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The progress of the Assembly's monitoring procedure (January-December 2018) and the periodic review of the honouring of obligations by Iceland and Italy

Periodic review: Iceland

Report | Doc. 14792 Part 2 (IS) | 08 January 2019

Committee on the Honouring of Obligations and Commitments by Member States of the Council of Europe (Monitoring Committee)
Rapporteur :
Sir Roger GALE, United Kingdom, EC
See also Doc. 14792 Part 1 and Part 3. 2019 - First part-session


All member States of the Council of Europe that are not under a full monitoring procedure, or engaged in a post-monitoring dialogue, are the subject of a regular periodic review by the Monitoring Committee of the honouring of their membership obligations to the Council of Europe. In this report, the committee presents the periodic review on Iceland. The committee concluded that Iceland is globally fulfilling its membership obligations to the Council of Europe and, overall, its democratic institutions function in line with the standards of the Council of Europe. However, a number of concerns were raised, and recommendations made in that respect, that deserve the prompt attention of the authorities.

1 Introduction

1.1 Overall context

1. Iceland declared independence from Denmark in 1944 and became the Republic of Iceland. The first mention of Iceland is around 874 AD and its parliament, the Althingi, the oldest in the world, was established in 930 AD. The fishing industry has been at the heart of Iceland’s substantial economic growth over the last hundred years. Its economy diversified after the country joined the European Economic Area in 1994, but Iceland was particularly affected by the global financial crisis in 2008, which exposed a vulnerable economic model. This led to a series of economic, political and societal changes. The Icelandic economy is now back on track, fuelled primarily by tourism and construction. Iceland exited from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout in 2011, and in early 2017 lifted its capital controls. It ranks among the most developed countries in the world, ranking 6th out of 189 countries according to the United Nations Human Development IndexNote and also ranking 4th out of 156 countries according to the World Happiness Index.Note
2. Iceland is a parliamentary republic with a Constitution dating back to June 1944. The President is the head of State, and a prime minister, usually the leader of the largest party, is head of government. The Althingi is unicameral. The current president is Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson, who was elected in 2016. The same year, Iceland had snap parliamentary elections and a coalition government was formed between the Independence Party, the Reform Party and the “Bright Future” Party, with Bjarni Benediktsson becoming Prime Minister on 11 January 2017. New elections were held on 28 October 2017, due to the disbanding of the parliament following a breach of confidence within the ruling coalition.Note

1.2 International organisations and Iceland

3. Iceland became the 12th member State of the Council of Europe on 7 March 1950. Iceland has ratified 86 Council of Europe conventions since its accession and signed 37 additional conventions, including the Additional Protocol to the Council of Europe Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism (CETS No. 217) in 2015.Note There are currently 47 applications pending before a judicial formation of the European Court of Human Rights (as at 1 July 2018). The Committee of Ministers adopted one resolution related to Iceland in 2016, none in 2017 and two in 2018. One particular convention, which Iceland signed in 1995 but has yet to ratify, is the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (ETS No. 157). This is related to the fact that Iceland still sees itself as a homogeneous country in terms of identity.
4. Iceland is not a member State of the European Union, although it has been part of the European Economic Area since 1994 and the Schengen Area since 2001, which opened Icelandic participation in certain EU agencies and programmes, including enterprise, environment, education and research programmes. Iceland contributes financially and otherwise to “social and economic cohesion” in the European Union/European Economic Area, to EU civilian peacekeeping missions and the Dublin ConventionNote on justice and home affairs co-operation. Despite this close co-operation, the issue of EU membership is still a divisive issue between the different political parties, Iceland and the European Union, having formally opened accession negotiations in 2010. In 2015, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland sent a letter to the European Union withdrawing the application for membership, without the approval of the Althingi. However, the European Union stated that Iceland had not formally withdrawn the application.
5. This periodic report was drafted in line with Resolution 2018 (2014) and the explanatory memorandum approved by the Committee on 17 March 2015. It is based on the most recent findings of the Council of Europe monitoring mechanisms, the reports of the Parliamentary Assembly and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights and, when relevant, reports and evaluations prepared by other international organisations and civil society.
6. This report is not an exhaustive survey of the country, but an analysis of the country’s developments with regard to the standards of the Council of Europe. It focuses on major issues identified by the rapporteur, based on geopolitical, political and social development as well as reports of the monitoring bodies. The report will focus on post-crisis developments in Iceland and the changes the crisis triggered in re-evaluating democracy, the rule of law and human rights standards. It will also look at the most significant human rights issues, mainly discrimination towards asylum seekers, people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.

1.3 Icelandic financial crisis 2008-2011

7. The Icelandic financial crisis led to a severe economic depression and significant political tensions. It involved the default of all three of the country's major privately owned commercial banks in late 2008, following their difficulties in refinancing their short-term debt and a run on deposits in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The Icelandic Government guaranteed all domestic deposits in order to stabilise the situation and imposed strict capital controls to stabilise the Icelandic currency. It also borrowed from the IMF and the Nordic countries in order to cover a budget deficit and to finance the restoration of the banking system. The international bailout support programme led by the IMF officially ended in 2011, while the capital controls, which were imposed in 2008, were lifted in March 2017.Note
8. Iceland’s economy suffered greatly from the financial crisis, which plunged the country into a severe economic depression. Some visible effects were the sharp fall in the value of the national currency and the fall by more than 90% of the market capitalisation of the Icelandic stock exchange. Iceland started to recover in 2011 with positive gross domestic product (GDP) growth, which has helped foster a gradual decline in the unemployment rate. Also, according to a report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), income inequality in Iceland, after taxes and transfers, is the lowest among OECD countries.Note
9. The financial crisis had clear political consequences. One of them was the start of a constitutional reform process. Part of Icelandic society feels that the 1944 Constitution, which could be considered as a document that was intended to be provisional at the end of the Second World War, carries some of the blame for the financial crisis that hit Iceland. A new Constitution is seen as offering the country a chance to review its fundamental law by enshrining the democratic values and rule of law through a very transparent and participatory process. The proposed new Constitution, while it would maintain the current form of government – a parliamentary republic – would increase direct participation of citizens in decision-making through a series of complex mechanisms, including through modern communication technologies. The draft of the new Constitution was reviewed by the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) and received mixed feedback. There were two major issues that were raised by the Venice Commission regarding the Constitutional reform. One concerned the actual need for Constitutional reform, and the other concerned the clarity, consistency and precision of language, which would lead to serious difficulties of interpretation and application.Note The constitutional reform process has been on hold since 2013 after it failed to be voted upon before dissolution of the last parliament for snap parliamentary elections.
10. Another troubling consequence was the criminal trial brought against the Prime Minister at the time, Geir Haarde, for the role his decisions had in triggering the financial crisis. The parliament set up a Special Investigative Commission in December 2008, similar to a truth commission, in order to identify mistakes made by different actors prior to the financial crisis and ways and means to avoid such mistakes in the future. The commission came to the conclusion that the crisis was caused by unsound banking practices (including “weak capital”, the expansion of lending and borrowing spiralling out of control, and insider trading practices), which the government had failed to stop in time. In addition to leading bankers, the commission found that four members of the government had been “negligent”: the Prime Minister, his Deputy (and Foreign Minister), the Finance Minister and the Minister for Business Affairs.Note In April 2012, the Court of Impeachment found the former Prime Minister criminally responsible of one of four charges brought against him, namely that he had failed to hold a Cabinet meeting on whose agenda the financial crisis needed to appear. No sentence was passed. Nonetheless this triggered concern about Iceland’s system of checks and balances. In a report by the Assembly’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, it is clearly stated that one of the standards of democracy and the rule of law requires that politicians should be effectively protected from criminal prosecutions based on their political decisions. Political decisions should be subject to political responsibility, not criminal charges. The dissenting opinion underlines the fact that under the Icelandic Constitution, ministers are accountable for all executive acts. Therefore, the former Prime Minister’s failure to place the banking crisis on the Cabinet of Ministers’ agenda was not breaching the “guiding principles on keeping political and criminal responsibility separate”.Note On 23 November 2017, the European Court of Human Rights, in the case Haarde v. Iceland,Note found that the impeachment proceedings against him had not violated Article 6 or 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ETS No. 5, “the Convention”), and rejected his claim that the offence for which he was convicted was not clearly defined in law.
11. The financial crisis and its aftermath also brought about the fall of Iceland’s traditional four-party system,Note with support for the four main political parties dropping constantly over the last elections and new political parties gaining considerable seats in the parliament and government.

2 Democracy

2.1 Institutional make-up including checks and balances

12. Iceland is a stable democratic country in which respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic values is implemented through good governance,Note at both national and local levels. Iceland has a good track record when it comes to an efficient, independent and accountable judiciary and public administration apparatus, including its law-enforcement system. Iceland is also a country with a long record of high respect both in law and in practice for human rights, without discrimination.
13. While historically coming out on top in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, in recent years corruption, especially within Iceland’s financial sector and government circles, has increasingly become an issue of public concern and controversy.Note This was strengthened by the financial crisis of 2008, which for many in Iceland was also caused by deep-rooted conflicts of interests, clientelism and abuse of power.Note While the extent of corruption in Iceland’s society is an issue of debate, matters related to corruption and the effectiveness of the existing structure of checks and balances have become important topics in political debate in Iceland, inter alia contributing to the fall of two successive governments in recent years.
14. In response, Iceland started a process of constitutional reform which focused on “increasing democratic safeguards, strengthening checks and balances, improving the functioning of State institutions and better defining their respective roles and powers” Note as well as on forms of direct democracy and a whole experimental process of revision with the so-called crowd sourced Constitution handed to the Althingi by the Constitutional Council.Note The Venice Commission was consulted and issued an opinion on the draft Constitution, with mixed conclusions as highlighted earlier. The draft Constitution law was dropped by the current legislative.

2.2 Elections

15. The President is elected through direct vote for a four-year term, without term limits, and, while enjoying certain constitutional powers, has a largely ceremonial role. The candidate who obtains the highest number of valid votes in a single-round election process becomes President.Note
16. The parliament – the Althingi – is unicameral, composed of 63 deputies and is elected through direct voting for a four-year term. There are currently eight parties represented in the Althingi.Note A new parliamentary election was held on 28 October 2017 following the stepping down of the Prime Minister and the dissolution of the governmental coalition.Note The Needs Assessment Mission ReportNote of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) of 9 October “recommend[ed] deploying an Election Expert Team (EET) for the 28 October early parliamentary elections to review the effects that the interaction between various bodies in charge of administering elections has on a uniformity and consistency of the process, as well as to review the oversight of campaign finance”. It is nonetheless noted that “elections in Iceland are conducted in a pluralistic and transparent manner and voters enjoy a wide choice of political options. The electoral process benefits from a high degree of respect for fundamental rights and freedoms and trust in the impartiality of the election administration”.Note
17. Women are well represented in political life, including 38%Note women members of parliament.Note As mentioned before, the traditional four-party system in Iceland has been recently challenged. Young people became key actors in the shift in public support for political parties. At the moment, eight political parties are represented in parliament, including the Pirate Party, which obtained 14,5% of the votes in the 2016 and 9,2% in the 2017 elections, marking a significant victory for a party from outside the establishment. In the 2016 elections, parties outside the traditional four obtained more votes than ever before (38%). The 2017 elections saw two new parties entering the parliament,Note although one of them is a party formed by the splitting of the Progressive Party. Moreover, one party lost all its seats in the parliament as a result of the election.
18. The financial crisis, combined with a series of scandals involving ruling politicians, created an environment of general disenchantment with traditional politics and gave rise to unprecedented mass demonstrations. Furthermore, fresh elections were held on 28 October 2017, following another snap election just one year earlier in October 2016. The 2016 parliamentary elections were caused by the Progressive Party Prime Minister stepping down following large-scale protests after leaked documents revealed that the Prime Minister and his wife had a potential financial conflict of interest related to an offshore company when he entered the parliament in 2009. In 2017, the Prime Minister also had to step down, triggering snap elections, due to a breach of trust within the governing coalition over a scandal involving the Prime Minister’s father and the “restoring of the honour”Note of a convicted paedophile. These developments contributed to the changing of the political landscape of Iceland, with low voting turnout and more support than ever for non-traditional political parties such as the Pirate Party.

2.3 Freedom of expression, freedom of the media, freedom of association

19. Iceland is a pluralistic country in which freedom of expression and freedom of the media and of association are all core societal values. Ranking 15th in the Freedom House Freedom of the Press report 2017,Note Iceland enjoys a free and stable press with well-defined legal protection and a favourable political and economic environment. Journalists enjoy a good status and no attacks were recorded against them. As mentioned in the recent GRECO report, most media in Iceland are controlled by large media groups which have well developed links to business and political interests in the country. This, as well as the use of legal provisions regarding defamation, has hindered independent investigative journalism in Iceland.Note A number of judgments in defamation cases have been brought before the European Court of Human Rights which found violations of Article 10 of the Convention (freedom of expression).Note
20. The Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)Note notes that, as in the rest of Europe, there is increasing and more visible racist public discourse, targeting mostly Muslims and that social media hate speech is on the rise. Iceland punishes racist and homo/transphobic hate speech under Article 233 of its Criminal Code. Several politicians made Islamophobic remarks, linking Muslims to terrorism, in the aftermath of the decision by Reykjavik City Council to grant permission for construction of Iceland’s first mosque. There is an increase in hate speech on social media that extends towards LGBTI communities as well. A database has recently been established to monitor online hate speech as well as a new position within the law-enforcement agencies in the area of Reykjavik focusing on investigating hate crime. To date, there is no data indicating any violent incident based on discriminatory grounds in Iceland. There are 10 cases pending in national district courts involving homophobic hate speech.

3 Human rights and fundamental freedoms

3.1 Human rights framework

21. Iceland’s overall record regarding the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms is good, both in terms of the legal and normative framework and implementation. Between 1956 and 2016, the European Court of Human Rights delivered 16 judgments, most of them concerning Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the Convention. In 2016, 15 out of 19 applications were found to be inadmissible by the Court.
22. Iceland has a series of institutions dedicated to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, the Centre for Gender Equality and the Data Protection Authority. Iceland does not have an institution that has accreditation as a national human rights institution under the UN Paris Principles, a set of international standards that guide and frame the work of national human rights institutions.Note The Icelandic Human Rights Centre, an independent non-governmental institution, albeit mostly funded by the State, substitutes that role including through carrying out research, monitoring and awareness raising to enhance the country’s system for human rights protection. Several international organisations, including the Commissioner for Human Rights, stress the importance of establishing an institution with a broad mandate to promote human rights.Note There is a draft law pending that would establish a National Human Rights Institution, in accordance with international standards, which would be the umbrella structure to promote and protect human rights in Iceland and provide a collaborative space for all human rights actors in Iceland. In late 2016, the Ministry of the Interior sent the draft law for review and recommendations to the OSCE/ODIHR.Note
23. Notwithstanding its reputation as a very inclusive nation, Iceland still does not have a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislative framework, nor does it have institutional mechanisms to promote its implementation in all spheres of life, including to combat racism and racial discrimination. Mr Nils Muižnieks, the Commissioner for Human Rights, and ECRI repeatedly pointed out the urgency for Iceland to establish a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation.Note This is also an obligation towards the European Union as Iceland needs to adopt the European acquis communautaire under its membership of the European Economic Area.

3.2 Women’s rights

24. Iceland ranks number one in the World Economic Forum´s Global Gender Gap Report 2016, a report that evaluates the state of gender equality in the world in areas such as politics, education, employment and health. Iceland’s performance is based on its achievements in improving gender equality in all areas, making the country a role model for women’s rights. However, there is still a gender pay gap and women still seem to have limited representation in executive management positions in Iceland.Note Unemployment rates among women are still higher than among men. In the last decade, the participation of men in the labour market has decreased while women’s participation in the labour market has increased, though women do more part-time work than men.
25. The 2016 parliamentary elections saw the highest number of women in parliament in history, namely 30 (48%). This dropped sharply in the 2017 elections with a ratio of 39-24 men/women, the lowest representation since the 2007 elections. In 2016, women held the majority in three parties: Bright Future, The Progressive Party, and the Left Green Party. However, only three women were made ministers out of eleven possible positions (27%)Note in 2016. As for women’s representation in the current Government, five out of eleven ministers are women.Note
26. Several legislative acts targeting gender equality have been passed in the last five years in Iceland, such as amendments to laws on companies foreseeing quotas for women on boards,Note a law on the protection of victims of violence in close relationships,Note improvements of definitions of direct and indirect discrimination, gendered harassment and sexual harassmentNote and a law on banning discrimination regarding products and services.Note
27. Iceland has a new Equality Action Plan for 2016-2020, which includes an innovative chapter on men and gender equality. The previous action plan, which expired in 2014, included the creation of a working group of men to discuss and present a report on gender equality from men’s perspective as well as proposing solutions to various problems of gender inequality. The aim of this chapter is to involve more men in all aspects of gender equality policy and decision making both domestically and internationally. Other chapters include integration of a gender perspective into all aspects of governmental policy and decision making, promoting equal pay for equal work, fighting against gender stereotypes in the workforce and in the media, promoting gender equality in schools, and promoting a less gendered labour market and equal opportunities for all.
28. An amendment was made to the criminal law 19/1940 in 2016 in order to fulfil the requirements of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (CETS No. 210, “Istanbul Convention”),Note which obliges States to protect and assist women who have been victims of sexual and domestic abuse as well as to educate the public, the government and professionals about the dangers involved and offer perpetrators some form of rehabilitation. The changes include an amendment on stalking, more severe punishment for domestic abuse and the extension of the statute of limitations for victims under the age of 18. Recent data suggests that about 42% of women have suffered from violence at least once in their lifetime.Note The US Department of State also points out that women face a heavy burden of proof in rape cases. There is currently no action plan against domestic violence and sexual violence. The last valid government action plan against domestic and sexual violence expired at the end of 2011.Note The new plan should include a focus on educating police officers, prosecutors and judges on the prevention of sexual violence. The services offered to women and girl victims of sexual and domestic violence will have to be strengthened and the action plan should be sensitive to the needs of immigrant women and girls, and women and girls with disabilities.

3.3 Trafficking in human beings

29. Iceland ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (CETS No. 197) in February 2012. The Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) issued a first evaluation reportNote in 2014 mainly focusing on expanding the focus of the Icelandic authorities when it comes to human trafficking to cover more than just sexual exploitation, and include labour exploitation, particularly in the definition of “trafficking in human beings”. The definition should also include explicitly “the irrelevance of the consent of a victim to the intended exploitation”. The evaluation also includes recommendations on the integration of preventive measures in human trafficking policies for unaccompanied children, migrant workers and asylum seekers as well as recommendations on bettering the data collection and “the multi-agency involvement to victim identification and a proactive approach by front-line actors”.
30. In 2013, the government implemented a national action plan against trafficking in human beings valid from 2013 to 2016, which was unfortunately underfunded.Note There is a need for sufficient financial and human resources for the police to increase its capacity to investigate cases of trafficking of persons and ensure that victims of trafficking receive justice and compensation. Awareness raising and education of professionals and the general public when it comes to trafficking issues is also needed, in order to ensure prevention as well as efficient intervention in cases of human trafficking. Further recommendations include active involvement of relevant stakeholders such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and trade unions in the development, implementation and evaluation of anti-trafficking policy and establishing as a criminal offence the use of services which are the object of labour exploitation, with the knowledge that the person is a victim of trafficking in human beings.
31. The US Department of State’s latest country reportNote on Iceland also underlines the increased vulnerability to human trafficking of the non-native Icelanders, who are discriminated against by their employers.

3.4 Prevention of torture and other ill-treatment

32. Iceland has a good legislative framework on prevention of torture and other ill treatment. It ratified the European Convention on Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (ETS No. 126) in 1990 and the last periodic visit took place in 2012.
33. According to the 2012 report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture or any Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT),Note persons detained by the police in Iceland run little risk of ill-treatment and conditions of detention in police establishments are generally adequate. In prisons, the situation is similar, with hardly any allegations of deliberate physical ill-treatment of prisoners by staff.
34. Iceland lacks effective national preventive mechanisms in accordance with the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture and monitoring bodies for all types of places of deprivation of liberty. That role is currently undertaken by the Parliamentary Ombudsman and whose financial and human resources are both inadequate, in order to effectively carry out such tasks, and who de facto responds only to individual complaints, skipping all monitoring and awareness-raising activities.

3.5 People with disabilities

35. Iceland ratified on 24 September 2016 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The parliament also vowed to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention by the end of 2017, allowing for individual and collective complaints. Regrettably this has not yet been done. As the Commissioner for Human Rights noted, the ratification of the CRPD comes against the background of a “paradigm shift”Note in disability policy in Iceland from legislation and policies based on the assumption that people with disabilities are not able to exercise the same rights as non-disabled people and focusing on rehabilitation and social security, towards ensuring participation in society on an equal footing with people without disabilities, creating opportunities for people with disabilities, promoting independent living, eliminating discrimination and social exclusion and involving people with disabilities in decision-making. A new National Action Plan for Human Rights was supposed to be presented to the parliament in 2017. However, this has reportedly not yet taken place.Note
36. The Commissioner for Human Rights also recommended as a priority the “abolishment of full deprivation of legal capacity and plenary guardianship of persons with disabilities, including persons with psycho-social and intellectual disabilities”. He also raised concerns regarding the issue of involuntary hospitalisation and the use of coercion in mental health care, which requires reforms that envisage objective criteria which do not discriminate against persons with psychosocial disabilities. The issue of data collection in this field is also an area of concern since it is done sporadically or not at all, which impacts on the development of evidence-based legislation and policies. The issue of free and fully informed consent when medical treatment is provided is also highlighted as an area that needs further positive development.
37. According to the latest report on Iceland by the US Department of State, employment and access to public places are some other fields in which people with disabilities face occasional discrimination.

3.6 LGBTI rights

38. LGBTI rights in Iceland are very progressive. In February 2009, the newly elected Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, was the world's first openly gay head of government. The Althingi amended the country's marriage law in 2010 to define marriage as between two individuals, thereby making same-sex marriage legal. Also, since 2006, same-sex couples have had equal access to adoption and in vitro fertilisation (IVF). It therefore comes as a surprise that Iceland ranks only at 47% of fully respecting the human rights of LBGTI people, ranking 16th out of 49 countries.Note This is mostly due to the fact that on the indicators relating to “equality and non-discrimination “and “asylum”, Iceland has very limited or non-existent laws or policies that impact on the lives of LGBTI people. The recommendation of ECRINote regarding the development of a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in all fields and covering all grounds, including sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex, is of particular importance. Indeed, the anti-discrimination legislation in Iceland does not yet include explicit prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual characteristics, which makes the effective protection of the rights of LGBTI people unnecessarily difficult.
39. According to the ILGA Europe Annual Review of 2017, there is a lack of protection for LGBTI people in anti-discrimination legislation, there are gaps in hate crime legislation and no legislation or positive measures in the area of asylum seeking. Current legislation still imposes a series of deterrent conditions on transgender people to access legal gender recognition, and there is no legislation to protect the physical integrity of intersex people. The Ombudsperson for children had previously expressed concerns about this issue, and in 2016, a University of Iceland symposium was organised to discuss the human rights violations faced by intersex people.
40. Hate speech is reportedly on the rise in Iceland, with the Reykjavik prosecutor having issued official charges in eight cases of hate speech on the grounds of sexual orientation in 2016. The charges were mainly based on information from the LGBT NGO Samtökin 78. Bullying in schools is also an issue targeting primarily young people perceived as belonging to the LGBTI community.

3.7 Rights of migrants and asylum seekers

41. Iceland has a long tradition of receiving refugees through the resettlement programme of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Following the European refugee and migrant crisis, Iceland increased its refugee reception numbers. During 2015 and 2016, Iceland approved the resettlement of around 90 people from Syria through the UNHCR resettlement programme. In Ísafjörður, there is a Multicultural and Information Centre, the government institution which protects the interests of immigrants and offers a wide range of services. However there is a greater need for such a structure in Reykjavik, where the majority of the population lives and where it would be closer to other key institutions. In 2015, a Ministers Council for Refugees and Asylum was established with a budget of 2 billion krona for assistance to refugees and asylum seekers in response to the refugee crisis. However, Iceland does not currently have a national policy or programme on the integration of refugees.
42. As for integration policies, there are several recommendations coming from different international monitoring bodies, including the Council of Europe,Note that Iceland should consider. Upholding the right to family reunification, ensuring fair and non-discriminatory labour laws and policies that target all services and employers, access to quality education including language and integration courses, access to adequate housing and more effective equality bodies and anti-discrimination legal frameworks are just a few of these recommendations. In 2016, there was also a drastic increase, by 350% compared to 2015, in the numbers of LGBTI asylum seekers who requested the services of Samtökin 78, highlighting the need for asylum legislative and policy framework to be revised and inclusive of all.
43. According to the Icelandic Human Rights Centre and Icelandic Women’s Rights Association’s shadow report to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), violence against immigrant women is high, though poorly researched. One study commissioned by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 2010 found that “many immigrant women lack knowledge about resources available, lack financial resources to afford interpreters and avoid seeking help for abuse for fear of deportation”.Note
44. The national statistics centre indicates that immigrants make up 9.6% of the Icelandic population or 31 812 migrants out of the total of 338 349 people living in Iceland.Note The largest immigrant contingent is Polish, totalling 11 988 people, or 3.5% of the citizens of Iceland. The last Government Policy on the Integration of Immigrants from 2007 was not as successful as hoped. Many immigrants report labour market discrimination, with employers taking advantage of their little or no knowledge of Icelandic, leading to unfair employment conditions, increased risk of occupational accidents, difficulties in learning Icelandic, and accessing information, unfair employment conditions, early school drop-out and vulnerability to human trafficking.

4 Rule of law

4.1 Fight against corruption and money-laundering

45. Iceland ranks 14th out of 176 countries in the Transparency International Corruption Index of 2017. While doing very well overall, Iceland scored 77 points, which is one point lower than in 2016, and five points lower than in 2012.
46. On 27 March 2015, GRECO adopted its Compliance Report in the framework of the Fourth Evaluation Round report. In this report, GRECO concluded that Iceland had not implemented satisfactorily any of its 10 recommendations and concluded that Iceland’s compliance was “globally unsatisfactory”.Note In 2016, GRECO passed an interim compliance report in the framework of its Fourth Evaluation Round report, which concluded that “Iceland has made credible efforts as regards the implementation of the recommendations found to be not or partly implemented in the Fourth Round Compliance Report. Two of the ten recommendations contained in the Fourth Round Evaluation Report have been implemented”Note and six partly implemented. On 8 December 2017, GRECO adopted its Second Compliance Report on Iceland. It concluded that Iceland had satisfactorily implemented five of the 10 recommendations in the Fourth Round Evaluation report, partially implemented 3 recommendations and had not implemented the remaining two recommendations.
47. A Code of Conduct for the Members of the Althingi was adopted on 16 March 2016, including a provision requiring members of parliament to disclose when a conflict arises between their private interests and a particular parliamentary procedure.Note Positive reforms have been registered also in the prosecution service, ensuring greater impartiality and independence as well as addressing the issues of conflict of interests. According to the OECD, an aspect that needs to be addressed is legislation protecting whistle-blowers, which requires improvements particularly regarding anonymity of public sector whistle-blowers and incentives for whistle-blowers to disclose wrongdoing.Note In its Second Compliance report, GRECO welcomed the adoption of the Code of Conduct, but emphasised that more needed to be done with regard to “further strengthen[ing] the transparency, efficacy and credibility of the existing financial declaration system”.Note
48. On 23 March 2018, GRECO adopted its Evaluation Report on Iceland in the framework of the Fifth Evaluation Round that focuses on “Preventing corruption and promoting integrity in central governments (top executive functions) and law-enforcement agencies”.Note In this report, GRECO notes the increased awareness and intolerance of corruption in Iceland, especially following the 2008 financial crisis and the fall of two successive governments. In that context, it finds it striking that Iceland has not yet elaborated a coherent strategy and policy to fight corruption and promote integrity in State institutions.Note While different codes of conduct and integrity rules have been adopted, they often lack credible enforcement and are not used in daily practice. Moreover, several areas, for example contacts with parties seeking to influence government policies and the systematic declaration of assets and interests are not, or not adequately covered. With regard to law enforcement, the report welcomes the fact that law-enforcement agencies are the most trusted public institutions in Iceland. At the same time, it notes that these agencies lack resources which increase vulnerability to corruption and conflicts of interest, especially given the lack of prohibition of secondary employment for police officers. It notes that according to the structure of the police, the Minister of Justice is the supreme head of the police with the National Police Commissioner and the District Police Commissioners directly appointed by him, reporting to him. This structure gives the Minister of Justice considerable powers and direct control over the police and has hindered the establishment of internal control and disciplinary structures.Note
49. In the fight against money laundering, Iceland has seen several high profile cases. In the most prominent, in April 2016, Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson resigned amid mounting public outrage that his family had sheltered money offshore. Iceland has a Financial Supervisory Authority which investigates offences in financial activities, and has extensive powers. It was established in 1999 and played an important role during the 2008 crisis, and in October 2008 it was given significant additional powers over Icelandic financial institutions by the Icelandic Government. The Authority also had its share of controversy when a new director had to be appointed after criminal charges were brought against the previous director who was subsequently dismissed by the Board of the Authority in 2012.
50. Iceland also had an Office of the Special Prosecutor, which was established in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, and had the task of investigating the Icelandic banking collapse. The Office was closed in 2015, after legislation was passed in the Althingi and all its ongoing projects were moved under the District Prosecutor.Note The new office is responsible for the investigation and prosecution of economic crimes and excess cases from the Director of Tax Investigations and the Financial Intelligence Unit.
51. Since 1992, Iceland is a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF),Note which undertakes Mutual Evaluation Reports on the implementation of its anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing standards. Based on the evaluation of Iceland from 2006, the country has “a rigorous legal framework in place to combat money laundering, although the available penalties and the number of convictions are low”.Note The fourth round of evaluation was published on 6 April 2018 and concluded that Iceland “has undergone important reforms since the last assessment in 2006”.Note
52. According to the FATF,Note Iceland’s legislation on combating terrorist financing is generally comprehensive but it has not yet been tested on a concrete situation. There is room for improvement to its system for freezing suspected terrorist financing-related assets. Iceland has a strong system for domestic co-operation, which is strengthened by informal networks of communication within the government. Iceland’s international co-operation framework is also wide-ranging and generally comprehensive.

4.2 Independence and effectiveness of the judiciary/criminal justice system

53. The Icelandic judicial system continues to meet high standards of independence and effectiveness. Iceland has a court system of three levels: district courts; the Supreme Court, whose decisions are final, and, since 1 January 2018, an intermediary court or “Landsrettur”.Note The Landsrettur is the court of second instance to which judgments of the district courts can be appealed. It was established to guarantee due justice and to strengthen the role of the Supreme Court of Iceland in setting precedents in jurisprudence.Note There was reportedly some controversy surrounding the appointment of judges to the Landsrettur, when the Minister of Justice did not follow the recommendations of the Selection Commission.Note There are 8 district courts dealing with both civil and criminal cases. The Icelandic system includes also two special courts: the Court of Impeachment, which deals only with alleged breach of law of the government members and the Labour Court, which deals with legal disputes under the Act on Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes.
54. According to its Annual report, there were 869 registered cases before the Supreme Court and 762 judgments delivered.NoteNote The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeal and has nationwide jurisdiction. It is composed of nine judges, of which only one woman, appointed for an indefinite period of time by the President of Iceland upon proposals by the Minister of Justice. GRECO and the European Union in its 2009 Progress Report expressed concern over the recruitment procedures for judges,NoteNote particularly appointments to the Labour Court. The lack of prerequisites to be a judge prior to appointment to the Labour Court and the lack of procedures for the selection and appointment of the Supreme Court nominee for the Labour Court are the main cause of concern. The Icelandic authorities need to put extra effort into ensuring that the recommendations regarding the appointment of the members of the Labour Court are implemented, as well as recommendations regarding disclosure of financial interests by members of parliament.
55. According to the United States Department of State’s latest country report on Iceland, there are a few human rights issues concerning the criminal justice system, including holding pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners, the obligation to reimburse the government for the lawyer’s services when defendants who used public defenders were found guilty and the potential use of illegally obtained evidence in court.Note

5 Conclusions and recommendations

56. Overall, the functioning of democratic institutions in Iceland complies with Council of Europe standards. Iceland globally honours its membership obligations to the Council of Europe. It is in general a well-functioning democracy. However, as a result of the size and relatively homogeneous make-up of its society, it has chosen in a number of cases to regulate issues via informal rules and arrangements in society rather than by clear rules and norms codified in law. This has led to vulnerabilities in the functioning of democratic institutions, especially with regard to checks and balances. They came to the foreground in the financial crisis that hit Iceland in 2008 and led to the start of a constitutional reform process with a view to “increasing democratic safeguards, strengthening checks and balances, improving the functioning of State institutions and better defining their respective roles and powers”. Regrettably, this reform process seems to have stopped before tangible results have been achieved. The reform of the country’s democratic institutions, especially with regard to strengthening its system of checks and balances remain of key importance and I would therefore strongly recommend that the Icelandic authorities elaborate and implement comprehensive and coherent reforms to that extent, either through rekindling the constitutional reform process or by common law.
57. The 2008 financial crisis also underscored the vulnerability of the country’s democratic institutions and financial interests to corruption and conflicts of interest. Although the country remains in the top rankings of Transparency International’s corruption perception index, corruption has increasingly become an issue of concern and political debate in Iceland and has contributed to the fall of two successive governments in recent years. In that context, the absence of a coherent strategy to combat corruption and promote integrity in State situations, as noted by GRECO in its evaluation report on Iceland in the framework of its Fifth Evaluation round, is difficult to understand. I would therefore recommend that the Icelandic authorities, as a priority, develop a coherent and comprehensive strategy with regard to corruption and integrity issues in State institutions that will fully address the recommendations of GRECO contained in the evaluation reports for Iceland in the framework of its Fourth and Fifth Evaluation rounds, and in particular:
  • develop a strategy to improve integrity and management of conflicts of interest of persons holding top executive functions in the government, as well as clear and harmonised codes of conduct for them;
  • review the rules regarding secondary activities as well as employment after leaving government functions;
  • ensure the proper funding of law-enforcement agencies and develop a clear, transparent merit-based appointment and promotion process free from political interference.
58. Iceland should complement its record of protecting fundamental rights and freedoms. The establishment of a national human rights institution, in accordance with international standards, would further strengthen this record and is recommended. Notwithstanding its reputation as a very inclusive nation, Iceland still does not have a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislative framework, nor does it have institutional mechanisms to promote its implementation in all spheres of life, including to combat racism and racial discrimination. In line with recommendations by ECRI and the Human Rights Commissioner, I therefore recommend that the authorities develop a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation.
59. Iceland’s track record with regard to gender equality is generally considered as a role model. However, a gender gap, including with regard to representation of women in top executive functions, still exists and domestic and sexual violence against women remains a point of concern that deserves the continuing attention of the authorities.
60. Iceland has a well-developed legal framework for LGTBI rights, which is, however, hindered by the previously mentioned absence of a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. Regrettably, reports of hate speech against LGTBI people have increased.


1. Council of Europe conventions signed and/or ratified by Iceland between 1 October 2013 and 3 December 2018

2. Recent findings of Council of Europe monitoring mechanisms and other bodies as of 3 December 2018

European Court of Human Rights

European Convention on Human Rights (ETS No. 005) ratified in 1953

Protocol No. 1 (ETS No. 009) ratified in 1953

Protocol No. 2 (ETS No. 044) ratified in 1967

Protocol No. 6 (ETS No. 114) ratified in 1987

Protocol No. 12 (ETS No. 177) signed in 2000

Protocol No. 13 (ETS No. 187) ratified in 2004

Protocol No. 14 (CETS No. 194) ratified in 2005

Out of a total of 56 250 applications pending before a judicial formation on 31 December 2017, 44 concerned Iceland.

Resolutions adopted by the Committee of Ministers: 0 in 2013, 0 in 2014, 3 in 2015, 1 in 2016, 0 in 2017 and 1 in 2018.

See Press country profile Iceland

Congress of Local and Regional Authorities

European Charter on Local Self-Government (ETS No. 122) ratified in 1991

Report and Recommendation on local democracy in Iceland adopted in March 2017: CPL32(2017)06final and Recommendation 402 (2017)

Group of States against Corruption (GRECO)

Civil Law Convention on Corruption (ETS No. 174) signed in 1999 but not ratified

Criminal Law Convention on Corruption (ETS No. 173) ratified in 2004, Additional Protocol (ETS No. 191) ratified in 2013

Third evaluation round: addendum to the second compliance report on Iceland: “Incriminations (ETS 173 and 191, GPC 2)”, “Transparency of party funding”, adopted by GRECO at its 61st plenary meeting, Strasbourg, 14-18 October 2013, GRECO RC-III(2013)2E

Fourth evaluation round: corruption prevention in respect of members of parliament, judges and prosecutors: compliance report: Iceland, adopted by GRECO at its 67th plenary meeting, Strasbourg, 23-27 March 2015, published in April 2015, GrecoRC-IV(2015)3E

Fourth evaluation round: corruption prevention in respect of members of parliament, judges and prosecutors: interim compliance report: Iceland, adopted by GRECO at its 71st plenary meeting, Strasbourg, 14-18 March 2016, published in March 2016, GrecoRC4(2016)3

Fourth evaluation round: corruption prevention in respect of members of parliament, judges and prosecutors: second compliance report: Iceland, adopted by GRECO at its 78th plenary meeting, Strasbourg, 4-8 December 2017, published in December 2017, GrecoRC4(2017)13

Fifth evaluation round: preventing corruption and promoting integrity in central governments (top executive functions) and law enforcement agencies: evaluation report: Iceland, adopted by GRECO at its 79th plenary meeting, Strasbourg, 19-23 March 2018, published in April 2018, GrecoEval5Rep(2017)4

Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism (MONEYVAL)

Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime of 1990 (ETS No. 141) ratified in 1997

Council of Europe Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime and on the Financing of Terrorism (revised) (CETS No. 198) signed in 2005 but not ratified

Iceland is not a member of MONEYVAL

Commissioner for Human Rights

Last report in 2005, CommDH(2005)10 / 14 December 2005

Last visits in 2012 and 2016

European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT)

Convention (ETS No. 126) ratified in 1990, Protocols No. 1 (ETS No. 151) and No. 2 (ETS No. 152) ratified in 1995

Last country visit: September 2012

Publication of the last report: December 2013, CPT/Inf(2013)37

Next country visit foreseen in 2019

Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) and Committee of the Parties

Convention (CETS No. 197) ratified in 2012

1st Evaluation Round:

. GRETA's Report and Government’s Comments published in September 2014, GRETA(2014)17

. Recommendation CP(2014)15 of the Committee of the Parties adopted in December 2014

. Government’s Reply to the Committee of the Parties’ Recommendation received in February 2017, CP(2017)6

2nd Evaluation Round:

. Government's Reply to GRETA's 2nd Questionnaire published in October 2017, GRETA(2017)31

Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) and Committee of the Parties

Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (CETS No. 210) ratified in 2018

European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)

Conclusions on Iceland adopted in December 2014, published in February 2015, CRI(2015)3

5th report on Iceland adopted in December 2016, published in February 2017, CRI(2017)3

Venice Commission

Opinion on the Draft New Constitution of Iceland, adopted by the Venice Commission at its 94th Plenary Session, Venice, 8-9 March 2013, CDL-AD(2013)010


Other Treaties:

Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities

Convention (ETS No. 157) signed in 1995 but not ratified

European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

Convention (ETS No. 148) signed in 1999 but not ratified

European Social Charter

European Social Charter of 1961 (ETS No. 35) ratified in 1976

European Social Charter (revised) (ETS No. 163) signed in 1998 but not ratified

Additional Protocol to the European Social Charter Providing for a System of Collective Complaints (ETS No. 158) neither signed nor ratified

See Country factsheet Iceland