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Freedom in the World 1998 - Iceland

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 1998
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 1998 - Iceland, 1998, available at: [accessed 22 October 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

1998 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.0
Civil Liberties: 1
Political Rights: 1


Since 1995, Iceland has been governed by a center-right coalition led by Prime Minister David Oddsson. In 1996, former leftist party chairman and finance minister Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was elected president with 41 percent of the vote. Reykjavik has established European Union (EU) links through membership in the European Economic Area (EEA). In 1996, Iceland, along with four other Nordic countries, joined Europe's Schengen Convention as observer states. The convention provides for the abolition of systematic internal border controls, a common visa policy, and close cooperation in police matters. These steps, taken to preserve the Nordic countries' "passport union," suggest that, despite Iceland's reluctance to join the EU, Iceland cannot avoid participation in EU policies. Although their country has strong historical, cultural and economic ties with Europe, Icelanders are hesitant to agree to the EU common fisheries policy, which they believe would threaten their marine industry. This industry accounts for eighty percent of Iceland's exported goods and half of its export revenues.

In November, Prime Minister Oddsson stated explicitly that, due to its reliance on this industry, Iceland had no interest in joining the EU. He also stated that the country's trade interests in Europe were already covered through membership in the EEA.

Iceland achieved full independence in 1944. Multiparty governments have been in power since then. In 1995, after attempting to appeal to younger voters and non-marine industry interests by advocating EU membership, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) lost three seats and more than four percent of the popular vote. The Independence Party joined forces with the anti-EU Progressive Party and pledged to continue economic stabilization efforts and to eliminate the country's budget deficit. In late 1998, opinion polls revealed that 69.5 percent of voters support the governing coalition.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Icelanders can change their government democratically. The constitution, adopted by referendum in 1944, provides for a popularly-elected, primarily ceremonial president, who is responsible for appointing a prime minister from the largest party in the 63-member Althing (parliament). The parliament is elected on the basis of a mixed system of proportional and direct representation. Elections are held every four years.

There are six major political parties. The Awakening of the Nation party broke away from the SDP shortly before the 1995 elections and won four Althing seats.

The country's judiciary is independent. The law does not provide for trial by jury, but many trials, especially during the appeals process, use panels comprised of several judges. All judges serve for life. The Ministry of Justice administers the lower courts, and the Supreme Court ensures that the judicial process is fair. Defendants are presumed innocent and are entitled to legal counsel. Two special courts handle cases of impeachment of government officials and labor disputes.

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of the press. These freedoms are respected in practice. Constitutional bans on censorship are respected. A wide range of publications includes both independent and party-affiliated newspapers. An autonomous board of directors oversees the Icelandic State Broadcasting Service, which operates a number of transmitting and relay stations. There are both public and private television broadcast companies. In 1997, the country's two private television companies merged. There are six major radio stations.

Most eligible workers belong to free labor unions, and all enjoy the right to strike. Citizens have the right to hold private property. Disabled persons enjoy extensive rights in employment and education.

Virtually everyone in the country holds at least nominal membership in the state-supported Lutheran Church. Legal protections against discrimination are respected. Freedom of worship is allowed, and discrimination on the basis of race, language, social class, and gender is outlawed.

No legal barriers oppose women's participation in the political process. An active women's party, the Women's List, holds three of the 63 seats in the Althing. Women are paid 20 to 40 percent less than their male counterparts for comparable work, and labor union membership is predominantly male.

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