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Rights Deferred: Political Participation of Ethnic Minorities in Denmark

Behind the heated public debates on integration and immigration in Denmark, there exists an important and underappreciated question: what formal structures do ethnic minorities in Denmark have to express their opinions in the political arena, and are these institutions sufficient to guarantee these minorities their fundamental human right to meaningful political participation? A glance at qualitative and quantitative information alike points to a negative answer. 
For example, although ethnic minorities from non-Western countries comprise 6.5% of Denmark's population, in the Parliament they represent less than 3% of that body's total membership. The vocal and respected advocate for ethnic minorities, Bashy Quraishy, has become so disillusioned on this issue that he claims, “Today ethnic minorities do not have any visible and representative voice of their own in Denmark.” In this article, we will explore this issue in detail in order to demonstrate that in Denmark, there exist few if any well-functioning mechanisms through which ethnic minorities can exercise their human right to meaningful political participation. 
Political rights are well-established as fundamental human rights under international law. Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stipulates that "every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity...without unreasonable restrictions to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives." 
In addition to these rights, however, ethnic minorities are entitled to an additional set of rights according to specific provisions of European and international law.  Article 4 of the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, ratified by Denmark in 1997, states that "the Parties undertake to adopt, where necessary, adequate measures in order to promote, in all areas of economic, social, political and cultural life, full and effective equality between persons belonging to a national minority and those belonging to the majority. In this respect, they shall take due account of the specific conditions of the persons belonging to national minorities." 
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities reinforces the European Convention. Article 2 of the declaration states that "persons belonging to minorities have the right to participate effectively in decisions on the national and, where appropriate, regional level concerning the minority to which they belong or the regions in which they live, in a manner not incompatible with national legislation." The next section of our paper will explore how the Danish Government has failed to uphold the right of ethnic minorities to effectively participate in their own government. 
As an ethnic minority, how is one able to take advantage of his or her political rights in the Danish political system? The government has set up two institutions in order to improve integration and social cohesiveness in Danish society. First and foremost there is the Council of Ethnic Minorities (CEM) in The Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs (MoI). According to the CEM’s official web page, the formal role of the council is to advise the minister, Birthe Rønn Hornbech, on issues of importance to immigrants and refugees in Denmark. The council also has the right to comment on general issues relating to ethnic minorities. There are 14 members of the CEM from local integration councils (IC) spread throughout municipalities in Denmark. The integration councils, which are partly consisted of members representing local associations for ethnic minorities advise the local municipality on issues related to integration policies and social cohesiveness. Municipalities have the option of deciding whether to have an integration council and whether to give them a say on issues relating to ethnic minorities. At present, IC's are present in only 50 of Denmark's 98 municipalities.
If ethnic minorities wish to exercise their political rights in Denmark without going through the established political channels, they must work in the context of civil society.  Many form organizations on a local level with other members of their nationality, for example, a Turkish or Pakistani organization. In this way, ethnic minorities are able to address some local issues, and they may also explore and enjoy their cultural heritage and traditions. The problem remains, however, that these civil society organizations are not taken into consideration when political decisions are made regarding ethnic minorities, such as the development of new legislation. 
According to the head of the Integration Department in The Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs, Henrik Kyvsgaard, civil society groups are normally not consulted when the Government considers legislation or important action plans regarding ethnic minorities in the Ministry. Morten Spies, Head of CEM Secretary, says that although civil society is active, its participation is only sought “in an ad hoc fashion”. The consequence of this is that if individuals establish an organization focused on the well-being of ethnic minorities, they will have a difficult time achieving meaningful and effective political influence. 
Mushin Türkyilmaz, President of the Council of Ethnic Minorities, has experience both as a member of the local Turkish organization and the local integration council in the Danish city of Vejle. In his experience, pursuing the “grassroots” route is a dead end: "It is problematic: the grassroots organizations are lacking contact with Danish society, they do not have any network. They are isolated - that leaves them with a very limited understanding of the system." Quraishy explains that political leaders in the ethnic communities are dismissed by the establishment as fundamentalists that have failed to integrate properly. As long as the status quo persists, it appears that Türkyilmaz is correct in his assessment regarding the limited power of civil society organizations for ethnic minorities in Denmark. 
The MoI (Ministry of Integration), in charge of the CEM, is currently administering a system that does not function properly. Even the head of the department, Henrik Kyvsgaard, believes that the local integration councils from which the members of the CEM are taken are generally inexperienced and unrepresentative of the larger community. He says that there often is a disproportionate number of older males representing ethnic minorities that arrived in the first wave of immigration in the 1960s. The system is so flawed that even prominent members of the Ministry, such as Kyvsgaard and Spies, are actively critical of the structure of political representation for ethnic minorities the exists currently under their own management. Nevertheless, the Ministry has relatively little influence over these issues given that their actions are explicitly mandated by national legislation that created the CEM. 
One cannot discuss the Ministry of Integration without discussing the misguided approach it takes to "integrating" ethnic minorities into Danish society. It is well known that there is significant controversy in Denmark regarding the state's integration policy. Quraishy argues that this policy more closely resembles that of segregation, a fact he attributes to the Danish Government's “colonial hangover and a belief that non-European cultures are inferior.” This also appears to be the case when one listens to officers at the MoI. Spies says: “The day when ethnic minorities have the same political and financial opportunities as other inhabitants in society there should really not be a need for any more special structures such as integration councils.” According to international law, minorities are entitled to an additional set of rights based on the fact that they constitute a minority in relation to a majority, but this does not seem to be a perspective the Ministry is taking into consideration. 
The local municipalities are free to decide for themselves whether to establish integration councils, and whether to even listen to their advice. Unlike the Senior Citizens' Council (Ældrerådet, SCC) or Councils of Disabled Persons (Handicaprådet, CDP), the integration councils have no legislative right to be heard on issues of interest to the minorities they represent. According to Lise Togeby, professor of political science, this is a problem. Togeby thinks that the integration councils should be given the same role as the SCC and CDP; in her opinion, there is a severe risk that the councils will become mere “talking shops” where they are not granted any clear competencies (Madsen, 2006). 
This has already occurred in the municipality of Copenhagen, with the consequence that the city is shutting down the council. According to Dina Haffar, a consultant working in the TaskForce Integration Department, city politicians came to the conclusion that the council did not adequately represent the ethnic minorities in Copenhagen. The city plans to change the council’s role and set up a think tank to come up with ideas about integration policies. The mayor in charge of this decision, Social Democrat Jacob Hougaard, states simply that the IC of Copenhagen "has not worked” (Madsen, 2007). 
The comments from people who have worked with the integration council in the city of Copenhagen confirm that there are problems in the composition and role of the IC's. Even Spies, the secretary of CEM, admits that in some municipalities "there is little dialogue between politicians and council members and one gets the impression that the councils are merely set up as (empty) symbols of inclusiveness." 
The fact is that there are no avenues through which ethnic minorities can express their political opinions. According to the official goal stated by the Ministry, as presented by Spies,  the councils are established to "give advice on general issues related to integration and social cohesion within Danish society." Interviews with members of the integration council in the town of Vordingborg confirm this understanding of the institution's role as merely an advisory board. Bent Maigaard, a local politician on the Integration Council of Vordingborg, characterizes their role as making everyone who comes to town "feel welcome." As important as this may be, it is clearly different than providing meaningful political representation for ethnic minorities on a local and national level. Even the European Commission for Human Rights (ECHR) acknowledges that the CEM in Denmark has "only a consultative function" (ECHR, 2007). One could then pose the question: are these councils even intended to protect the political rights of ethnic minorities? The Ministry, CEM and local integration councils themselves all agree that this is not part of the purpose of such bodies. 
In spite of all of this, some members of the political system express concern and frustration with what they perceive to be a lack of interest on the part of ethnic minorities in their own political representation. Kyvsgaard and Haffar, for example, point to the extremely low turnout of 13% in the Copenhagen city integration council election (Madsen, 2007), suggesting that this is symptomatic of a lack of interest on the part of ethnic minorities. In the context described above, however, one can understand why citizens may choose not to participate actively in a system in which they perceive themselves as powerless and unrepresented.
One would hope that at the very least, ethnic minorities would be able to take advantage of traditional, democratic institutions in order to participate in government. Regrettably, this is not the case. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that they are significantly underrepresented in the Danish political system (Togeby, 2005). Even when ostensibly represented, these minority groups question the degree to which those in political office have their community’s best interests in mind. Several factors contribute to such skepticism.
First, there is significant diversity in the composition of the ethnic minority community in Denmark. As Kyvsgaard explains, "The only thing they share is that they are immigrants, they don’t share political opinions or background." Moreover, the diversity within specific nationalities makes matters more difficult. A single Turkish representative, for example, may not be able to speak for Danish citizens of Kurdish or Alawi descent.
Second, some prominent members of the ethnic community look unfavorably upon ethnic Parliamentarians, and don’t mince words when describing them. “It is problematic with the ethnic minorities: they forget that they themselves have had it hard,” says Türkyilmaz, “they talk in a way so you can't tell the difference between them and the Danish Peoples Party." Quraishy says, “if you kiss ass then you are a successful politician.” Quraishy even goes to describe such politicians as “Uncle Toms who have their own axe to grind.”
Third, political parties are generally not interested in welcoming ethnic minorities as anything more than mere token members. When given the opportunity to join a political party, their voices are silenced by pressure to conform to the existing party platform. As Quraishy explains, "The problem is that when you join a political party you become a party soldier and have to adopt their opinions...either you conform and do your bidding or you are totally marginalized."
Fourth, the costs of entering the political arena in Denmark are often prohibitive in terms of resources, both monetary and social. Kyvsgaard explains that ethnic minorities often lack organizational experience and Danish language skills, making it difficult for them to compete for seats in the local and national government. Türkyilmaz adds that ethnic minorities also tend to lack broad social networks and familiarity with the nuances of Danish democracy.  
The result of all of these problems is that ethnic minorities cannot rely on their "representatives" in Government to serve as their delegates in the political arena, and consequently they feel disenfranchised by both the electoral system and the bodies overseen by the Ministry of Integration.
Clearly, the existing democratic infrastructure is inadequate for the political representation of ethnic minorities. But even if minorities were well integrated and represented in the political system, it would be necessary - pursuant to international law - for Denmark to provide alternative channels through which they can voice their unique perspectives. Thus, the Danish Government fails doubly, insofar as it provides neither formal democratic nor alternative means by which ethnic minorities can exercise their human right to meaningful and effective political participation. 


International law

• International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
• European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities 
• The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities 

Personal interviews

• Türkyilmaz, Mushin. President, Council of Ethnic Minorities. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 29, 2009.
• Kyvsgaard, Henrik. Head of Department of Integration, Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009. 
• Quraishy, Bashy. President, European Network Against Racism. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
• Spies, Morton. Head of the Secretary of the Council of Ethnic Minorities. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009. 
• Haffar, Dina. Consultant, TaskForce Integration. Copenhagen, Denmark. June 30, 2009.
• Faizi, Farid. Member of integration council in Vordingborg. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 1, 2009.  
• Maigaard, Bent. Member of city council of Vordingborg for the party Venstre and a member of the integration council in Vordingborg. Copenhagen, Denmark. July 1, 2009.
Newspaper, magazine and academic articles
• Madsen, Tanja Nyrup. "Integrationsråd bør have klare rettigheder," Ugebrevet A4, February 27, 2006. 
• Madsen, Tanja Nyrup. "Integrationsråd er kejserens nye klæder," Ugebrevet A4, May 14, 2007. 
• Togeby, Lise. "The Electoral System and Representation of Ethnic Minorities," Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, Marriott Wardman Park, Omni Shoreham, Washington Hilton, Washington, DC, September 01, 2005. 

Web site

• The Council of Ethnic Minorities - a short summary." Rådet for etniske minoriteter. http://www.rem.dk/sw10565.asp 
• Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affair. "Tal og fakta - befolkningsstatistik om indvandrere og efterkommere" (July 2009). Page 10. http://www.nyidanmark.dk/NR/rdonlyres/ED371C30-DE30-4857-A2D0-5CA810403751/0/tal_fakta_befolkningsstatistik_juni2009.pdf  
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Denmark Denmark 2009


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