Merethe Stagetorn is a renowned lawyer in Denmark and is currently Defence Lawyer for the Danish Supreme Court. She also has her own law firm and has written a number of books on environmental law and succession law.
At the World Without Walls Mrs. Stagetorn gave a lecture titled Human Rights and Freedom of Expression: A Scandinavian Perspective. In the lecture she argued that in democracies there are certain rights which people abide by which are not necessarily written down in law, she also stated that you don’t have the obligation to the freedom of expression. Mrs. Stagetorn kindly took some time out of her schedule to answer a few questions for us.
In your lecture you spoke about everyone having the right to freedom of expression but not having the obligation to freedom of expression. Where do you believe this line should be drawn?
Well I think that this is a question about morals and ethics. There are of course moments in time where you do have the obligation to speak out. For example if you were in Germany and knew about the concentration camps or witnessed some other atrocities somewhere in the world then one could say that then you have the obligation to speak out. However usually I think that although you might have the freedom to say what you would like, there are normally some personal barriers that should stop you. For example if it is going to offend a large number or people, such as the Mohammed cartoons. They had the freedom to be printed but there should have been personal barriers stopping this. In the end it is up to the individual and what they believe is right.
Denmark has been a member of the European Union for a long time now, how would you say that joining the EU has influenced its laws and the role of the judiciary in Denmark?
Well it has influenced Denmark substantially. It has impacted on the law courts as we now have to act with the practice of European Court of Justice. In terms of legislation and Danish national law it has had huge influence, we have to adapt ourselves to all the legislation passed at the European community level. At the beginning everyone was a bit sceptical of it and was worried about the loss of sovereignty. However we joined the European Union in 1972, a long time ago, and now everyone is getting used to it. We have MEP’s in the European Parliament and we have staff in Brussels, so it is part of the daily political life of Denmark now. There is no doubt that most Dane’s have the feeling that in the end we will be like the United States of America, a United States of Europe. Europe will be made up of states with less and less sovereignty.
Do you think you can apply the same laws in all different cultures or do they have to be culturally specific?
Well I think this depends. For example if you are talking about the next five years of EU law making then I believe there needs to be some room for culture. However if you are talking about a fifty-year span then I don’t believe there is any need for this and the same laws will apply for all as I think Europe will be a whole then.
Denmark has had problems with the integration of foreigners into society, why do you think this is?
There is no doubt that Denmark has not been particularly good at integrating foreigners coming in and I think there are several reasons for this. We have a saying in Denmark: being in a chicken shed, because the Danish language is so hard for foreigners to learn. Many fail to learn the language because of its difficulty and then you have people living in Denmark for quite a long time who cannot speak the language, this I think can be problematic as they are always viewed as foreigners and are easily distinguishable. Another factor in foreigners failing to be well integrated is the notion that people fear the unknown.
In a recent article in a Danish newspaper you wrote about witness protection and argued that witness security and protection needed to be improved, why is this?
Well it is because during the last years we have had growing problems of gangs, for example Hell’s Angels and gangs of immigrants. They have begun shooting at each other. These are very serious gangs, like the mafia, and if you come across them they will shoot or hurt you. This naturally causes a fear and if you do witness the gangs fighting then there is reluctance of witnesses to come forward due to being scared of the repercussions. However witnesses are really needed in order to solve this problem and the best way to ensure people come forward is to offer them better protection.
Interview conducted by Florence Collins & Hugh Garnett, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy