The "Cartoon Row" dissected -- part 6
Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a multi-national force under British leadership had been based in SE Iraq. Part of this force were 530 Danish soldiers, stationed at Qurnah, 60 kilometers north of Basra. The force's operations consisted mostly of "security and stabilization".
On February 13 2006, the city council of Basra issued a statement demanding the withdrawal of the Danish troops until and unless an apology for the caricatures was issued by the Danish government. Initially, this demand caused some consternation in the Danish government. The ruling Liberalist-Conservative government had invested a great deal of prestige in its support of the U.S.-led occupation, and found itself torn by conflicting interests. The largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, had always maintained the position that the troops should only remain so long as they were welcomed officially. If push came to shove, the ruling coalition could muster a majority in the Folketing, the Danish parliament, but not without great difficulty, as the supporting Danish People's Party was at best lukewarm to the troop presence in Iraq.
Fortunately for Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Iraqi national government (such as it was) issued a statement two days later, confirming the continued official welcome of the Danish troops in Iraq.
At about the same time, the Egyptian ambassador to Denmark, Mona Omar Attia, was called to the Foreign Ministry in Copenhagen, for a consultation of a different kind. The topic was her personal actions during the initial stages of the crisis. During the consultation, the Foreign Minister's representative, Chief of Protocol Christopher Bo Bramsen, made it clear that her misrepresentation of Danish law in international Muslim circles (in particular her documented and demonstrably false claims that Islam was not a recognised religion in Denmark, made on Egyptian television in early February) were incompatible with her diplomatic status.
The situation culminated with the ambassador demissioning on February 17. She left to take up a new diplomatic post in South Africa, a post that she had reportedly been in line for since December. Though this may well be true, the sudden departure without a clear replacement (the embassy's affairs have since been handled by the embassy staff, under Minister Plenipotentiary Mohab Nasr Mostafa Mahdy, until a new ambassador can be appointed) would seem to indicate that the timing of her departure was not planned, but rather a direct result of the strained situation.
As domestic aspects of the crisis flourished in Denmark, the uproar and violence continued abroad. Demonstrations in Pakistan and elsewhere continued to claim lives. The EU's foreign policy coordinator (the closest thing the EU has to a collective foreign minister) Javier Solana, made a circuit of the Muslim countries, trying to put a damper on the crisis.
Demonstrating a lack of understanding of basic principles of civil liberties, the Muslim countries began to put pressure on the UN and the EU to adopt resolutions intended to prevent or prohibit the defamation of religions -- in effect, to make the UN and EU adopt laws against blasphemy, superseding freedom of the press. This initiative was one of the talking points during Solana's visit to Jordan on February 14 2006, and King Abdullah made it clear that Jordan supported the initiative.
As the month wore on, unrest broke out in Nigeria, exacerbating an already existing tension between Moslems and Christians. The result was a series of bloody riots that left hundreds dead or wounded.
In Danish domestic politics, a new crisis broke on the troubled prime minister, near the end of February. On February 22, the Danish daily Politiken broke the story that during October and November 2005, Egypt's foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit had sent a series of diplomatic notes to various international organisations (including the EU's Javier Solana; the Secretary General of the OSCE, Marc Perrin de Brichambaut; and the member countries of the UN, as well as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan). In the notes, Egypt made it clear that they were not asking for judicial retribution to be visited on Jyllands-Posten or the caricaturists:
"We do not expect that any country will take legal or disciplinary actions against a newspaper [...]
"However, we had expected an official Danish statement underlining the need for, and obligation to, respect all religions and refrain from mocking their adherents, to prevent an escalation that could have serious and far-reaching consequences."
It was clear that the notes could have been utilised as a way out of the crisis, had the Danish government been willing to use it. Such a statement could easily have been made without compromising the principles of free speech. That Anders Fogh Rasmussen chose not to make use of this option is probably attributable to a lack of foresight (in late 2005, the crisis was still smouldering, and its eventual full extent not readily apparent) and to a desire to score points in domestic politics, by appealing to the xenophobic trends among the voters. As time passed, so did the chance to make use of the option. The crisis escalated beyond the level where it could be easily resolved.
However, the point which makes the matter of the notes becomes truly significant is a different one... specifically that the position of the Danish PM throughout the crisis had been that the Muslim countries had demanded that the Danish government carry out legal reprisals against the newspaper and caricaturists. The letter made it clear that this was not true. Moreover, the letter had not been drawn to the attention of the parliamentary oversight committee on foreign policy. Clearly, the Danish government had been walking a very fine line, legally, and perhaps even stepping out of bounds. Deceiving the Folketing is more or less the worst crime a minister can commit. The relevant law, Ministeransvarlighedsloven ("Law of Ministerial Responsibility"), dating from 1964 and revised in 2000, states:
"§ 5. En minister straffes, hvis han forsætligt eller af grov uagtsomhed tilsidesætter de pligter, der påhviler ham efter grundloven eller lovgivningen i øvrigt eller efter hans stillings beskaffenhed.
Stk. 2. Bestemmelsen i stk. 1 finder anvendelse, såfremt en minister giver folketinget urigtige eller vildledende oplysninger eller under folketingets behandling af en sag fortier oplysninger, der er af væsentlig betydning for tingets bedømmelse af sagen."
("Article 5: A minister is subject to criminal liability, if he deliberately or through gross negligence fails to carry out the duties incumbent upon him according to the constitution or to applicable law, or according to the nature of his position.
Section 2. The contents of Section 1 become applicable if a minister gives the Folketing false or deceptive information, or, during the Folketing's treatment of a matter, withholds information which is of significant importance to the parliamentary evaluation of the matter.")
By any reasonable estimation, it seemed clear that in its treatment of the Egyptian letters, the government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen had skirted extremely close to the limits of legality with regard to the obligation to keep the Folketing informed. Whether they had crossed over the line into actual crime remains unclear. Equally unclear was the question of whether de-emphasizing the Egyptian letters was a conscious attempt at cover-up, or simply an amazingly short-sighted misevaluation of their significance.
(Continued in part 7)
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