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Denmark and Human Rights

Protecting human rights is a crucial commitment for Denmark, both domestically and internationally. It is the foundation upon which all other progress is built. 
Human rights are not something that a country either has achieved or hasn’t. It is a constant work in progress. 
Ever since the Danish physician and philosopher J.F. Struensee in the late 18th century made the first attempt at ensuring basic human rights for the country’s citizens, Denmark has been among the countries working hardest to fulfill the grand ideals. 
In international surveys Denmark is almost always ranked among the ten countries in the world that have the strongest protection of its citizens' freedom and dignity (e.g. World Press Freedom Index and Freedom House). And Denmark is well known globally for its support for human rights defenders. 
Yet the struggle for human rights is ongoing in Denmark. New dilemmas arise all the time and an essential element in the Danish approach to human rights is to constantly ask the difficult question. Could we do even more? 

Essential to peace and prosperity 

Denmark is committed to human rights based on the belief that they are the very foundation on which a society must progress. Citizens living with freedom, security, and dignity will be creative, effective, compassionate, and have a high degree of trust in each other. 

Seen through this prism, human rights are essential to stability and peaceful coexistence, to a thriving and innovative economy, and to artistic imagination and ingenuity. It is therefore not just up to the state to ensure human rights, but something that both citizens, civil society organizations and businesses take part in. 

Denmark’s biggest companies are for instance obliged by law to take human rights into consideration and on a yearly basis report what they have done to protect them. 

Did you know

Together with Greenland, Denmark played an active role in the establishment of the new UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues in 2000. Danish experts have since then served in the Forum for more than half its lifetime.

Constant improvement

Human rights in Denmark are secured by the Danish Constitutional Act (from 1849) and through Denmark’s adherence to a number of international conventions and treaties. This guarantees Danish citizens the right to sleep under a roof, to look for work on equal terms, to express their opinions freely, to organize themselves as they wish, and many other rights.

Despite this, human rights are not being taken for granted in Denmark. The work continues, and among many improvements in recent years have been new provisions regarding rape, new military manuals clarifying the importance of human rights, and the establishment of a Data Ethics Council. 

Political, social and technological developments continue to present new dilemmas. Denmark wants to be as effective as possible in the fight against terror, COVID-19, organized crime and cyber-attacks, while at the same time ensuring that the fight doesn’t infringe the basic rights of its citizens. 
Grundloven, The Danish Constitution. Photo: The Danish National Archives

Spokesperson for human rights

Perhaps the strongest proof of the Danish commitment to human rights is that the government is always open to scrutiny.

Since 1987, the Danish Institute for Human Rights has been tasked with monitoring the authorities and advising them on how best to protect human rights. The institute operates independently of the government and functions like an official spokesperson for human rights in Denmark. Each year it evaluates the progress that Denmark has made in its strive towards improving human rights. 

Citizens and organizations in Denmark can also challenge the state at both Danish courts and at the European Court for Human Rights. Denmark has given a standing invitation to all UN Human Rights Special Representatives allowing them to take a closer look at specific human rights situations if they wish. And as a country, Denmark has to pass exams in human rights at the United Nations. The next one is forthcoming in 2021. Such a system of checks and balances is essential to the protection of human rights. 

Did you know

Denmark is one of only five Western countries in the world that provides at least 0.7 per cent of its gross national income to development cooperation. Denmark has done so for more than 40 years.

Not afraid to take the lead

Internationally, human rights are also at the core of Danish policy. Following the Second World War, Denmark was very involved in the efforts to protect human rights through both global and European declarations and conventions. In the process of expanding the European Union, Denmark has also worked to promote human rights through the so-called ‘Copenhagen Criteria’ that every prospective member state must fulfill.  

Since 1989 human rights have been a central pillar in Denmark’s policy for supporting political, social and economic development around the world. Denmark choses to cooperate solely with states that are willing to improve their human rights, as this will be crucial to the success of any developmental project. 
quote ikon

Denmark has a strong human rights standing, and even as a small country I believe that we can make a difference by setting a good example.

Jeppe kofod ministry for foreign afairs, Denmark

A world leader on anti-torture

Denmark has been particularly engaged in the fight to end the use of torture, and is considered a world leader in this matter. 

During four decades, Danish diplomats have worked tirelessly to build international support for UN resolutions on torture and to investigate member states that breach them. Since 2014 Denmark has also been at the head of a small group of countries from different continents that work together in the Convention against Torture Initiative (CTI). 

Danish civil society organizations are likewise at the forefront of the fight against torture and support local organizations around the globe. 

“The persistent Danish focus on the anti-torture agenda has been important in strengthening not only the resolutions but the entire architecture and the UN-institutions”, concluded an independent evaluation of Danish Foreign Policy in 2018. 

At the frontline for women and girls

Women and girls’ rights is another area that Denmark pays particular attention to. Ever since Nina Bang in 1924 became the world’s first female minister in a democratic country, Denmark has been at the forefront to ensure gender equality. Not only at home but also abroad.

In the international negotiation rooms, Denmark is at the very front to achieve progressive results for gender equality and women and girls’ right to decide over their own body and life. Also when conservative forces push back on years of progress.

At country level and through Danish development cooperation, Denmark integrates the voices and particular needs of women and girls and other persons in vulnerable situations, including LGBTI persons. In health programmes, sexual and reproductive health and rights feature prominently, and in programmes to enhance e.g. democracy and economic development, gender equality is central.