The Reluctant Activists: The Scandinavian States and International Human Rights

53 Pages Posted: 17 Nov 2017 Last revised: 18 Oct 2018

See all articles by Johan Karlsson Schaffer

Johan Karlsson Schaffer

University of Gothenburg - School of Global Studies; University of Oslo - Faculty of Law

Date Written: October 12, 2018


How to account for the Nordic states’ varying commitment to international human rights (IHR) norms? Previous scholarship has pointed to values of solidarity and equality prevalent in domestic culture to explain why the Nordic states are – supposedly – exceptionally supportive of IHR. This paper instead argues that states’ participation in IHR regimes is shaped by how governments assess the domestic consequences of commitment, which may change due to both international and domestic developments. Against this theoretical backdrop, the paper analyses how Denmark, Norway and Sweden have interacted with the global and European human rights regime over the longue durée: After the Second World War, they cautiously participated in founding the United Nations’ and Council of Europe human rights regimes, and ratified human rights instruments on the presumption that they would not disrupt internal affairs. From the 1960s, Scandinavian governments increased their internationalist activism, while mobilizing the doctrine of dualism to shield the domestic sphere against international law. However, following the increased domestic impact of IHR law and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights in the 1980s and ’90s, strengthened domestic rights enforcement has made Scandinavian governments more reluctant to expanding their IHR commitments.

Keywords: Council of Europe, European Convention on Human Rights, human rights, Nordic states, Scandinavia, treaty ratification, United Nations.

Suggested Citation

Karlsson Schaffer, Johan, The Reluctant Activists: The Scandinavian States and International Human Rights (October 12, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Johan Karlsson Schaffer (Contact Author)

University of Gothenburg - School of Global Studies ( email )

POB 700
Gothenburg, SE 40530

University of Oslo - Faculty of Law ( email )

PO Box 6706 St Olavsplass
Oslo, 0130

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