In defence of justice

Jacob Mchangama is no moral relativist. Director of the think tank Justitia, he says Denmark must uphold its fundamental values and encourage open debate in order to fight extremism in the aftermath of incidents such as the Cologne attacks

We need to discuss issues like the refugee crisis in a factual way, in order to acknowledge the extent of the problem. We need to know how many will commit crimes and how many will get work. We can’t keep anything in the dark. Unless we, and the mainstream political parties, address these issues, then there are plenty of extremists waiting on the sidelines, ready to step in and do away with our liberty.”

Casually dressed, chewing gum and sipping coffee, Jacob Mchangama could come across a little blasé, but there is nothing compromising about his stance on human rights and the fundamental values and liberties the world should be built on.

“We need to be assertive in our principles. Freedom of speech, women’s rights and the freedom to criticise religions are vital rights. Europe has experienced terrible violence and wars due to religion and therefore it is vital that it remains outside of politics. We cannot escape the fact that many people are coming to Europe, many of whom have an entirely different approach to religion. But we should not compromise our values to appease. We shouldn’t sacrifice for sake of a fundamentalist. He doesn’t sacrifice anything – he makes us bow to his will.”

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The importance of principles
Mchangama is the founder and director of the judicial think tank Justitia. The organisation fittingly shares a name with the Roman goddess of justice, who blindly holds her scales over courthouses across the world. It is fitting because Justitia’s mandate is to be an independent judicial watchdog.

“I started Justitia because I wanted to create a non partisan organisation that strictly focused on judicial issues, such as due process and human rights, but left alone questions of economics.”

The think tank was founded in 2014 after Mchangama left libertarian think tank CEPOS. Justitia is the first of its kind in Denmark, but in a relatively short time has become an active and important part of the political debate. In recent years Mchangama has become the go-to commentator on issues regarding the rule of law, the constitution and human rights.

Its mandate includes conveying and communicating difficult legal questions to the public. Mchangama uses social media to break down complicated and convoluted debates for his thousands of followers, answering questions and urging steadfastness on principle rights and values.

Morality for sale
Early in the New Year, disturbing news broke that ignited a heated debate about a new reality facing Europe. In several cities across the continent, most notably Germany’s fourth largest city Cologne, upwards of 1,000 men sexually abused, raped, and robbed numerous women celebrating New Year’s Eve.

The violence was met with violence, as far-right groups across Germany carried out reprisal attacks. In Leipzig, around 150 men from the football hooligan milieu attacked and vandalised shops and businesses.

The shameful violence masked a debate in the middle. The men were largely of North African descent and the attacks mirrored similar incidents witnessed during the Arab Spring, most notoriously in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.

In Denmark, however, several feminist and left-wing commentators argued that the discussion was coloured by racism and hypocrisy. Comedian Sanne Søndergaard wrote on her Facebook page that the uproar was just a case of “white men” being upset over “brown men groping white women”, and that the events in Cologne were just similar to what women experience every summer at the Roskilde Music Festival.

Ulla Tornemand, former vice director of Danish Women’s Society (Dansk Kvindesamfund), echoed the point in an op-ed for Politiken newspaper entitled “The sexually abusive white man has his glory days”.

Mchangama hit out at those claims in an op-ed for Berlingske newspaper, entitled “Cologne and the clearance sale of values”. He argued that people who saw themselves as progressive were, in fact, downplaying the most brutal attack on women’s rights in years.

“To some, it was more important to point out that white men also commit attacks on women, rather than discussing the incident and the attackers, because the men who had committed the attacks had different coloured skin.”

In the op-ed he drew parallels to the reaction following the 2005 Mohammed cartoon crisis. At the time, Denmark found itself facing a serious dilemma over its stance on free speech and anti-discrimination. Some Danes took the stance that it was better to moderate free speech to avoid inflaming tensions with the Muslim world.

But then, like now, Mchangama argues that the cost of abandoning our fundamental principles is a price too high to pay.

“In 2005 we suddenly woke up to a Denmark where journalists and editors had to be protected by bodyguards and live under constant death threats, something that would only have existed in our imagination a few years earlier. Then, as now, I was astonished by the reaction of the progressive wing, those who had in previous decades talked most about freedom of speech were suddenly not interested in defending that right.”

There remains, in Europe, a clear discomfort in pointing the finger at minorities, given Europe’s colonial past and horrifying history of mistreatment and genocide of minorities. But Mchangama argues this discomfort is now preventing us from acknowledging the facts.

“The emphasis on anti-discrimination has become so extensive that we have lost focus. Anti-discrimination does not mean that the West and white people are always the bad guys. It seems that many are more interested in taking pot shots at political opponents, than discussing why a significant minority of people, who have arrived from certain parts of the world, can act in such an inconceivable and organised way. This is a reality we have to talk about, no matter how uncomfortable it is.”

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Eroding trust
This discomfort was clear in the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Cologne. Initially, the local police department stated that the New Year’s Eve celebrations had been “playful” and “largely peaceful”. The German media, by large, ignored or failed to report on the attacks until several days later.

Last month, news broke of an alleged cover up by the Stockholm police department, which failed to report numerous sexual assaults at the We Are Sthlm youth festival last summer. Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter (DN) first reported the story, and criticised the police for withholding information about the incidents. The newspaper claimed to have seen a police memo about the incident, in which it was alleged that the “attackers were mostly migrants, including from Afghanistan”.

In the article, police chief Peter Ågren claimed that the decision to withhold information was, in fact, due to the growing influence of Sweden’s far-right Sverigedemokraterne party – releasing the news would only strengthen them.

“We sometimes dare not to say how it is because we think it might play into the hands of the Sweden Democrats,” he told the newspaper.

Following the article, the Norwegian Union of Journalists wrote in its periodical, Journalisten, that DN editor Hanne Kjöller had been tipped off about the assaults last summer and, while initially interested, had decided to drop the story when finding out that they had been carried out by refugee and migrant youths.

The case demonstrates self-censorship on behalf of the authorities and the police in the interest of preserving the peace. But Mchangama argues that those kinds of actions are both counterproductive and dangerous to democracy.

“When authorities lie and conceal issues, it erodes the vital public trust that is required for a legal state to function. I think many Swedes and Germans lost some of that trust after these news stories broke. It is incomprehensible that the police would withhold information to hinder a legal political party. It is even downright dangerous if the police start making decisions based on politics. Just imagine if the police in Denmark decided to withhold information because it might benefit the Social Democrats.”

The Swedish paradox
Last year, Jacob Aasland Ravndal and Johannes Due Enstad from the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment wrote an op-ed in Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. The duo had been doing extensive research on right wing political violence in West Europe and their findings showed that Sweden had the highest rate of politically-motivated violence per-capita. They suggested that one of the reasons could be the country’s restricted debate on immigration issues.

“The Swedish consensus culture is strongly represented in the immigration debate. Factual criticism and legitimate concerns are suppressed and stigmatised,” they wrote.

The researchers pointed out that the Danish People’s Party (DF) could even have diminished political violence in Denmark by opening up the debate and giving voice to disillusioned individuals who might otherwise be forced to turn towards more extremist elements to get their views across.

This is a point that Mchangama is keen to stress. He believes that an open and unhindered debate is key to undermining and fighting political extremism.

“Denmark has a more clear and open debate than Sweden. As DF has moved from its more extremist roots and has become a more normal party that engages in politics as usual, the debate became de-radicalised.”

He points out that when the authorities refuse to disclose information or address concerns and issues relating to immigration, the debate risks being taken over by online blogs and forums with extremist right wing views. In doing so the focus moves away from factual discussions and toward conspiracy theories and paranoia.

Ultimately he worries that the very existence of a country, governed by rule of law, is at stake if we get to a point where people don’t trust the police and turn to vigilantism. He says that when countries like Germany and Sweden both fail to protect women, and also cover up sexual assaults, re-establishing the trust between citizens and the state becomes a monumental task.

“I believe that when the authorities and the public have a radically different view of how things stand, then we lose the ability to face the enormous challenge of creating the necessary togetherness and integration we need in a society with people from different backgrounds. If we don’t think we can win a debate against the most extremist voices then I fear we have built a very fragile democracy.”

The dim beacon
European politicians have been unable to form a coherent and effective strategy for dealing with the refugee crisis. The European Union has failed to adequately assist countries at its periphery, such as Greece, that have borne the brunt of receiving refugees. Individual member states have responded in disjointed and counter-productive ways, with countries often shifting responsibility to their neighbours. This, Mchangama argues, stems from a serious lack of competent leaders across the continent.

“You see it everywhere. We are standing at a point in Europe where we are experiencing an extreme leadership crisis. Politicians have not had to face such a serious challenge over the last twenty or thirty years. For them, it is more important to maintain their political positions than to tackle problems. And if nothing is done, and the migrant and refugee crisis continues, then the population in Europe will become more radicalised.”

As the economic and political power migrates towards emerging economies to the South and East, the West has found itself having to re-evaluate its position and influence on human rights. In order to placate autocratic governments and maintain valuable business interests, Western nations forgo their principled stance on fundamental human rights in exchange for pragmatism.

This reality became uncomfortably clear when Saudi Arabia, a country Freedom House called “one of the worst human rights abusers in the world”, was voted head of the UN’s Human Rights Council in 2013.

“It is completely absurd, we have never had a more undemocratic Human Rights Council since its founding in 2006,” says Mchangama.

The position allows Saudi Arabia, on behalf of the UN, to interview and appoint experts to investigate and report on human rights violations and the status of issues such as the rights of women, migrants, religious freedom and minorities across the world.

“It is clear that the West has less power than before and bows out of many fights. You see that the Royal Family and our foreign minister are making an official visit to Saudi Arabia, and here at home we bend to the demands of China to remove protesters from the streets.”

These are politically calculated moves that allow countries to compromise on values they otherwise claim to stand firmly behind. Ultimately, it demonstrates that the West has abandoned its defence of human rights, he argues. Still, despite the West’s waning hegemony, even small nations like Denmark could make steps towards countering violations and standing up for human rights.

“What we can do may be limited, but at the very least we could stop voting for countries like Saudi Arabia to be in charge of creating and enforcing official policy. We need to be principled and resolved when it comes to fundamental human rights.” M


Features, News

By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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