The viking voice of fairness


The viking voice of fairness

The Vikings might not be the first you think of when talking about human rights and democracy. But when they set out to explore the world, an ‘ombudsman’ somehow climbed aboard. This Old Norse term and concept is now a globally used word for an advocate acting in the interest of the public.

Traced by:
Dagfinn Høybråten

For example, Peter Boshier who, as Ombudsman in New Zealand, heads such diverse cases as investigating ministerial processes for school closures and the rights of prisoners.

Native Nordic

Ombudsman is an indigenous Swedish, Norwegian and Danish term. It is rooted in the Old Norse word, umboðsmaðr, which essentially means “representative” or someone who is authorised to act on behalf of someone else.

This is also the meaning it has when Peter Boshier puts forward the case of prisoners who have special needs are not being tended to in the prison system. It could be prisoners who need psychiatric care, but are instead being treated with physical restraint. The role of an ombudsman is to protect the people against violation of rights, abuse of power, unfair decisions and maladministration. In short: to uphold fairness.


In the Nordics, the misuse of power has become rare. One way this can be measured is via Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. It shows that many of the Nordic countries have both the least corruption and the least fear of corruption in the world. Maybe this is the result of a long line of ombudsmen

A little more info

  • In the Danish Law of Jutland from 1241, the term is umboz man for a royal civil servant in a country subdivision.
  • The International Ombudsman Institute (IOI), established in 1978, is the global organization for the cooperation of more than 170 independent ombudsman institutions from more than 90 countries worldwide.
  • Norway was the first country to appoint an ombudsman to specifically look after the rights of children and young people. This happened in 1981. Today many countries have an ombudsman for children. Sometimes they are called Children’s Commissioners instead of ombudsmen.
  • Read more about the New Zealand ombudsman
  • Over time, misuse of power has become rare in the Nordics. This has resulted in high trust rates. Read more