Freedom in the World 2009


A European Court of Justice ruling in July 2008 struck down an Irish immigration law that restricted residency for foreign spouses, raising doubts about similar laws in Denmark. Danish immigration officials also drew fire during the year for failing to inform applicants of their family-reunification rights. Separately, ongoing ethnic tensions were exacerbated by riots in immigrant neighborhoods in February and by reprints of notorious cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in Denmark’s major newspapers.

Denmark has been a monarchy since the Middle Ages, but after the promulgation of its first democratic constitution in 1849, the monarch’s role became largely ceremonial. The country was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II despite its attempts to maintain neutrality, and in 1949 it joined NATO. In 1973, Denmark became a member of the European Economic Community (EEC), forerunner to the European Union (EU).

Postwar Danish politics have been dominated by the Social Democratic Party. However, in the 2001 elections, a right-wing coalition led by Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s Liberal Party won control by pledging to reduce immigration and lower taxes. The coalition, which also included the Conservative People’s Party, was supported by the anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic Danish People’s Party. Denmark has had a conflicted relationship with the EU, rejecting the bloc’s 1992 Maastricht Treaty on justice, foreign, and monetary policy and opting not to adopt the euro as its sole currency in 2000.

The Liberals won reelection in 2005, maintaining their coalition with the Conservatives and receiving external support from the Danish People’s Party. Prime Minister Rasmussen was returned to office again in the 2007 elections, with the Liberals, Conservatives, and Danish People’s Party receiving 45, 18, and 25 seats, respectively. The Social Democrats placed second with 45 seats, and the Socialist People’s Party, one of the smaller opposition parties, more than doubled its share of seats, from 11 to 23.

Ethnic tensions remained a major issue in Denmark throughout 2008, particularly with respect to the Muslim population. The most severe unrest came in February, when youths in the mostly Muslim immigrant neighborhoods of Denmark’s largest cities including Copenhagen, Aarhus and Odense rioted for seven consecutive nights, burning cars, buses, and schools. Up to 70 youths were arrested for the disturbances, which were allegedly sparked after police beat an immigrant youth and then exacerbated when major newspapers reprinted notorious cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. The images had caused worldwide controversy after they were originally printed in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

Denmark’s major newspapers chose to reprint the cartoons on February 13 after three men were arrested for plotting to kill cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew one of the images published in 2005. The cartoons’ reappearance led to widespread boycotting of Danish goods in the Muslim world and an attack on the Danish embassy in Pakistan in June. That attack was attributed to Al-Qaeda, which made new threats against Denmark in a video released in September.

In July, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) struck down an Irish law requiring an EU citizen’s spouse of non-EU origin to live in another EU member state prior to residency in Ireland. A 2004 EU directive stated that non-EU nationals married to EU citizens have the right to reside within their spouse’s country regardless of prior residency, and the new ruling highlighted the fact that Danish immigration law also violated the directive. In September, Denmark attempted to circumvent the conflict by requiring foreign spouses to work for between 2 and 10 weeks in another EU country prior to immigration to Denmark.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Denmark is an electoral democracy. The current constitution, adopted in 1953, established a single-chamber parliament (the Folketing) and retained a monarch, currently Queen Margrethe II, with mostly ceremonial duties. The parliament’s 179 representatives are elected at least once every four years through a system of modified proportional representation. The leader of the majority party or coalition is usually chosen to be prime minister by the monarch. Danish governments most often control a minority of seats in parliament, ruling with the aid of one or more supporting parties. Since 1909, no single party has held a majority of seats, helping to create a tradition of compromise.

The territories of Greenland and the Faeroe Islands each have two representatives in the Folketing. They also have their own elected institutions, which have power over almost all areas of governance.

Levels of corruption in Denmark are very low. The country tied with New Zealand and Sweden as the best performers among 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index. The police began investigating a case in 2008 concerning the pharmaceutical company Missionpharma, which was suspected of bribing two consultants to secure a UN contract in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The investigation was pending at year’s end.

The constitution guarantees freedom of expression. The media reflect a wide variety of political opinions and are frequently critical of the government. The state finances radio and television broadcasting, but state-owned television companies have independent editorial boards. Independent radio stations are permitted but tightly regulated. Internet use in Denmark is among the world’s highest in terms of the percentage of the population with access. The internet is generally open and unregulated, although a filtration system designed to block child pornography is in place that has been criticized for mistakenly blocking other sites. In February 2008, major newspapers reprinted controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad to demonstrate press freedom and solidarity after three men were arrested for plotting the murder of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. In July, Muslim groups brought a civil case to the Supreme Court against Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that originally printed the cartoons in 2005, for allegedly violating the country’s hate-speech laws. The case was rejected by the justice ministry at the end of October.In a separate case, two men were arrested in August under Danish hate-speech laws, then extradited to Germany to face charges of violating antiracist legislation by distributing right-wing texts.

Freedom of worship is legally protected. However, the Evangelical Lutheran Church is subsidized by the government as the official state religion. The faith is taught in public schools, although students may withdraw from religious classes with parental consent. At present, about half of all schoolchildren are exempted from the catechism taught in public schools. Some cases of discrimination and anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim defacement were reported during 2008. Religious tensions were exacerbated by republication of the Muhammad cartoons. Also in 2008, a rule barring judges from wearing religious symbols took effect. Some claimed that the ban was aimed at preventing female Muslim judges from wearing headscarves. Academic freedom is generally respected.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association. Civil society is vibrant, and workers are free to organize. The labor market is mainly regulated by agreements between employers’ and employees’ organizations. In December 2008, 15 youths were sentenced to over a year in prison for riots that erupted in 2007 during a protest over the eviction of squatters from the Ungdomshuset youth house in Copenhagen.

The judiciary is independent, and citizens enjoy full due-process rights. The court system consists of 100 local courts, two high courts, and the 15-member Supreme Court, with judges appointed by the monarch on the government’s recommendation. A 2007 report by the International Commission of Jurists found ethnic bias in “a limited scope” of Danish court rulings and suggested mandatory training courses on discrimination for judges and lawyers. Prisons generally meet international standards. Police brutality became an issue in February 2008, however, when a week of rioting in mostly immigrant neighborhoods in Denmark’s largest cities were apparently touched off by the alleged police beating of an immigrant youth.

Discrimination is prohibited under the law. However, Denmark introduced one of Europe’s strictest immigration laws in 2002. The measure restricts citizens’ ability to bring foreign spouses into the country, requiring both partners to be aged 24 or older. The law also requires the Dane to pass a solvency test, prove that he or she has not drawn social security for at least a year, and posta bond of almost $10,000. A reunified family’s husband and wife must both prove “close ties to Denmark.” The law came under scrutiny after the ECJ ruled in July 2008 that a similar Irish law, which requires foreign spouses to prove residence in an EU country before taking up residence in Ireland, was incompatible with a 2004 EU directive allowing foreign spouses to live in EU member states regardless of prior residence. Separately in 2008, Immigration Minister Birthe Ronn Hornbech faced calls to resign after admitting that she broke the law by not enforcing the Immigration Service’s obligation to inform a Danish-Thai couple of their family-reunification rights. Although the Immigration Service became aware in 2003 of an EU ruling requiring member states to allow non-EU nationals working within the EU to reside with their EU national spouse, it did not make this information available until 2007.

Denmark has closed 47 asylum centers since the introduction of the 2002 immigration law. In June 2006, the government secured reforms including tighter unemployment rules designed to promote job-seeking and greater workforce integration by immigrants. However, in the 2007 Migrant Integration Policy Index, Denmark was ranked the second-worst performer out of 28 mostly EU countries for migrant eligibility to enter the labor market.

Women enjoy equal rights in Demark and represent half of the workforce. However, disparities have been reported in the Faeroe Islands and Greenland. In October 2008, the prime minister announced plans for a 2009 referendum that would allow the firstborn child of the monarch to become heir to the throne regardless of sex. Denmark is a destination and transit point for women and children trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Following the 2003 adoption of legislation that defined and criminalized such trafficking, the government began working regularly with nongovernmental organizations in their trafficking-prevention campaigns. In 2008, an EU report cited Denmark as one of nine European countries that do not have antidiscrimination agencies to protect gay rights, and one of only seven EU member states that fail to offer protections to gays beyond the workplace.

2009 Scores



Freedom Rating


Civil Liberties


Political Rights