In this judgment of 11 October 2021, the Supreme Court of Norway found that the construction of two wind power plants on the Fosen peninsula interfered with the rights of reindeer herders to enjoy their own culture under Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Supreme Court unanimously found that there had been an interference with this right, and accordingly invalidated the wind power licence and the expropriation decision.
Facts of the case:
In 2010, two wind power plants (the Roan and Storheia plants) received a license from the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate. These plants are located within the Fosen grazing district, where the Sør-Fosen sijte and Nord-Fosen siida keep their reindeer. In 2013, the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy rejected their claim that the construction of the wind power plants interfered with their right to cultural enjoyment. Construction on the plants commenced while the issue was pending before the courts, and the two plants – which are part of the largest onshore wind power project in Europe — were ready to become operational in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
The main issue at stake before the Supreme Court was whether the development interfered with the reindeer herders’ rights under Article 27 ICCPR. That provision enshrines the right of persons belonging to an ethnic, religious or linguistic minority to enjoy their own culture, in community with the other members of their group. It was undisputed before the Supreme Court that reindeer husbandry is a protected cultural practice. The Supreme Court relied on the Court of Appeal’s finding that the winter pastures near Storheia and Roan had in practice been lost to reindeer husbandry, and that the wind power plants in question are a threat to the reindeer industry’s existence on Fosen peninsula absent remedial measures.
The Supreme Court, relying on the work of the UN Human Rights Committee, held that the total effect of the development in question determines whether a violation of the ICCPR right has taken place. Although there is no room for a proportionality assessment, a balance must be struck if the rights under Article 27 ICCPR conflict with other fundamental rights. The Supreme Court established that the right to a healthy environment might constitute such a conflicting right.
The Supreme Court found that the herders’ cultural rights would face significant adverse effects and be violated if satisfactory remedial measures were not implemented. The Supreme Court agreed that a “green shift” and increased renewable energy production are important, but found that there were alternatives that were less intrusive for the reindeer herders less, so that there was no collision between environmental interests and the reindeers’ right to cultural enjoyment in this case.
In its ruling, the Court of Appeal had previously stipulated sizeable compensation for the winter feeding of fenced-in reindeer, and on this basis it had found no violation of the right to cultural enjoyment. In the Supreme Court’s view, such a solution was too uncertain to be a determining factor in whether Article 27 ICCPR had been violated. In any event, the courts could not rely on such a measure as a part of the reindeer herders’ duty to adapt.
Date of judgment:
11 October 2021
A summary of the judgment (in English) is available here.
The full text of the judgment (in Norwegian, English translation forthcoming) is available here.
Supreme Court of Norway, Statnett SF et al. v. Sør-Fosen sijte, HR-2021-1975-S, Judgment of 11 October 2021.