Beware of Danes Baring Rifts

Danish premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen is scheduled to visit President Bush at the White House on May 28. Indications are mounting that the meeting might be a bit less friendly than usual, given the Iraqi prisoner treatment scandal that erupted last week. Of course, this top-level visit was planned months ago, so that latest unpleasantness is by no means the meeting’s motivation. But prisoner treatment is not the only burr under the Danish saddle, by far. To a great extent (although with less visibility, since there’s less world interest), the Danes are in the same boat as the British: having unreservedly backed the Americans in the approach to and conduct of the War in Iraq, they are now reaping that whirlwind, particularly in view of the failure to turn up of the weapons of mass destruction that were to many the war’s main justification. In April Danish defense minister Svend Aage Jensby resigned as pressure mounted within the Danish parliament, the Folketing, over the present government’s allegedly misleading behavior that led Denmark to support and participate in the war – although admittedly only to the extent of the dispatch one non-combatant ship. (Still: an example of the enforcement of public official accountability that other countries would be wise to follow? You make the call.)

Interestingly, though, the somewhat more-confrontational stance that the Danish prime minister supposedly is ready to take into the White House in a few weeks’ time was not unveiled by Rasmussen himself, but rather by his foreign minister, Per Stig Møller. What’s more, it wasn’t revealed in a formal government statement, but rather at “question time” in the Folketing, as Politiken reports (Denmark Widens Criticism of USA). The prime minister would not content himself with merely criticizing American treatment of Iraqi prisoners in the Oval Office, Møller claimed. He would also have remarks to make about whether the United Nation’s (anti-)torture convention and other international accords are being observed at Guantánamo and at the American-controlled airbase at Bagram in Afghanistan, as well as about America’s refusal to place its nationals under the jurisdication of the International Criminal Court.


Now, that’s the foreign minister speaking, in the parliament. Then again, it’s only the foreign minister; remarks from the prime minister from earlier that day, also reported in Politiken’s article, are considerably less belligerent. “There are a thousand things one can talk about at all possible meetings. And I have not set the agenda for what I want to speak with the President about,” prime minister Rasmussen is quoted as saying.

Then again, the Berlingske Tidende, another leading Danish daily, has another report, dated Tuesday (Fogh Demands the Highest Standard for Prisoner Treatment in Iraq), that has the prime minister coming out swinging. He intends to tell Bush that Denmark considers the cases of prisoner abuse “intolerable,” and indeed that his country “demands” (the verb here is forlange, Danish fans) that the US adhere to “the highest possible standard” in its prisoner treatment. Berlingske Tidende doesn’t reveal directly in what forum the prime minister made these remarks, but it must have been in his regular Tuesday press conference, since the paper does point out how, in his press conference of Tuesday last week – i.e. as the prisoner treatment scandal was just breaking out – the prime minister showed no inclination to make any demands during his Washington visit.

It’s true that, at one level, this is all somewhat laughable – little Denmark making demands, the mouse that roars. For heaven’s sake, the Bush administration seems oblivious even to objections and demands from Congress in this prisoner abuse matter. But of course Denmark has more powerful friends, or more precisely is a member of a more power association; and indeed both the first Politiken article and this other article in Berlingske Tidende report how foreign minister Møller is also determined to raise the matter of America’s recent behavior when it comes to international conventions at the scheduled EU foreign ministers’ meeting next Monday.


To the commentary newspaper Information, it’s all a bit too late (in The Good Against the Evil). The article begins with a timely quote from Winston Churchill (translated here back from the Danish): “A state’s right to throw a man in prison without formulating an accusation to the court . . . is most disgusting, and such a way of proceeding is the foundation stone of every form of totalitarian regime, Nazi or communist.” Anders Fogh Rasmussen might have finally screwed his courage up to confront President Bush and demand “the highest possible standard” of treatment for prisoners, but it’s unlikely the American chief executive will be quaking in his boots much over that. In any case, the problem goes way back – to the “democratic exceptions” deemed essential after the September 11 attacks to win the “war on terrorism.” First there was the “Patriot Act,” which made it legal to hold thousands without charge, on suspicion of terrorism. Then came the refusal to abide by the Geneva Convention in Afghanistan, instead coming up with the concept of “illegal combatants,” who could be whisked off to the new detention center at Guantánamo Bay, where they would have no rights at all. “The USA let it be known that, when Good fought against Evil, one had to put the rule of law and international rules partially or wholly aside.” The basis was set for a slide into Churchill’s totalitarian regime.

Where were Danish objections when all that was happening? Information asks. Also, for all his indignation, Prime Minister Rasmussen also seems to accept the American administration’s argument that the prisoner abuse was merely the work of a few misguided guards, a few bad apples. But that seems less and less likely to actually be the case, the paper points out, as is to be seen, for example, in the Pentagon manual detailing 20 approved torture methods for use at Guantánamo.

The prime minister, Information finds, should save his breath during his White House visit. He has come around too late to what has really been going on; he has no basis to complain, since he himself, and by implication his government, were complicit by their silence in the misdeeds that only now are coming to light.

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