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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Iceland

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1994
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1993 - Iceland, 30 January 1994, available at: [accessed 21 January 2018]
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, fair, and free elections which determine the distribution of power among political parties and leaders.

The civil and criminal justice systems offer equal protection to all. The nation has no indigenous military forces or political security apparatus.

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

Icelanders have long been strong defenders of human rights.


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

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Political and extrajudicial killings did not occur.

b. Disappearance

There were no instances of 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 many prisons are antiquated, and controls on prisoners are lax. An increased frequency of escapes in 1993, some involving violent offenders, led to a public outcry for prison reform. In response, the Justice Minister appointed a panel to recommend changes to existing regulations. At year's end, the panel had not yet reported its findings. There were no reports of physical mistreatment of prison inmates by prison officials or other inmates in 1993. Nutrition was adequate and medical care was available to prisoners at all times, as was access by family members. Prison facilities were sanitary, and recreation was provided. Most of the few prisons were relatively full. Consequently, prisoners sometimes were put into temporary quarters, for a maximum of 2 months, before being relocated to permanent prison quarters. Conditions in temporary quarters generally were equivalent to those in permanent quarters. The Government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by a local monitoring group, Vernd (Protection).

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Due process is provided by law and observed in practice. The Constitution states that any person arrested by the authorities 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 legal limit on the maximum length of pretrial (investigative) detention, but it usually ranges from a few days up to as much as 6 months, the latter in cases in which the detainee has appealed the sentence to the Supreme Court. Before July 1992, pretrial detention sentences were generally served in isolation. Subsequently, according to the new law, judges must rule specifically on the question of isolation. Court orders to hold prisoners incommunicado must be justified by the need to preserve the integrity of 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 means 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 have a right to be present at their own trials and are guaranteed the right to competent legal counsel of their own choosing. In cases in which defendants are unable to pay attorney's fees, the State assumes the cost. Defendants have the right to access to an attorney sufficiently in advance of the trial to prepare a defense. Defendants may confront witnesses and otherwise participate in public trials, which are fair and free from intimidation. Defendants and their attorneys have access to government-held evidence relevant to their cases and enjoy a presumption of innocence. All defendants have the right to appeal. No groups are barred from testifying, and within reason all testimony is given the same weight. The courts are free of political control. Although the Ministry of Justice administers the lower court system, the Supreme Court guards its independence and fairness. Juries are not used, but multijudge panels are common, especially in the appeals process.

A major reform of the Icelandic judicial system, separating judicial and executive power in regional jurisdictions, was fully implemented in July 1992. The measure transfers all judicial authority for criminal and civil cases from local officials, who also served as chiefs of police, to newly established district courts. The reform was the direct result of an Icelander's complaint to the European Commission of Human Rights in which the complainant, charged with a traffic violation, argued that it was unjust for an official of the same agency which accused him to try him.

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. Arbitrary intrusions by official entities, political organizations, or any other organized group into the private beliefs or personal liberties of individuals do not occur.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution expressly forbids censorship and other restrictions on the freedom of the press and freedom of individual expression. Citizens and the media exercise these freedoms extensively. Iceland has a public broadcasting system, state television and radio, as well as private television and radio which 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 fear that such gatherings may cause riots. Plans for public meetings are virtually never rejected, and the authorities rarely modify them. The Constitution provides citizens the right to join together formally or informally in associations without governmental authorization. A varied and wide spectrum of voluntary organizations plays a vital role in Icelandic politics and society.

c. Freedom of Religion

Although the Lutheran Church is the established church and most citizens are nominally members, there is complete freedom for other faiths. Both Christian and non-Christian faiths are allowed to proselytize freely. They may maintain ties with, and receive support from, coreligionists abroad.

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

Icelanders have freedom to travel at home and abroad, to emigrate, and to return at will. Iceland observes the provisions of the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. "Spontaneous" asylum seekers are usually required to return to the country of first asylum pending a Justice Ministry ruling on their application. Refugees are never compelled to return to a country in which they would face persecution. The Icelandic Red Cross facilitates the social and economic integration of refugees and those granted residence permits on "humanitarian grounds."

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

The political system is an open, fully functioning, parliamentary democracy in which voters freely choose the members of the Althing (Parliament) who, in turn, enact the laws of the land and determine the composition of the Cabinet. Parliamentary elections are held at 4-year intervals unless the Althing dissolves, on request of the Prime Minister to the President or in the event of a no-confidence vote, before the end of its full term. Voting in elections and membership in political parties are open to all citizens 18 years of age or older. Althing candidates are selected in primary elections and caucuses. Multimember districts and proportional representation increase the chances for minority points of view to be represented. In addition, there is a strong cultural insistence on having the views of all significant groups represented in the Althing.

However, Iceland's theoretically proportional system of representation is heavily weighted to favor sparsely populated rural districts over urban areas. Redistricting to reflect population shifts to the cities would require parliamentary action, which, though proposed by some Members of Parliament (MP's) in 1993, was not taken.

The center/right coalition Government was formed following national elections in April 1991. It consists of the Independence Party and the Social Democratic Party, with David Oddsson of the Independence Party as Prime Minister.

Three of the four top governmental positions – the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, President, and Speaker of the Althing – are occupied by women. The latter two positions are largely ceremonial. There is an active and influential feminist political party, the Women's List, which elected 5 M.P.'s to Parliament in 1991 and received 8.3 percent of the vote.

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

Human rights associations, including groups working in the interest of women, children, the disabled, and prisoners, are active in Iceland. Human rights issues are sometimes considered in the court system, generating amendments to existing law.

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

Iceland's ethnically homogeneous population is strongly egalitarian and opposed to discrimination, regardless of whether it is based on race, sex, religion, disability, or other factors. Government legislation and practice reflect this attitude.


Violence against women, both physical and mental, continued to occur at a comparatively low rate. The issue gradually received increased public attention, in great part through the efforts of the Women's List political movement, which raised it periodically in political debate. A public women's shelter in Rekjavik offers protection to approximately 370 women and 180 children per year, an increase of 20 and 30 respectively from 1991. There is also a rape trauma center sponsored and operated by women's organizations. Both are financially supported by national and municipal governments and private contributions. Approximately 400 women and children (aged 3 to 70) annually seek assistance at the rape trauma center.

Spokeswomen attributed most of the increase to enhanced public knowledge of the services provided at the centers. Approximately 50 percent of those who made use of the women's shelter cited alcohol abuse by their male partners as a factor contributing to the violence they suffered. Counseling is available from social workers and lawyers at the shelter, and children can continue their schooling during their stay there.

Studies indicate that only a small percentage of cases involving domestic violence or sexual abuse (rape or attempted rape, sexual 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 and sexual violence. Only two Icelandic citizens, both men, have been sentenced in cases involving spouse or child abuse in 1992 and 1993. Spokesmen for the state investigative police also have asserted that investigation of domestic violence is a waste of time for the police, who should concentrate their efforts on "more serious" crime. Women's organizations claim that female victims, after having accused men of domestic violence or sexual abuse, are often subjected to humiliating and degrading police interrogations The Reykjavik City Hospital emergency ward now has an all-female staff to care for rape victims, and the police have implemented a program to educate officers in correct interrogation procedures. Women's action groups still complain that judges do not hand out severe enough sentences for sexually related crimes. They cite as an example that convicted rapists receive, on the average, from 1 to 2 years in prison.

Major economic and political institutions in Iceland remain male-dominated. On the basis of credible research, the Women's List asserts that, despite legislation requiring equal pay for equal work, Icelandic women do not receive pay equal to that of men. The party and other active women's organizations have given this issue top priority. Studies of comparative wage scales consistently revealed an average difference of 40 percent in the earnings of men and women in comparable jobs. Although approximately half of the difference might be explained by longer average working hours among men and their tendency to work more overtime, there was still a 20-percent unexplained differential in the wages of men and women.

Since 1991, complaints based on the equal rights law have been referred to a special committee established under the equal rights affairs office of the Ministry of Social Affairs. The committee has only advisory powers and can only make recommendations to the employer that do not have the force of law. Only a few complaints have been made to the committee. Nonetheless, women's groups speculate that the numbers are much higher, but that women are reluctant to come forward with complaints in the small, intimate, and traditionally stoic Icelandic society. Another factor is that the largely male-led Icelandic labor unions have not actively supported individual women who wish to exercise their right to sue.


High respect for children's rights is reflected in Icelandic legislation and government policy as well as in social practices. Icelandic law guarantees adequate public day-care as part of the extensive "law of the child" passed by the Althing in 1992. Children's play corners are to be found in every public building or waiting room. There are also high quality public playgrounds available throughout the country.

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 (e.g., air traffic controllers), unions have had and used the right to strike for many years, including in 1993. According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 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 on wages, working conditions, and related issues. While union membership is theoretically no longer obligatory, wage earners are required to pay union fees. The closed shop exists in some industries, established in contracts between unions and employers. Frequently, the obligation is mutual; employers agree to hire only union members and, in return, wage earners agree not to work for employers who are not members of employer organizations.

A 12-month agreement between the central labor and management organizations that was reached with the assistance of government mediation in April 1992 formally expired on March 1, 1993. It continued to be observed in practice throughout negotiations in the spring of 1993 which resulted in a new comprehensive labor agreement signed on May 21. Wage earners did not receive any wage increases, but low-income benefits, vacation, and December bonuses are to be paid. In conjunction with the agreement, the Government made a number of political and economic commitments, including keeping the value of the currency (krona) stable and lowering value-added taxes (VAT). The agreement expires on December 1, 1994. Labor courts effectively adjudicate disputes over labor contracts and over the rights and provisions guaranteed under 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 of a union activist working for the Steelwright Corporation in Reykjavik, the union was unable to prove in court its suspicion that the 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 issued a ruling stating 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 amendments to Icelandic law 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 exist.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Compulsory education legislation stipulates that children must attend school until the age of 16. The employment of children below the age of 16 in factories, on ships, and in other places that are hazardous or require hard labor is prohibited by law, and this prohibition is observed in practice. Children of 14 and 15 years of age may, however, be employed part-time or during school vacations in light, nonhazardous work; their work hours may not exceed the ordinary working hours of adults in the same occupation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration enforces child labor regulations.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Icelandic 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. Work time exceeding the standard 8-hour workday is defined as overtime and compensated accordingly. Workers are entitled to 10 hours of rest within each 24-hour period and 1 day off every week. Under special circumstances the 10-hour rest provision can be reduced to 8, and the 1 day off can be postponed by a week. In case of the latter, the worker has a right to 2 additional hours off in the following week.

Although there is no minimum wage law, union membership is so pervasive and effective that labor contracts, in effect, assure even the lowest paid workers a sufficient income for a decent standard of living. 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. Food, shelter, health care, and education are guaranteed without discrimination to those lacking adequate income because they are too old, too young, sick, or otherwise disadvantaged.

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