Denmark in Iraq – the background story

By Eva Bertram, 2007

On March 21, 2003, the Danish Parliament made a fateful decision. With 61 votes in favor, 50 against and 68 members absent, it was decided that Denmark should embark on the first attack on a foreign country since her sorry experience in Germany in 1864. So a Danish submarine was sent to Iraq and the nation – or at least its government – sat down and hoped for eternal glory – or at least promising commercial contracts in a whole new market.

Is this a script written by Stephen Gaghan for a new George Clooney movie? No, this is real life in Denmark at the beginning of the new millennium.

How Denmark became a warfaring nation

In 2001, a new government was elected in Denmark. A coalition of two right-wing parties supported by the Danish People’s Party (somewhat similar to Le Pen in France) gained the majority in Parliament and brought an end to 9 years of Social Democratic rule.

This change in government had a massive impact on internal affairs in Denmark- which was probably what the voters wished for. But it also had consequences for Denmark’s international relations that nobody could have foreseen, and that few would have wished for.

The government of the new Prime Minister, Mr. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, looked to the United States for guidance and inspiration on foreign policy, and when President George W. Bush lost patience with the United Nations’ weapon inspectors and decided to attack Iraq, the Danish government convinced a majority in parliament to follow suit.

What were the arguments? “Iraq holds weapons of mass destruction. This is not something we think – it’s something we know”. This statement from the Danish Prime Minister made a strong contribution to convincing a slight majority in the Danish Parliament to vote in favor of our modest contribution to the war against Iraq.

The Danish constitution

However, there was a problem – the Danish constitution. The latest version of this “mother of all laws” was passed after a referendum in 1953, when the country was still in the aftermath of World War II. During the preparatory phase, emphasis was therefore laid on future rules for warfare. It was made clear by a large number of politicians that Denmark should not embark on an international military campaign unless:

1. Denmark was under attack from foreign states, or

2. The act of war had been sanctioned by the United Nations.

In fact, at the time when the constitution was written, the head of the constitutional commission and chair of the Liberal Parliamentary Group, Mr. Niels Elgaard, emphasized these conditions in his speech in parliament without being contradicted by any other member.

Evidently, neither of these two conditions was met when the Danish parliament voted to participate in the invasion of Iraq.

Request for a hearing

Since the Danish government decided to join the coalition in 2003, a number of members of the Danish parliament have asked for an impartial hearing on the decision-making process prior to
March 21. Each time, this request has been denied by the simple ruling majority.

“There is nothing to find out, nothing whatsoever!” seems to be the government’s standard reaction to any unsolicited intervention. So there was really no way to find out what arguments had persuaded the hitherto peace-loving Danish nation to launch a military campaign many miles from its own beautiful shores.


Consequently, in October 2005, a group of 24 Danish citizens decided to file a lawsuit against the Prime Minister, Mr. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in his capacity as head of government. The parents of a soldier killed in Iraq later joined the plaintiffs.

Their primary claim is that Denmark’s involvement in the war against Iraq was a violation of the Article 19 of the Danish constitution – a war is only legal if the nation is under attack or if it is sanctioned by the United Nations.

The secondary claim concerns cession of sovereignty. During the Iraq campaign, units of the Danish army have been acting directly under the command of officers of the United States’ armed forces. This is a clear violation of Article 20 of the constitution, which stipulates that the government’s authority may not be delegated to instances other than international organizations (e.g. the United Nations or European Union), and in any case may only be delegated by a qualified majority of five-sixths of the parliament.

The current situation

Not unexpectedly (“There is nothing to find out, nothing whatsoever!”), the Prime Minister repudiated the case. His claim is that the 26 plaintiffs are not qualified to start proceedings because they have no material interest in the claim – not even the parents of the killed Danish soldier. To have such material interest, a plaintiff would need to have lost money or to have been physically maimed.

This led to a court decision in August 2006 that the lawsuit should be split into two phases: first a decision on the question of qualification and later – in the event that the plaintiffs were judged qualified – about the substance of the matter: the Danish constitution.

The question of qualification was tried at the High Court on April 11, 2007 and the plaintiffs lost the case. The parents of the dead soldier were told that their son had consented as an adult to participate in the war – and anyway he was killed after “peace” had been declared.

On June 4, an appeal was delivered to the Supreme Court, which will probably not be able to give its verdict on the matter of “qualification” until the end of 2008. If the Supreme Court allows the lawsuit to proceed, the treatment of the substance of the case will thus have been postponed for almost three years.

Then the real show can begin! It is important to know that on several occasions the Danish Supreme Court has ruled against the High Court in constitutional matters, also concerning the question of legal qualification. In fact, the Supreme Court is the very instance to clarify the implications of an old law (the Constitution) in a new – and global – context.

The perspectives

This lawsuit is not just a matter of crucial historic importance. It is also a question of constitutional rights. Can it be true that Danish citizens are not directly concerned with violations of the Constitution unless they have invested private money or have been physically disabled? If so, perhaps the outcome of this lawsuit should result in the formulation of a new and more detailed constitution.

Most importantly, the plaintiffs want to establish future rules for warfare. They want to assure that Denmark cannot embark in possible future campaigns, e.g. in Iran or Syria.

The Committee for the Defense of the Constitution (GK2003)

The Committee for the Defense of the Constitution (GK 2003) was formed by a number of Danish citizens to support the plaintiffs behind the lawsuit and to ensure a lively public debate concerning the issues. So far they have enlisted more than 3,500 Danes (out of a population of 5 million) who have given their formal support to the lawsuit, and the number is growing steadily.

The objective of the committee is to arrange debates and meetings about the lawsuit and the Danish involvement in the war. We organize campaigns at universities, insert advertisements in the newspapers and take every opportunity to make sure that Denmark’s involvement in the war – however modest it may have been – is not forgotten.

The Committee needs all the moral and financial support we can get – also from other countries. We hope that this short presentation has provided a clear picture of the Danish situation.

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