Ms. Susanne Nour Magnusson is the Director of the Equality Department in the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR).
The DIHR is a founding member of Equinet and an independent national human rights institution (NHRI) (modelled in accordance with the UN Paris Principles) as well as a national equality body in accordance to the Danish law on equal treatment within the areas of race, ethnicity, gender and disability. More information about the institute can be found here.
Equinet: Ms. Nour Magnusson, your organisation has been a founding member of Equinet. Can you tell us a bit about the history of your office and its involvement in our network?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: In 2003 the Danish Institute for Human Rights was appointed as Denmark’s national equality body competent on the grounds of race and ethnicity. Having this new role we found that a network to facilitate cooperation and exchange of knowledge between the European national equality bodies was important. So we were indeed a founding member and have from the start been involved and supported the building of the important European network that Equinet has become.
In 2011 we had our mandate extended to also cover gender equality, so we are happy that Equinet has recently strengthened its work on this ground. In that same year we were also given the role as Denmark’s Independent Mechanism to Promote, Protect and Monitor the Implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Equinet: What do you consider being the main Equinet activity or initiative that your organisation benefits from?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: Both the working groups and the trainings as very beneficial. We are active in Equinet’s working groups on Gender Equality, Policy Formation, Equality Law in Practice and Communication Strategies and Practices and I find them to be important for exchanging ideas and learning among European equality bodies. I consider the Equinet trainings as an important and integrated element of our competence development.
Equinet: Could you expand a bit more on the way in which you believe your colleagues benefit from being involved in the working groups?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: Take for example the Working Group Equality Law in Practice. We have been participating in that for a long time, working with colleagues from many other Equinet members, and this means that a network of legal experts from equality bodies has been established. WG members have each other’s contacts and feel comfortable and confident enough to ask one another for information on case law or just an opinion on a particular case. So this network building through the working groups is very important, especially for new staff members.
Equinet: Can you tell us a bit about the main challenges that your equality body is currently dealing with, and how are you responding to them?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: The main questions that guide our work are how we can best contribute to build knowledge and understanding of discrimination structures in society (whether they are institutional, in legislation, in routines and practices, or in attitudes) and how best can we use this knowledge to make recommendations for a more diverse and inclusive society.
We cannot change things on our own of course, so another important challenge is how to work strategically with the key actors and duty bearers (such as ministries, local authorities, employers and employees organisations) on how they can take responsibility in promoting equality and protecting against discrimination. We also strive to engage civil society more systematically both in identifying the main challenges and in reporting cycles linked to UN committees (especially CERD, CEDAW and CRPD).
"We cannot change things on our own, so an important challenge is how to work strategically with the key actors and duty bearers (such as ministries, local authorities, employers and employees organisations) on how they can take responsibility in promoting equality and protecting against discrimination."
Equinet: Could you give us a brief example of an initiative from your equality body that had a real and measurable impact in tackling discrimination?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: I think it would be worth looking at three initiatives corresponding to the three mandates we have on the grounds of gender, ethnic origin and disability.
Gender: We recently published a legal analysis on the extent and scope of the prohibition against sex discrimination in access to and supply of goods and services. Very few know about this legislation and so we found that we needed to cast light on it. One of the interesting conclusions is that whereas it is mostly women that complain about discrimination on the labour market it is mostly men that complain about discrimination in relation to goods and services. Goods and services is a very broad subject and the report touches on a long list of issues (e.g. pensions). In relation to the launch of the report we succeeded in getting The Danish Consumer Council to commit themselves to become much more aware about equal access to goods and services. There is a number of recommendations in the report that we are systematically working on addressing to the government and other duty bearers. The most important of the recommendations is an equality act that covers all discrimination grounds also outside the labour market. We have not yet succeeded in getting that through but we are hopeful and we do all the efforts we can.
Ethnic origin: We have carried out a study on how hate crimes are handled in Denmark to assess whether the procedures that have been developed by the police, the prosecution and the courts ensure effective protection against these crimes. The study showed that the legal protection against hate crimes in Denmark was not effective. The most important recommendations in the report were to improve registrations and establish a permanent incident reporting scheme as well as to promote reporting of hate crimes to police through a nationwide effort to raise knowledge of hate crimes, rights and remedies. This is one of our best examples where we have really made a difference as a direct consequence of the recommendations. We have been all over the country and all police stations have been through a course on hate crimes and how to register these incidents in a systematic way. We have also carried out a campaign in cooperation with the Police and the Copenhagen municipality in order to raise a broader awareness and knowledge.
Disability: As the last example I will mention a report on accessibility to buildings. It focuses on why we in Denmark are not better at building accessible premises. We have made a short and more popular version of this report to try to raise awareness and engage more people in the discussion on accessibility. Accessibility to buildings is not only relevant for physically disabled persons, but also for all older people as well as everyone who has to move around with small children in buggies. We presented the report at the UN CPRD meeting in New York last month. And we have initiated dialogue with a number of duty bearers on this issue. But this is a good example on how we also try to bring equality issues to the attention of the broad society by communication and designing products that are accessible for everyone.
Equinet: Could you also give us an example of a recent case/story encountered in your work that has particularly fascinated and challenged you?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: As mentioned previously, we’ve recently launched a report on accessibility of buildings. The problem with this issue in Demark is that control mechanisms and penalties for noncompliance with regulations are lacking. I think the reason for this is that in Denmark we do not yet have prohibition of discrimination outside the labour market, meaning that lack of accessibility cannot be considered discrimination. Our main recommendation to policymakers on this, but also at a general level, is that this prohibition of discrimination outside the labour market is very much needed. We also have meetings and consultations with ministries, architects associations and entrepreneurs (all of which are key players in addressing accessibility), and we do see interest and willingness to tackle the issue. And there are regulations to ensure accessibility but as long as we do not have a system of monitoring implementation and compliance, and worse still we do not have any way to sanction non-compliance, then we will never be able to adequately address this problem.
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"I think it is true that there is such a thing as a Danish self-understanding that “we are good at equality”. But if we look at the evolution of anti-discrimination legislation in Denmark, it is obvious that it has been mostly reactive, not proactive."
Equinet: This is an interesting point because one can argue that Nordic countries are sometimes perceived as being at the forefront of promoting equality, yet the difficulty you just raised, of having the legislation but not being able to monitor implementation, has been raised many times by member equality bodies active in many different countries.
Susanne Nour Magnusson: Well you know I think it is true that there is such a thing as a Danish self-understanding that “we are good at equality”. But if we look at the evolution of anti-discrimination legislation in Denmark, it is obvious that it has been mostly reactive, not proactive. What I mean by that is that Denmark has been following the minimal criteria in this field as laid out in the EU Directives. The only exception is on gender equality, where we have a few paragraphs that go beyond the Directives. But otherwise the rule has always been to follow the minimal criteria imposed from Brussels. Yet there still is the perception that we are really good at this, which is a bit of a stretch. For example, it has been clear for some time that when it comes to dealing with foreigners and tackling discrimination based on ethnic origin, Denmark is not ahead of other countries. Maybe we are ahead on gender equality but not on ethnic equality.
Also if you compare Denmark with Norway and Sweden, they chose to prohibit discrimination on all grounds inside and outside the labour market. We are working on doing the same because it is so important. It is not meaningful to have prohibition only inside the labour market.
Equinet: There must also be an issue with the public attention given to various forms of discrimination. Would you say that for example there is a lack of understanding of and debate on the issue of accessibility?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: A lack of understanding yes - for example if you have not been forced to sit in a wheelchair in Copenhagen, it would be very difficult to realise just how bad it is. You cannot get into buildings, schools, workplaces, and if you lack this accessibility then it is also much more difficult to exercise other rights such as the right to vote. But these barriers are difficult to see and understand unless one has colleagues or family members affected by this situation. Nevertheless, I do believe we are doing better when it comes to setting an agenda on this issue, and we work closely with civil society organisations dealing with disability issues and they are quite excellent in Denmark. But debating or reporting on an issue (e.g. reading an article in the newspaper, participating in a conference) does not imply understanding or, even less so, taking action.
Equinet: So you are not optimistic about this?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: I am actually more optimistic now because we have started to work on a strategy to make full use of the knowledge that we develop. This means that every recommendation is followed up again and again in order to do our very best to make sure it is delivered and implemented. This has changed our way of working and it is not easy, it takes a lot of time. We need to make sure we have the right documentation, research, and messages so that we can have a meaningful exchange with stakeholders and duty-bearers. We tell them that we will follow-up on our recommendations, that they are not expected to completely change overnight but that we are here to help them, but that they have a responsibility.
"It is very motivating and moving to me to discuss equality issues with children, they are certainly wiser than I was at their age, and their insights are sometimes the ones you would so much like to hear from adults!"
Equinet: How is it to be leading such an institution and your team?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: It is very stimulating and very challenging at the same time. We need to work with a long-term perspective for the challenges we work with are not challenges that can be changed overnight. Therefore it is also very important that we celebrate our success stories and the positive changes that we do contribute to. Discrimination is very often institutional and systemic and so we are dealing with changing structures and well established practices as well as changing ways of thinking as well as conceptions. It is difficult and very complex and I find it to be the most interesting challenge I can imagine.
Equinet: What inspired you to work in the field of equality and non-discrimination and what keeps you committed to it?
Susanne Nour Magnusson: Ever since I started working in this field in 1998 in the former Board for Ethnic Equality, my motivation has been to create the kind of society I wished my children to live in. I want to contribute to that, and I actually think things are moving in the right direction. For example it is very motivating and moving to me to discuss equality issues with children, they are certainly wiser than I was at their age, and their insights are sometimes the ones you would so much like to hear from adults!
I also want to mention that what keeps it fun to go to work every day is my fantastic team and all the knowledge and the very interesting persons I meet every day in the organisations we work together with. It is a great privilege to have access to all of these insights.
Equinet: Ms. Nour Magnusson, thank you very much for this interview.
For more information about the Danish Institute for Human Rights, its mandates, activities and contact details, click here. For more insights into the learning, activities, challenges and opportunities faced by equality bodies across Europe, read some of our other interviews in the Member in the Spotlight section.