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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Iceland

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Iceland, 30 January 1995, available at: [accessed 17 November 2017]
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.


Iceland is a constitutional republic and a multiparty parliamentary democracy. Its people participate in high percentages in regular, free, and fair elections which determine the distribution of power among political parties and leaders.

Elected officials control the police force which scrupulously observes and enforces the laws that ensure protection of human rights.

Iceland has a mixed, open economy, in which all of its citizens have the right to hold private property.

There were no reports of human rights abuses during the year. The Parliament enacted into Icelandic law the European Charter of Human Rights.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political or extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no known abductions or disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited by law and do not occur. Prison conditions are good, but most prisons are full, and many are antiquated. The Government has begun implementing a construction program to alleviate these difficulties.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Due process is provided by law and observed in practice. The Constitution states that arrested persons must be brought before a judge without undue delay. The judge must rule within 24 hours whether the person is to be detained. Although the Constitution allows for bail, it is usually not imposed as a condition for release. A judge's ruling may be appealed immediately to a higher court.

There is no specific limit on the maximum length of pretrial (investigative) detention, but it usually ranges from a few days to a few weeks. Pretrial detentions were generally served in isolation prior to July 1992. A law that took effect then requires judges to rule specifically on whether a particular detainee should be held in isolation, and an affirmative decision must be justified on the grounds that it will help prevent tampering with a continuing investigation. All pretrial detention sentences may be appealed to the Supreme Court, which must return a ruling "as soon as possible"; in practice, this generally is done in a few days. Preventive detention is not practiced.

There were no allegations of arbitrary detention.

There is no exile.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Defendants are presumed innocent. They are guaranteed the right of access to legal counsel of their own choosing, in time to prepare their defense. For defendants unable to pay attorney's fees, the State assumes the cost. Defendants have the right to be present at their trial, to confront witnesses, and to participate otherwise in the proceedings. No groups are barred from testifying, and all testimony is treated alike. Trials are public and are conducted fairly, with no official intimidation. Defendants have the right to appeal. The Ministry of Justice administers the lower court system, while the Supreme Court guards its independence and fairness. Juries are not used, but multijudge panels are common, especially in the appeals process. All judges, at all levels, serve for life.

There are no political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Under the Constitution and in practice, there is deep respect for the autonomy and rights of individuals. A warrant from a court is required to enter a private house, except in cases of hot pursuit. There have been no known arbitrary intrusions by official entities, political organizations, or any other organized group into the private beliefs or personal liberties of individuals.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution forbids censorship and other restrictions on the freedom of the press or freedom of individual expression, and the Government fully respects these. Iceland has both state-owned and private television and radio, and both broadcast a wide spectrum of views. All newspapers are privately owned.

Academic freedom of expression is vigorously exercised.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for the right to unarmed assembly except when the police have cause to believe a gathering may cause rioting. The authorities virtually never reject or modify plans for public meetings. In law and practice, citizens have the right to join together formally or informally in associations, without governmental authorization.

c. Freedom of Religion

Practitioners of all faiths worship freely, without government restriction.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Icelanders are free to travel at home and abroad, to emigrate, and to return at will. Iceland abides by provisions of the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. The Government usually requires "spontaneous" asylum seekers to return to the country of first asylum pending a Justice Ministry ruling on their application. It never compels refugees to return to a country in which they presumably would face persecution.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Iceland is an open, fully functioning, parliamentary democracy in which voters freely choose the members of the Althing (Parliament) who, in turn, determine the composition of the Cabinet. Parliamentary elections are held every 4 years, or sooner if the Althing dissolves itself or there is a no-confidence vote. Voting in elections and membership in political parties are open to all citizens 18 years of age or older.

There are no legal or practical impediments to women's participation in government and politics. Two of the four top governmental positions--the President and the Speaker of the Althing--are occupied by women (both positions are largely ceremonial, however). There is an active and influential feminist political party, the Women's List, which won five seats in Parliament in 1991, with 8.3 percent of the vote. Nearly one-fourth of the members of Parliament are women.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Human rights associations operate with no government interference.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The culture of Iceland's ethnically homogeneous population is strongly egalitarian and opposed to discrimination based on any of these factors. Government legislation and practice generally reflect this attitude, but credible reports indicate that both the police and the court system are hostile or indifferent to rape victims (see below).


There are no indications of a pattern of violence against women, but reliable data are lacking. Such violence received increasing public attention in 1994, due largely to the efforts of the Women's List political movement, which continued to raise it in political debate. A public shelter offers protection to approximately 370 women and 180 children per year; these 1994 figures are virtually the same as in 1993, indicating a leveling off of an initial surge in demand for services of the shelter. There is also a rape trauma center sponsored and operated by women's organizations; some 400 women and children annually seek assistance there. Both facilities are funded by national and municipal governments and private contributions. The Reykjavik City Hospital emergency ward now has an all-female staff to care for rape victims.

Studies indicate that only a small percentage of cases involving domestic violence to women or sexual abuse (rape, attempted rape, or harassment) are reported to the police. Women's organizations assert that both the state investigative police and the court system are hostile or indifferent to victims of domestic violence or sexual abuse; that female victims who lodge charges of such offenses are often subjected to humiliating police interrogation; and that judges are unduly lenient with sex offenders, e.g., the typical prison term for a convicted rapist is 1 or 2 years. Police spokesmen have indeed asserted publicly that investigation of domestic violence is a waste of time for the police, who should concentrate their efforts on "more serious" crime. On the other hand, the police have launched a program to train officers in correct interrogation procedures; and data published in December 1993 showed that over the period 1988-93, the number of prisoners serving sentences for sexual offenses rose from 12 to 28, while the average sentence for rape rose from 14 to 20 months.

Major economic and political institutions in Iceland remain male-dominated. Iceland's legislation requiring equal pay for equal work is evidently not being adequately implemented. Studies have consistently revealed an average difference of 40 percent in the earnings of men and women in comparable jobs; when allowance is made for the longer average working hours (and overtime) among men, there remains a 20-percent gap.

Since 1991, complaints regarding the equal rights law have been referred to a special committee under the Equal Rights Affairs Office of the Ministry of Social Affairs. The committee has only advisory powers, and its recommendations to any employer do not have the force of law. Only a few complaints have been made to the committee. Women's groups speculate that many women are reluctant to come forward with complaints in Iceland's small, intimate communities and traditionally stoic culture. Also, Iceland's largely male-led labor unions have not actively supported individual women who wish to exercise their right to take action on such matters.


High respect for children's rights is evident in the law and in government policy. In 1994 the Government created the Office of the Children's Ombudsman in the Prime Ministry, with a mandate to protect children's rights, interests, and welfare by, among other things, exerting influence on legislation, government decisions, and public attitudes. Some international custody cases involving Icelanders have been complicated by the fact that, although Iceland is a signatory to the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, it has not brought this into force. The Foreign Minister opined that Iceland's practices in this area lay it open to criticism for possible violations of human rights. He submitted a bill in the Althing to bring the Convention into force.

People with Disabilities

Disabled individuals are not subject to discrimination in employment, education, or provision of other state services. The Government has legislated accessibility to public buildings for the disabled.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers in Iceland make extensive use of the right to establish organizations, draw up their own constitutions and rules, choose their own leaders and policies, and publicize their views. The resulting organizations are not controlled by the Government or any single political party. Unions take active part in Nordic, European, and international trade union bodies. With the exception of limited categories of workers in the public sector whose services are essential to public health or safety, unions have had and used the right to strike for many years. According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development figures, 76 percent of all eligible workers belong to unions.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

There are no impediments to union membership in law or in practice. Virtually all unions exercise their right to bargain collectively. The central labor and management organizations periodically negotiate collective bargaining agreements that set nationwide standards and specific terms for workers' pay, workhours, and other conditions. The Government often plays a role in the negotiations, and sometimes undertakes commitments in order to bring the two sides together. Labor courts effectively adjudicate disputes over contracts and over the rights provided for in the 1938 Act on Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes, which prohibits antiunion discrimination.

By law, employers found guilty of antiunion discrimination are required to reinstate workers fired for union activities. In practice, the charges are difficult to prove. In a recent case the union was unable to prove in court its suspicion that an employee had been fired for union activities, rather than as part of a series of recession-related layoffs.

In June 1993 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Icelandic Government had violated the 11th article of the European Human Rights Charter, concerning the right of free association, by obliging taxi drivers to be members of a union. The Althing is to consider legislation to comply with this judgment.

There are no export processing or other special economic zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited by law, and does not occur.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

The law requires children to attend school until the age of 16, and prohibits employment of children under that age in factories, on ships, or in other places that are hazardous or require hard labor. This prohibition is observed in practice. Children aged 14 or 15 may be employed part-time or during school vacations in light, nonhazardous work; their workhours must not exceed the ordinary workhours of adults in the same occupation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforces child labor regulations.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Although there is no minimum wage law, union membership is so extensive and effective as to ensure that labor contracts afford even the lowest-paid workers a sufficient income for a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.

Workers are protected by laws that effectively ensure their health and safety as well as provide for unemployment insurance, paid vacations, pensions, and reasonable working conditions and hours. The standard legal workweek is 40 hours. Worktime exceeding 8 hours in a workday must be compensated as overtime. Workers are entitled to 10 hours of rest within each 24-hour period, and to a day off every week. Under defined special circumstances the 10-hour rest can be reduced to 8, and the day off can be postponed by a week, in which case the worker has a right to 2 additional hours off in the following week.

Health and safety standards are set by the Althing and administered and enforced by the Ministry of Social Affairs through its Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

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