway’s prison system is seen as liberal and the ECHR is controversial. But the judge in Breivik’s case said the right not to be subjected to inhuman treatment was ‘a fundamental value in a democratic society’ which applied to everyone — including ‘terrorists and killers’.

Her words echoed the moral absolutism of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, who believed in a universal law — an abstract moral code that could be applied in any possible set of circumstances. In contrast, rule consequentialists such as George Berkeley have argued the morality of an action is determined only by the consequences it has.

Should Breivik enjoy the same rights as any other prisoner?

Rights and wrongs

Yes, say absolutists. The law must be applied dispassionately. When we allow our basest instincts to dictate how we treat criminals, we enter uncertain moral territory and create the opportunity for abuses of power. Only when the rights of those society despises most are valued can we be sure that our own rights are secure.

That is absurd, respond consequentialists. It is immoral to defend a mass murderer against the consequences of his actions. The court’s decision will cause the innocents affected by the massacre much more pain than Breivik could ever suffer. Breivik’s crime was the worst terrorist attack in peacetime Norway; he should be punished accordingly.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever be willing to deny one particular person the rights you would grant to anyone else?
  2. Is it moral for society to be governed by an abstract legal code, or one which responds to individual circumstances?


  1. Work in groups of three: a lawyer for Breivik, a lawyer for the Norwegian government, and a judge. Lawyers: each deliver a one-minute speech arguing your case. Judge: decide who is right and sum up your ruling in one minute.
  2. Choose a different controversial legal case to research. Write a one-page summary explaining how it would be viewed by moral absolutists and rule consequentialists, and why.

Some People Say...

“There are no absolute rights.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Breivik is in prison. Shouldn’t we just forget about him?
The Breivik case is unlikely to have affected you directly. But it would be odd not to feel contempt for a man who destroyed so many people’s lives; on the other hand, you may feel the curtailing of anyone’s rights is a threat to your own.
Could the courts have to make a similar decision in my country?
After the massacre, others in Europe who sympathised with Breivik’s neo-Nazi ideology were arrested while planning attacks. Judges in democratic countries have to make decisions about criminals’ welfare regularly. When they do, they have to balance the rights of the individual with the good of the society around them. If someone you know was affected by a crime, the moral questions Kant and Berkeley asked would be very relevant.

Word Watch

The Workers’ Youth League, affiliated to Norway’s Labour Party.
He has given Nazi salutes in court and promised to fight ‘to the death’ for Nazism.
Article three of the convention says: ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’
The prison service says he is not in solitary confinement, but ‘excluded from the company of other prisoners’ — as he uses up an entire block. He can move freely between three cells and has access to newspapers, television and a Playstation 2.
Microwave meals
‘Sometimes I’ve been fed the same microwave meal two days in a row,’ he said at one point. ‘It might sound comical to you, but it’s worse than waterboarding.’
Breivik described his own 21-year sentence as ‘pathetic’, adding he should either be acquitted or executed.
The convention has been used in four rulings against the UK’s ban on prisoner voting. Between 2010 and 2012 it also prevented the government from extraditing a terrorism suspect to the USA, on the grounds he could be treated inhumanely.

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