Remembering 22 July: Litigating Memorials

As of July 2021 the memorials commemorating the 22 July attack include the Government Quarter, with the temporary memorial plaque and the 22 July Centre; Hegnhuset on Utøya; the 1000 iron roses next to Oslo Cathedral; 52 identical commemorative stone sculptures in affected municipalities across Norway; and as well as multiple other memorials situated in hospitals, parks and public places.

Photo: Kristin B. Sandvik / PRIO

Commemoration also happens through naming buildings and streets after victims: A sports hall in Orkdal called ‘Sondrehallen’ or a street in Oslo called ‘Isabels vei’. Enormous amounts of commemorative work have gone into the design and location of these memorials, sometimes resulting in contested administrative or juridified processes.

In this blog post, I focus on the legal mobilization by local residents against the plans for a national monument in the Municipality of Hole, the site of the Utøya massacre: first the proposal for Memory Wound at Sørbråten, later followed by a different proposal for a memorial at  the Utøya quay.

This mobilization included intensive use of administrative complaints procedures, threats of ‘going to court’ and the subsequent use of lawyers, legal action and legal proceedings as means to terminate processes relating to the national monument.

Originally, the plan was for a memorial to be ready near Utøya in 2015. In March 2021, after a difficult court case, it was finally determined that the memorial could be completed at the Utøya quayside. From a socio-legal perspective, the tensions embedded in post-terror commemorative work and the sometimes-contradictory role of law in these processes are important to unpack. The organized local opposition to a national monument, the arguments used to bolster this resistance and the decision to engage in legal mobilization have been surrounded by considerable stigma and condemnation. What follows are some of my initial thoughts on the issue.

The struggle against Memory Wound

In the processes surrounding both “Memory Wound” and the Utøya quay memorial, residents, partly organized through the Utstranda Vel, a local neighborhood association, have objected to the construction of memorials in their local area. This resistance has been entrenched and strenuous, although involving fewer residents as time has gone by. Their adversaries include Statsbygg (the Norwegian government’s building commissioner, property manager and developer), the government, the Labor Party, the Labor Party’s youth organization (AUF), local politicians and neighbors supporting the location of a national memorial near Utøya. The demands of the residents have been given moral weight by reference to the heroic role some residents played in rescuing youth fleeing Utøya. In a press release from 2016, the residents state that:

“We think it is appalling that the Norwegian state wants to locate this in a local community that actively rescued a number of young people on 22 July – We would like the Norwegian state to show compassion and gratitude for the contributions made by our local community… Many people already suffer with strong memories from this day and do not need further reminders of the brutality we witnessed”.

The original proposal for a memorial at Sørbråten – “Memory Wound” by Jonas Dahlberg – quickly generated significant discord between the local residents on Utstranda and the Norwegian state. While the public and the art world were enthusiastic about “Memory Wound,” the local residents did not want a spectacular memorial.

They were concerned about psychosocial health and the risk of retraumatization – as well as noise and disturbance (traffic, media attention, etc.). The lack of participatory processes undermined the process from the start. Already back in 2014 the state apologized for a poor process and inadequate involvement of locals. In 2016, residents filed a lawsuit against the state to halt the construction of Memory Wound. Coinciding in time with the proceedings the terrorist had initiated against the state for the violation of his human rights, the prospect of a trial involving neighbors that had received Norway’s highest honors for their bravery became too difficult for the government. The prospect of litigation was broadly perceived as scandalous. A commentator in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten proclaimed:

“… legal action and legal settlement are hopeless. A court case against the Norwegian state to stop a national memorial to 22 July? I can hardly imagine a sadder expression of the unity and solidarity that was praised so highly after the terrorist attack being unable to withstand the pressure from a more contradictory and petty everyday life”.

The minister in charge, Jan Tore Sanner, did a turnaround. The legal proceedings, scheduled for 25 April 2017, were initially postponed, before the government withdrew the “Memory Wound” proposal for both Utøya and the Government Quarter. The Attorney General annulled the case in November 2017 and the Norwegian state covered the legal costs incurred by the local residents. The Attorney General emphasized that this was not part of any legal process that involved any kind of recognition: “The Norwegian state has extrajudicially agreed to cover the legal costs incurred by the local residents. But it is not the Courts of Justice that will award them the costs. This is something the Norwegian state has chosen to do independently”.

The Utøya memorial court case

To contribute to a solution to the protracted memorialization process, AUF and the 22 July Support Group (Støtteforeningen) proposed the Utøya quay as a new location for the memorial at the start of 2017. However, some local residents rejected this proposal as well. In May 2020, the Municipality of Hole adopted the proposal of a memorial on Utøya quay. The local residents submitted a complaint to the County Governor and initiated legal proceedings against the Municipality of Hole on the basis of the Neighbouring Properties Act (Naboloven) and considerations for psychosocial health. The local residents’ claim was upheld in Ringerike District Court in September 2020. The Court issued a temporary injunction for the works to be stopped, pending a court case to determine the lawfulness of the location.

Following the temporary injunction, the leader of the Norwegian Labour Party, Jonas Gahr Støre, stated that “The slow pain experienced by the victims of the terrorist attack in relation to the memorial is like rubbing salt in their wounds”. As emphasized by a survivor, “it would be a shame if the country had not managed to get a memorial in place ten years after the terrorist attack”.

In November 2020, the government’s appeal was upheld by Borgarting Court of Appeal. In December 2020 and January 2021, the Ringerike District Court became the venue for painful contestations regarding the purpose and effect of memorials, the nature of victimhood after 22 July and the meaning of participation and inclusion in the Norwegian welfare state. The local residents argued the memorial would violate the Neighbouring Properties Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.  The verdict came in February 2021. The Court found that the considerations in favor of establishing a memorial on Utøya quay outweighed the negative effects the memorial would have for the claimants. Yet, in contrast to politicians, journalists and pundits, the Judge emphasized the legitimacy of the residents grievances: “The Court finds that there is value to society in the fact that, after a process that has taken years and has been painful for the claimants, they had the opportunity to try the full extent of the case before the courts.”  In March, it became clear that the case would not be appealed: the construction of the monument could be completed.

The cost of law: time, money, trust and harmony

Grassroots legal mobilization is often framed as a progress narrative: while local actors may not win their cases or be able to achieve social change through the use of administrative procedures or legal strategies, stories about mobilization are often stories about participation and empowerment. Legal proceedings after atrocities are generally expected to contribute to a national healing process. In the present narrative, law and grassroots legal mobilization occupy highly ambiguous places.

Norway is generally described as a high-trust society: it is also a society with a great deal of emphasis on societal and cultural cohesion and political consensus. I suggest that these values also constitute a national script for the use of law to address the aftermath of 22 July. A legacy of the highly publicized criminal law proceedings against the terrorist is that the courtroom becomes a metaphor for justice whenever 22 July is ‘on trial’. A decade after the attacks, the use of law to deal with the attacks creates its own ripple effects that stand in tension with these values. While the defense lawyer for the terrorist has controversially argued that the criminal trial  settled Norway’s relationship to the terrorist, others have cautioned against putting too much faith in law’s ability to provide justice and healing.

In parallel contested commemorative work does not fit the national script and as a result, the avoidance of legal conflict has been a desirable goal. Paradoxically then, as illustrated by the struggles over the national memorial, going to court and avoiding going to court both entails costs in terms of money, time, trust and emotions.  The accelerating cost of the monument –from 40 to 500 million Norwegian kroner has been the topic of public contention. The monument will be completed at least 7 years later than initially planned. By June 2021, to the frustration and disappointment of survivors, the bereaved and many others, it became clear that the memorial could not be completed in time for the 10-year commemoration.

The delay incurs further costs: Blame has been apportioned to the local residents for their longstanding intransigence and their willingness to engage in mobilization, including through legal strategies and the government – for its lack of effective management of the process (entailing criticism both for too little involvement and participation of local residents – and too much indecision and inability to get things done in the face of local opposition). More work is needed to disentangle the role of law, legal languages and legalities in contested commemorative work going forward.

  • Translations of quotes from Norwegian language sources have been made by the author.
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