Almost as soon as the handcuffs came off, Anders Behring Breivik delivered a Nazi salute to the courtroom gathered for his lawsuit against the Norwegian state. He is about as loathsome as it gets—a white supremacist mass murderer, taking every opportunity to spread a message of hate. In 2011, Breivik massacred a summer camp of teenaged leaders and bombed a government building. He claimed he was saving Norway from Marxists and Muslims. The attacks left 77 dead; 33 were under the age of 18. They remain among the most horrific and heinous attacks in recent European memory.
In a head-spinning turn, Breivik was in court to argue that his human rights were being violated by the Norwegian prison system. Last Wednesday, a court in Oslo ruled in his favor. (Today, the Norwegian government appealed the ruling, but it seems likely to stand in higher courts as well.) For the past five years, Breivik had been kept isolated from other prisoners—a condition which he argued was a violation of his human rights according to Articles 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The ruling has ignited responses from around the world. Many have scoffed at the conditions which Breivik has argued are inhumane: his coffee is lukewarm, he eats microwave dinners which are “worse than waterboarding,” and his three-room prison cell includes a TV, a computer (without internet) and video games, but not the latest version of Playstation. Breivik has claimed that the notoriously humane and progressive prison system in Norway is in fact the most torturous in the Western world.
The general public response has been that it is exceptionally difficult to feel sorry for Breivik. One video with nearly 75,000 views shows Twitter responses: “You killed 77 people you’re not at summer camp,” says one. “What a world. Breivik and human rights in the same sentence,” says another. Photos of his cell, which appears more like the dorm room of a university student in a wealthy Western country than prison lodging, have been shared by the thousands, accompanied by incredulity at the audacity of his claims of violated rights. Compared with other prison conditions in Europe and especially the United States, his complaints about food, coffee and outdated electronic equipment appear piddling and pathetic.
But the court decision hinged largely on Breivik’s solitary confinement. Last year the United Nations, in creating a new set of minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners (called the Mandela Rules) condemned the use of solitary confinement in excess of 15 days. Solitary has been widely defined as any regime where a person is confined to a cell for at least 22 hours a day with little or no meaningful contact with other human beings. Such definitions say nothing about the size of the cell or what it might contain, since their focus is on levels of isolation, not of comfort. Breivik’s treatment indeed fits this description.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Méndez, has declared solitary confinement in excess of 15 days to be cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that, when prolonged, often rises to the level of torture. A growing body of evidence shows that solitary confinement debilitates both the mind and body, causing symptoms that range from from hypersensitivity to stimuli, perceptual distortions and hallucinations, increased anxiety and nervousness, irrational anger, fears of persecution, lack of impulse control, and severe and chronic depression to weight loss, heart palpitations, headaches; problems sleeping, confusing thought processes, nightmares, dizziness, self-mutilation, and lowered brain function. It is also associated with greatly increased risk of suicide and self-harm.
While Breivik’s living conditions are certainly far better than any solitary housing unit in the United States, the condition of social isolation is one that remains troubling. While cramped living spaces and little to do to occupy the mind other than stare at a wall for 23 hours a day intensifies the misery of solitary confinement, the refusal of social contact is itself a stressor that can be only partially mitigated by better physical conditions.
Breivik has been sentenced to the maximum term allowed in Norway—21 years. However, his sentence can be extended in increments of five years, depending upon assessments of his rehabilitation. It is unlikely that Breivik will ever be deemed properly rehabilitated, and no longer a threat to society. His release is improbable, and he could well die in behind bars–and, without the relief provided by the court, in solitary confinement.
According to Are Hoidal, the warden of another of Norway’s maximum security prisons, Halden Prison, the central principle of Norwegian corrections is that people in prison are to be given opportunity for normalcy—they retain all rights other than the restriction of their liberty. Even the argument that Breivik’s ideas themselves are dangerous, and must be contained lest they infect others, is countered by the belief that treating all people with humanity is the most powerful antidote to both criminal behavior and vile ideas.
Breivik thought his life was above those that he killed. He violated the most fundamental human right of 77 people—the right to life itself. Yet Norway and other Scandinavian nations consider the right to social life to be an inalienable part of human existence, and thus a human right–and their position is supported by the ECHR. The only way to combat Breivik’s attitude of superiority over others is to apply the law of humanity to all, even him. “The prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment represents a fundamental value in a democratic society,” the court said in its ruling. “This applies no matter what — also in the treatment of terrorists and killers.”
On an emotional level, it is certainly easy to dismiss Breivik’s entitlement to human rights. But the very fact that it is so easy makes it even more imperative to protect them. A human right is an immutable one, and to remain consistent in that employs Breivik’s own hateful supremacist logic against him. The Norwegian court’s decision is a reminder that the supremacy of human dignity is immune to selective justice, which can be heinously abused and manipulated by such figures as Breivik himself.