DENMARK: CSOS DEFEAT ASSEMBLY BAN – Interview with Lisa Blinkenberg

Challenges for racialised groups persist

In early 2021, the Danish government proposed a draft law to parliament granting police the power to issue a “security-creating assembly ban” if a group of people exhibit “insecurity-inciting behaviour”. In recognising the serious repercussions for freedom of peaceful assembly rights and minority groups, CSOs Amnesty International, Action Aid Denmark and Nyt Europa came together in defence of civic space. The decision to award their initiative celebrates their successful national and international mobilisation against limitations to civic space, which culminated in parliament voting down the «security-creating assembly ban». At the same time, this story highlights the struggles that are to come in responding to stigmatising and discriminatory policies in place against migrants.

The interview with Lisa Blinkenberg, senior advisor at Amnesty International Denrmark, was carried out in summer 2021 as part of Activizenship #6.


Could you tell us about the security package and the coalition of organisations that opposed it?

We were part of a working group on civic space under the organisations called Globalt Fokus. Throughout our conversations we realised that there was a need to create a coalition to further work on civic space issues, therefore, New Europe (Nyt Europa), Globalt Fokus, ActionAid Denmark and Amnesty International united.

In October 2020, at the opening of the Parliament, the Prime minister gave her usual speech in which she mentioned the need for restrictive legislation addressing young male criminals with a non-western background. We had also heard of a briefing paper called “security for all Danes”. With these elements in mind and the general context in the country, we were expecting that there would be some type of legislation related to security and targeting young males with a non-western background.

We had a first discussion already in late Autumn, during which we agreed on the first steps of the coalition. When the legislation was published, we met again to discuss and design how we would fight it. When the legislation was then introduced on 14 January, we discussed our methodology and our analysis of the bill. We also invited other organisations, including the Danish Institute for human rights.

Could you tell us about the restriction on assemblies proposed in the legislative package on “Security for all Danes” and the main concerns?

It was part of a broad range of restrictions and amendments under the “Security for all Danes” package. From the beginning, we decided to exclusively focus on the legislation which introduced a ban on assembling in an open access area. To illustrate the situation, it would have meant that if you are living in a small apartment and want to organise a birthday party for your children, there are chances that you could get in trouble if you select a play yard located in a forbidden area. It also raised concerns regarding the right to privacy, freedom of movement, and the right to demonstrate. For instance, this legislation would have limited the choice of areas to hold protests regardless of its meaning or symbolic value. The law referred to “groups of whom the behaviour would threaten the feeling of security” which is very difficult to measure. This vague formulation questioned whether the law met the legality requirements as it exposes citizens to a risk of arbitrariness in the decisions of the police and to a risk of disproportionate impact on gatherings and assemblies which ultimately amounts to legal uncertainty. Additionally, it raised concerns regarding indirect discrimination against particular groups of persons, especially due to their gender, race and ethnicity.

What types of actions did you take together? To what extent did the international and European pressure contribute to the positive results? 

We acted on an early stage because we were aware of the Prime Minister’s intention to draft legislation on security targeting men with a non-western appearance. To start the work, we reached out to the Danish Institute of Human Rights and other international partners. We discussed, gathered inputs and adopted statements highlighting the issues of the legislations both in Danish and English. Then, we proceeded to the legal and political assessment of the legislation and produced a written analysis. We also received a lot of input from the European Law Centre for Non-Profit Law both on the bill itself and helpful case-law for our analysis.

We reached out to almost all parliamentarians and engaged with organisations that collaborate with parliamentarians that we could not reach. We succeeded in meeting with crucial ones who seemed very interested and willing to listen to us. They helped us arrange a hearing at the parliament legal affairs’ committee. During that meeting, we raised our concerns and introduced our recommendations. We especially stressed the clear conflict with human rights and existing European case-law. We stressed that the UK had introduced similar amendments years ago, which were deemed to be against human rights law by the European Court of Human Rights.

To build up international pressure, we had many international organisations as well as five of the UN special rapporteurs writing a letter in which they criticised the legislation. We also had the Universal Periodic Review examination raise concerns on this legislation. Parliamentarians felt this. It was clear that parliamentarians listened as there was a clear evolution of their position from the first to the third discussion and finally, the vote. They moved from being convinced to questioning the text and ultimately rejecting it.

Could you tell us which strategies helped you achieve the impact you aimed for: the rejection of the “Security for all Danes” package?

One of the most important things that we did was start the work very early. The second is that we made sure to analyse the strategies to use for each step of our work: media, advocacy, and case-law. We also had an important joint effort and emphasised the collaboration across organisations, which cemented our efforts. The use of concrete examples was very helpful to illustrate and reach people. Additionally, the face-to-face meeting with parliamentarians was very impactful as it provided interesting insiders‘ views. We were able to hear their recommendations and adjust ours to theirs. One example of adjustments we made in our arguments to better address parliamentarians’ concerns relates to the heart of our argumentation which we changed from the discriminatory aspect of the legislation to a stronger focus on the right to demonstrate, the right to assembly and freedom of movement. This was to take into account the Danish political landscape and history.

In this case, it was important to have a solid analysis to rely on and take the time to think of the most strategic way to approach the issues. We decided to focus our efforts on building a strong judicial and legal analysis, prioritising a written format and engaging international actors and parliamentarians. In other cases, it might have been really helpful to engage the right holders.

Have you witnessed a securitization of the narrative in Denmark?

There have been some worrying developments and narratives circulating in Denmark. At the highest levels, the Minister of Justice made comments stating that our freedoms depend on security, against which our organisations issued a statement and organised a joint debate. The Covid 19 pandemic reinforced the shrinking of civic space. We have seen the government using the populist us/them discourse. Moreover, there has been a hardening of policies on asylums seekers, refugees, and immigrants. Unfortunately, that is one of the reasons we shifted our focus by working mainly on the right to freedom of assembly, the right to privacy, and the arbitrary aspect of the “Security for all Danes” package. We thought about the negative consequences of less democratic countries copying the Danish developments. It is paramount to have an active and critical civil society in these times.

Could you tell us more about the legislative and political framework around civic space in Denmark? 

Denmark is a democratic country with a relatively open-minded government when it comes to civil society. This is also the image conveyed by Denmark through its work abroad. The ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website showcases the ways Denmark supports civil society in other countries and how they fight against shrinking civic space abroad. However, we also have a social Democrats government driven by populist narratives. On internal policies, this government has restricted certain rights for refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants in the past years.

There can be a paradox between what Denmark is doing internally and its external policies. Denmark strongly condemned the situation for civil society in Belarus, Russia, Hungary and Poland. Even though the situations are difficult to compare to the Danish context where NGOs do not feel threatened and where there are a lot of possibilities for democratic consultations, there are contradictions. 

We have seen restrictions due to the COVID-19 emergency laws, limiting people’s right to assemble in larger groups. Additionally, some of the amendments that were introduced in the criminal code increased the sanctions for offences if they were committed in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic and these provisions are still in place. For example, In March 2021, a woman received a 2-year prison sentence as she urged other protesters to “trash the city in a non-violent way” during a demonstration in January. Her sentence was doubled due to an amendment in the Danish penal code, saying that the sentence could be doubled if the action was linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. Later, the court reversed its sentencing, reducing the sentence to 60 days.[1] This remains a worrying use of the legislation and similar situations may arise. There has been a lot of criticism against these sentences. We are concerned that acts are punished twice simply because they are broadly related to the corona epidemic.[2] Amnesty International has opposed many of the issues introduced in the legislation due to COVID-19, especially in relation to these double standards. Our coalition wrote to the relevant parliamentarians stressing that they should look into the penal code and the restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How were COVID 19 restrictions implemented in Denmark? Are there groups that are more vulnerable or more affected by this legislation? 

As said, there have been double standards in the implementation of the COVID 19 measures. For instance, in April 2020, a prohibition to sit in certain areas was adopted for a certain period of time. One story got media attention: a woman with a 4-year-old child was playing in a yard, she was sitting down close to him, and she received a fine because of the mentioned regulation even though there were no people in this area.[3]

The most vulnerable people are from non-western background. We were very much alert, particularly organisations such as ActionAid and Amnesty International, on the risk of discriminatory aspects of the legislation. In recent years, we have seen policies and legislation especially targeting or impacting people from non-western background. That is the case of the Act on social housing, the so-called ghetto package in 2018 on the basis of which residents might face double criminal proceedings and in which a ghetto is defined as a place where the proportion of immigrants and descendants from non-western countries exceeds 50%. We have also seen new policies on externalising asylum procedures, which fits in this pattern of targeting immigrants and refugees. Indeed, also with regards to the new security law, in her speech the Prime Minister said that this legislation was focusing primarily on a young man with a non-western background.

How is the general public reacting to this situation?

We have not done research on that aspect, so it is difficult to tell. We have a far-right party called Nye Borgerlige, which stands against refugees and asylum seekers. This party was introduced only two years ago but gained seats in Parliament very quickly, which resulted in two parties with anti-immigrants and anti-refugees’ views present in the house. Therefore, there are Danes who think that refugees and asylum seekers should not be protected in Denmark but there is also a strong part of the society fighting against this trend. It remains difficult to say because there are also other issues and themes such as gender, the climate change that mobilise people.

Do organisations experience backlash from far-right groups while working on certain issues?

We have not done a lot of research on that, but I think there is a lot of hate speech on social media. On the other hand, according to my experience, there are no aggressions against organisations. It is different from the situation in Hungary and Poland or other countries where there is a strong mobilisation against people working on these themes. For instance, our organisations have worked a lot on Syria. Denmark has said that all the Syrian refugees’ cases should be renewed or reopened, and we have seen strong support and mobilisation of people supporting Syrian refugees. In May, we have had demonstrations gathering 15.000 to 20.000 people in 20 cities despite Covid-19. That makes me think that there is a large group of supporters for these causes. On social media, when organisations like Amnesty International post on refugees or asylum-seekers, you can be sure that there will be supporters and opposition using hate speech.

What do you think about this conflict between the open and democratic aspect of Danish civic space and, on the other side, this wave of restrictions and populist sentiment that has been growing these past few years? 

We have not analysed the shrinking civic space in Denmark; however, I think it has been on its way for many years. In the era of the fight against terrorism, rights started to get restricted and the use the us/them rhetoric has been growing over the past 20 years. Additionally, I think there might have been a shift after the economic crisis in Denmark in 2008. The welfare state and the sense of equality in society have suffered the past years as the gap between the richest and the poorest has drastically increased, which contributed to this wave of restrictions. To respond, European governments introduced measures that participated to the shrinking of political and civic space, which is especially visible in countries such as Hungary and Poland. This had a domino effect on other countries, like Denmark. I think all these aspects played a role in the current situation.

Could you think of practices or processes at the institutional level that could potentially be helpful in Europe?

There is more that can be done at a European and international level. The EU is a strong ally, but there are also strong actors such as the UN and the Council of Europe that could be helpful for civil society’s work. As there seems to be an agreement at an institutional level about the shrinking of civic space, it would be important to have different international actors and institutions work together to focus on the issues faced by civil society. The diversity of international institutional actors is a strength, but it is underused.

Another factor is providing organisations the necessary means to do their work such as a general institutional support, including with funding based on operating grants additionally to project-based ones. Indeed, it is important that all civil society organisations are supported in Europe to avoid situations, like the Hungarian one, where it is very difficult for organisations to work.

The interview was carried out on 12 August 2021.