Why did the government close the Iraq Commission?

The closure of the Iraq Commission by the new Venstre government has provoked criticism and sparked accusations of a cover-up. With allegations of prisoner mistreatment emerging, does Denmark need to investigate its involvement in Iraq?

Censorship isn’t usually a key theme in Danish politics, as the country routinely reaps international praise for its transparency. But the formal winding-up of the Iraq Commission, designed to investigate Denmark’s participation in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, couldn’t have been better timed to provoke accusations of a cover-up.

Former Liberal Party (Venstre) prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and then-foreign minister Per Stig Møller from the Conservative People’s Party (Konservative) were due to be called by the commission to answer for Denmark’s participation in the Iraq War and treatment of prisoners by Danish forces.

While the new government argues that disbanding the commission is a pragmatic and fiscally responsible decision, critics argue that the government is yielding its reinstated power to silence independent review of its past conduct.

Venstre: Commission a farce
After long criticising the project’s stagnation and bureaucratic dysfunction, Venstre pledged in January to close the commission should it form government.

“It has been going on for two years now, it has cost seven million kroner so far, and it still hasn’t produced a thing,” wrote Løkke Rasmussen on Facebook in February. “It’s a farce.”

There was also criticism levelled at the alleged internal disagreement between the three commissioners, even sparking Social Democrat and then Minister of Justice Mette Frederiksen to declare her impatience to Berlingske in January.

The new Venstre government also maintains that the basis for Denmark’s participation in the Iraq War and the circumstances surrounding Danish soldiers’ detention of persons has already been adequately covered. Instead, they pledged to divert the funds to support services for Danish veterans.

Right wing ally the Dansk Folkeparti (DF) also accused the former centre-left wing government of setting up the commission to politically embarrass Venstre, who led the decision to enter the war.

“It’s purely political teasing,” DF defence spokesperson Marie Krarup told Ritzau. “What’s worse, they’ve made a political issue into a legal issue.”

Timing is everything, however. The commission was disbanded just after former PM and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and then Minister for Foreign Affairs Per Stig Møller were summoned to appear before the commission.

Fogh Rasmussen would likely have been questioned about a memo obtained by Danish newspaper Politiken, which revealed the PMª assured Danish military support to the US one year prior to the war.

This is despite Rasmussen’s claim at the time that no decision about Danish participation had been made.

The memo also indicates that Rasmussen altered the justification for the war from the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to Saddam Hussein’s failure to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors.

Far left party Enhedslisten believes the hearings were a significant factor in the  commission’s premature closure.

“We believe they closed the  commission because they are afraid. It is not a coincidence that the  commission was closed just before former government members were called up to answer for the war,” said MP Finn Sørensen.

Former Commissioner: unanswered questions
For Professor Jørgen Albæk Jensen, one of the three commissioners appointed to investigate Denmark’s involvement in the war, this is also telling.

“Of course it’s difficult to guess why the government shut down the commission. They didn’t want it to carry on and my personal guess would be that they didn’t want to face the potentially uncomfortable questions the commission might ask.”

He believes that it is too early to close the commission just as it begins to call for these hearings.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions – enough that it’s unjustifiable to close the commission at this point. We were at the stage where we had questions for the then prime minister and foreign minister.”

“We’ve come a long way and now everything that we’ve collated is wasted.”

Anti-torture organisation Dignity also argues that the commission’s closure sends a message about the government’s disregard for standards of accountability.

“Interrupting work as important as the Iraq Commission, which was looking into Denmark’s compliance with national and international standards during an armed conflict, is obviously not a good signal,” said Jens Modvig, Dignity’s Director for Prevention of Torture in Detentions.

“In my opinion, the government has signalled that there is no desire for transparency and accountability, since the government’s actions shall not be reviewed and analysed as had been planned.”

Allegations of prisoner mistreatment
The commission’s disbanding also arrived days before allegations that the government had approved Danish military cooperation with controversial US security firm Blackwater in Iraq, despite assurances that the two were merely in “dialogue”.

Other potential points of concern for the commission include recent suggestions that the then-defence minister was aware that the Iraqi Police Force mistreated prisoners in their care and continued to instruct Danish forces to hand survivors over to them.

To Modvig, the government is clearly wrong to suggest that issues surrounding the war have been “adequately covered”.

“The public recently learned that some 300 Iraqi prisoners held by Denmark, and therefore under Danish jurisdiction, were handed over to the Iraqi authorities. This is severely worrying if they were at risk of being tortured by the Iraqi authorities.”

Sørensen from Enhedslisten agrees.

“That the war has been ‘adequately covered’ is a big lie. It has not. A deal between the Army and Blackwater was alleged and we don’t know any more about that,” said Sørensen.

It also raises possible international legal implications for Denmark.

“If Denmark handed prisoners over to the Iraqis knowing they would be tortured then that is a breach of international law. But that was the point of the commission; we need to try the issues in front of a court judge,” said Dignity spokesperson Anders Bernhoft.

Commission misrepresented
Professor Jensen says allegations of internal strife and stagnation were also misrepresented and exaggerated.

“It took a long time to get security clearance for the classified documents,” he said, nodding to the hurdles faced by the commission in accessing sensitive and classified military information from Danish intelligence.

“However in the meantime we did what work we could with non-classified documents.”

He also disputes suggestions that the three commissioners refused to cooperate.

“It was more of an issue with electing the wrong chairman. Once we got a new chairman six months ago, everything ran much more smoothly. [PM Lars Løkke] Rasmussen’s portrait of a  commission which did not function does not apply to the past six months of work.”

Sørensen agrees that delays and expenses are not reasonable justifications for the commission’s closure.

“That is a very bad excuse. You could use it against any commission – they all take a long time and use a lot of money to draw conclusions.”

Documentation withheld 
What also doesn’t help the government’s case is the PM’s refusal to go before a parliamentary committee to justify the commission’s closure. Similarly, the government does not plan to release the documents that have been collated during the commission’s two-year tenure, though their support party Liberal Alliance have challenged the government to publicly release these documents.

“The government has thus far failed to provide any sufficient reason for why the documents should be held back,” Liberal Alliance’s foreign affairs spokesperson Mette Bock told Berlingske.

Enhedslisten MP Sørensen is interested to see whether Liberal Alliance will support his party’s move to reinstate the commission when Parliament resumes session in October. Liberal Alliance could provide the centre-left with a majority outside the government to pass the proposal.

“It will be interesting to see whether they will cross the political divide and vote with us,” said Sørensen

Meanwhile, Professor Albæk Jensen agrees that the documents ought to be made public.

“If a fiscal argument is used to close the commission, then the logical conclusion is to release the documents and not waste the money, resources and time we’ve already spent – that is if the concern is really fiscal.” M


By Lena Rutkowski

Politics & Society Editor. Lena is a journalist and translator from Australia. @Lenarutski

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