2012 marks the 15th anniversary of the Sino-Norwegian Human Rights Dialogue, which created a forum for individual cases to be raised and field visits to be conducted. The dialogue was suspended in 2011 following the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) in December 2010. Just months before the prize was unveiled, however, exchange between China and Norway was thriving.

China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai (right) and Norway’s then State Secretary Raymond Johansen at the 2006 Sino-Norwegian Human Rights Dialogue. Photo credit: Kristoffer Ronneberg

Following the 13th Sino-Norwegian dialogue in June 2010, a Chinese delegation from the Central Institute for Correctional Police went to Norway for six days to visit a court of appeal, a prison, and police and correctional training institutes as well as to discuss prisoner rights and human rights with an advisor to the Parliamentary Ombudsman for Public Administration. Describing the visit in a report published in an academic journal, a Chinese delegate wrote that “Norway made this visit a high priority, providing a thorough and jam-packed itinerary.” [Original text: 挪威方面对本次考察访问非常重视,访问日程安排周密紧凑—Ed.]

On a visit to Norway’s largest women’s prison in March 2012, Dui Hua met Bredtveit Prison Governor Hilde Lundeby, who participated in three Sino-Norwegian dialogues between 1997 and 2006. She attended field visits to Chinese prisons and served as the head of the dialogue’s working group on detainees’ rights. Lundeby told Dui Hua that during past dialogues, preventive detention—confinement that can be carried out indefinitely in order to protect society, rather than to punish a crime—sparked much interest and criticism from Chinese delegates.

Chinese feedback was not specified, but the use of the practice inside and outside Norway has raised a number of human rights concerns. A few of these concerns include the scope of application, the psychological toll of indefinite incarceration, abuse of the vague and changing definition of “security,” and whether adequate measures for rehabilitation are provided. In the spirit of dialogue and the rights of detained people, Dui Hua shares what it learned about preventive detention through exchange with Norway.

Participants at the 6th Sino-Norwegian Human Rights Dialogue in Beijing in 2006. Photo credit: Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Preventive Detention

Prioritizing rehabilitation over punishment, Norway has abolished the death penalty and chosen 21 years as its maximum sentence of unconditional imprisonment. That does not mean, however, that 21 years is the longest period a person can spend in prison. Under preventive detention, known as forvaring in Norway and Denmark, prison terms can become indefinite, with the stated purpose of protecting society from individuals seen as creating a high risk of re-offense.

Before giving a sentence of preventative detention, a social inquiry must be made. Forvaring may be imposed where (1) a person is found guilty of having committed or attempted to commit either (a) a serious felony that impairs or risks the life, health, or liberty of others, or (b) a less serious felony, in the event that the person previously committed or attempted to commit a serious felony as specified in (a), and (2) it is deemed that there is an imminent risk that the person will commit another felony. (While Norway allows for first-time offenders to be given sentences of preventive detention, Denmark limits the measure to those who have repeatedly committed serious crimes.)

In May 2011, there were 73 people in preventive detention in Norway. The majority, 62 men, was at Ila Prison and Preventive Detention Centre—Chinese delegates visited this facility as part of a bilateral rights dialogue in 1999. One woman was at Bredtveit Prison, the only women’s prison designated to carry out the sanction. When Dui Hua visited that facility in March 2012, there were two women in preventive detention.


When imposing forvaring, the court sets a minimum term (not exceeding 10 years) and a maximum term (usually not exceeding 15 years and in no event exceeding 21 years). After serving the minimum term, a person may apply for and receive probation for a period of 1–5 years at the consent of the prosecuting authority, prison, and probation service. Where consent is not provided, the court either accepts the application or rejects it with the condition that the individual cannot re-submit an application for one year.

People who are not granted probation are not guaranteed release after completing the maximum term originally established by the court. No later than three months before the end of that term, the court may extend it, on application by the prosecuting authority, by up to five years. These extensions can be repeated indefinitely.

International Response

In its General Comment No. 8 (1982) on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights enumerates the conditions under which preventive detention ensures people’s right to liberty. Among these conditions are that it is not arbitrary and that court control is available.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has raised concerns about the reliance of Norwegian courts on information provided by correctional services when reviewing sentence extensions. In an October 2007 report on its mission to Norway, the working group stated that it “appears to be difficult” for people to have extensions reversed on appeal. In contrast, the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture (CPT) reported in December 2011 that the procedures for release, including probation, had been made in conformity with legal requirements and that, “in a significant number of cases,” courts had granted release despite negative assessments by the prison and probation service.

WGAD also raised concerns about the possibility of indefinite detention and uncertain release dates. However, CPT noted that detailed and individualized treatment plans were made during “thorough” intake assessments and were reviewed in annual progress reports. Both WGAD and CPT found that a variety of programs were available for treatment and preparation for release (e.g., cognitive programs and conversation groups tailored for people who have committed violent or sex offenses and for people battling drug addiction). Such plans and programs presumably facilitate reentry, but CPT was told that “due to severe learning disabilities, a number of inmates were not effectively able to benefit” from the programs that are a prerequisite for release. The European body asked Norwegian authorities to provide more information.

International reviews of Norwegian implementation indicate that while forvaring does make indefinite detention a real possibility—the WGAD raised the case of one person who died during preventive detention—it does so with less finality than life without parole in the US and the death penalty in the US and China. Norwegian practice also provides cues for balancing public safety, rehabilitative justice, and the right to liberty.

Returning to Dialogue

Participants at the 13th Sino-Norwegian Human Rights Dialogue in Beijing in 2010. Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC

To mark the 10-year anniversary of the Sino-Norwegian Human Rights Dialogue, a summary was produced to describe its structure, programs, and participants. The document distinguishes a “dialogue” from a “discussion” by stating that “a ‘dialogue’ is recognised by a lack of persuasive measures and a willingness to see the other side of the matter.”

For the Chinese side, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize caused a “serious setback” in China-Norway relations, and Norway has been trying to overcome this setback ever since. By October 2011, relations were still at “an all-time low,” but Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre expressed resolve to “move forward in mutual respect” after having “listened to China’s reactions and [having] considered what [had] been said.” In the case of China-Norway relations, moving forward may require stepping back: to reinstate bilateral dialogues and reestablish the ties forged therein.