OPINION: Constitution Day is a celebration of political rights for all. Is Denmark neglecting them?

The establishment of Denmark’s first constitution on June 5th 1849 is an occasion worth celebrating. But the Scandinavian country must not forget to honour the spirit of democratic and human rights in its constitutional text, writes guest columnist Naqeeb Khan.

OPINION: Constitution Day is a celebration of political rights for all. Is Denmark neglecting them?
Photo: Linda Kastrup/Ritzau Scanpix

In the 1830s and 1840s, a complex series of political and diplomatic crises between Denmark and the German Confederation over the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein resulted in King Christian VIII’s realisation that, to ensure the confidence of his people, he must write a constitution for the country over which he reigned.

Following the death of Christian VIII on January 20th 1848, his son, Frederik VII became king. Frederik VII adopted the idea of making Denmark a constitutional monarchy and became known for his motto “the people's love, my strength”.

On June 5th 1849, the King signed Denmark’s Constitution (Grundlov) to replace the King's Law (Kongeloven) and, in doing so, became the last King of Denmark to rule as an absolute monarch.

Since then, June 5th has been celebrated as Constitution Day in the Scandinavian country. The occasion is commonly commemorated by political rallies, seminars and outdoor parties.

The uniqueness of Denmark's constitution lies in the fact that it has never been amended, but rather rewritten every time any amendment has been brought to the constitution.

New constitutions were written in 1866, 1915, 1920 and finally in 1953. Changes made by the introduction of the new constitutions include the elimination the upper chamber of parliament, thus creating a unicameral parliament; allowing women to inherit the throne; and provision of voting rights for women.

The original Constitution on display at the Danish parliament. Photo: Nils Meilvang/Ritzau Scanpix

In his book “Controlling the State: Constitutionalism from Ancient Athens to Today”, author Scott Gordon states the fundamental aim of the constitution is to divide power into various organisations or institutional entities in a way that ensures the protection of the interests and liberties of the citizens, including those that may be part of a minority.

Denmark’s constitution provides for just this: the interests of each citizen are sheltered by dividing power in a balanced way and providing freedom of speech, expression, association and religion. 

But recent political developments, including last week’s approval of the bill banning the Islamic burqa and niqab in public, have been criticised by various national and international organisation like Amnesty International for not being in accord with Human rights conventions.

Amnesty International Europe Director Gauri Van Gulik said that if the intention of this law was to protect women's rights, it fails abjectly. Instead, the law criminalises women for their choice of clothing.

Similarly, the government has been criticised for not insuring the protection of one's family life, with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights cited. Strict Danish rules on family reunification risk violating the rights of immigrants, but immigration minister Inger Støjberg said going to the “limits of conventions” was “a risk I'm willing to take”.

Residents at an asylum centre during a visit by Queen Margrethe in 2016. Photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

Denmark is a signatory to various European, United Nations and other international treaties including the European Convention on Human Rights treaty of 1953, the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN's 1966 International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

This not only means that Danish laws will guarantee human and political rights domestically but that Denmark will also work along other nations to ensure these rights around the world.

Denmark, a founding and essential member of the UN, is bound to seek that the right of life, freedom and fair trial is provided to people around the world. Meanwhile, Danish law should not discriminate against people of a specific ethnicity, culture, language, religion and identity.

We may celebrate Constitution Day with rallies, seminars and outdoor parties, but celebration will truly be due will be when every single law is in accord with constitutional and human rights conventions.

READ ALSO: Denmark marks 100 years of women's rights

Naqeeb Khan is a graduate of University of Glasgow and Strathclyde University, Scotland and currently resides in Denmark, where he is president of the Green Human Resources organisation. He can be contacted here.

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OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories