2013 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.0
Civil Liberties: 1
Political Rights: 1


A scandal involving a leak to the press in 2011 of Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt's personal tax audit made headlines throughout 2012. Meanwhile, reforms to Denmark's strict immigration laws in May and June were praised by human rights groups, though critics charged that the changes were not far-reaching enough.

Denmark has been a monarchy since the Middle Ages, though the monarch's role became largely ceremonial after the promulgation of the first democratic constitution in 1849. 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, forerunner of 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, securing opt-outs from the bloc's 1992 Maastricht Treaty on justice, foreign, and monetary policy, and opting not to adopt the euro in 2000.

The Liberal Party won reelection in 2005, maintaining its coalition with the Conservative People's Party and receiving external support from the Danish People's Party. Prime Minister Rasmussen was returned to office in the 2007 elections, but resigned in April 2009 after being named NATO secretary general; he was replaced by finance minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen (no relation).

Parliamentary elections in September 2011 led to a change of government, with Helle Thorning-Schmidt leading the Social Democratic Party to power after forming a coalition with the Social Liberal Party, the Socialist People's Party, and the Red-Green Party. Although Thorning-Schmidt's coalition was able to narrowly defeat Rasmussen's center-right coalition, the Social Democratic Party itself suffered its worst electoral result since 1903 and won fewer seats in Parliament than Rasmussen's Liberal Party. As a result of the election, Thorning-Schmidt became Denmark's first female prime minister.

Since taking office, the new government has faced internal divisions on issues including unpopular welfare reforms and changes in May and June 2012 to the country's strict immigration laws. Several ministers were replaced, and the government saw its popularity decline.

Since the September 2005 publications of the controversial cartoons by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Denmark has been hit with a string of attempted terrorist attacks. In 2009, two men were arrested in Chicago in connection with a plot to bomb the offices of Jyllands-Posten. One of those arrested, Pakistani-American David Headley, pleaded guilty in 2010 to planning the attack, as well as participating in the planning of the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India. In September 2011, his accomplice, Tahawur Rana, was found guilty of planning to attack Jyllands-Posten but had not been sentenced by year's end.

The cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who had drawn the most contentious of the Muhammad cartoons, was attacked in his home in January 2010 by a Somali assailant wielding an axe and a knife. Westergaard escaped unharmed, and the intruder, Mohamed Geele, was apprehended by police. Geele, who was believed to have ties to the Shabaab, an Islamist militant group based in Somalia, was sentenced in June 2011 to nine years in prison.

In September 2010, a small bomb exploded in a hotel in central Copenhagen, causing little material damage but injuring the bomber. The bomber was apprehended and found guilty of carrying out a terrorist attack and sentenced to 12 years in prison in May 2011. The intended target was Jyllands-Posten, particularly its former editor, Flemming Rose, who commissioned the cartoons.

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 government coalition is usually chosen to be prime minister by the monarch. Danish governments most often control a minority of seats in the 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 Faroe Islands each have two representatives in the Folketing. They also have their own elected institutions, which have power over almost all areas of governance, except foreign and financial policy.

Levels of corruption are generally very low in Denmark, which was tied with Finland and New Zealand for first place out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, the so-called Taxgate scandal involving a leak to the press of then-opposition leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt's tax audit unfolded throughout 2012. The leak had occurred just one week before the 2011 general election, while Thorning-Schmidt was in the political opposition. Fallout from the high-profile scandal included the dismissal of a top official in the tax ministry in March 2012. In September, police formally charged Peter Arnfeldt, special counsel to then-tax minister Troels Lund Poulsen, with unlawfully leaking confidential information. As of the end of 2012, an independent commission was investigating whether Poulsen had abused his power by improperly interfering in the tax ministry's handling of Thorning-Schmidt's audit.

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. After complaints from the Turkish Ambassador to Denmark in March 2010, the Danish attorney-general charged the Danish-based, Kurdish-language satellite television station Roj-TV with promoting the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which the EU and the United States consider a terrorist organization. In January 2012, the Copenhagen City Court fined Roj-TV 5.2 million kroner (US$885,000) for promoting a terrorist group. An appeal to a higher court was pending at year's end. The station was the first Danish media organization to face prosecution for promoting terrorism, and the trial has been criticized across the political spectrum for harming freedom of speech and being unduly influenced by Turkish political pressure on the Danish government. Access to the internet is not restricted, and Denmark's internet penetration rate is among the highest in the world.

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, though 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. In 2009, religious and political symbols were banned from judicial attire. Denmark denies religious worker visas, thereby restricting access to missionaries entering the country from abroad.

The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association. Demonstrations during 2012 were peaceful. Civil society is vibrant, and workers are free to organize. The labor market is mainly regulated by agreements between employers' and employees' organizations.

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. Prisons generally meet international standards.

Discrimination is prohibited under the law. However, strict immigration laws introduced in 2002 were tightened further in 2010 and 2011, including those adding more obstacles for citizens attempting to bring foreign spouses into the country. Denmark has closed many of its asylum centers since the introduction of the restrictive 2002 immigration laws. The European Court of Human Rights in 2010 called on Denmark to stop deporting asylum seekers to Greece, their point of entry to the EU; a binding decision from the Strasbourg court was pronounced in January 2011, compelling Denmark to stop the practice. The new socialist government honored one of its campaign pledges when new, less restrictive, immigration laws regarding family reunification cases and permanent residency came into effect in May and June 2012, respectively. The reforms included the elimination of a fee to apply for family reunification and the replacement of an immigration test with a Danish language exam. While human rights groups praised the reforms, some critics argued that the country's immigration policies remain too stringent; Denmark continues to have some of the harshest immigration laws in Europe.

Women enjoy equal rights in Denmark and represent half of the workforce. However, disparities have been reported in the Faroe Islands and Greenland. 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.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.