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Freedom in the World 2004 - Iceland

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 18 December 2003
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2004 - Iceland, 18 December 2003, available at: [accessed 23 October 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.

Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Status: Free
Population: 300,000
GNI/Capita: $28,910
Life Expectancy: 80
Religious Groups: Evangelical Lutheran (87.1 percent), other Protestant (4.1 percent), Roman Catholic (1.7 percent), other (7.1 percent)
Ethnic Groups: homogeneous mixture of descendants of Norse and Celts (94 percent), population of foreign origin (6 percent)
Capital: Reykjavik


Following parliamentary elections held in May 2003, David Oddsson retained his position as prime minister, but announced that he will step down in 2004. Iceland's Act on Foreigners went into effect on January 1. In the summer, Iceland resumed whale hunting, generating considerable international and domestic criticism.

After being dominated for centuries by Denmark and Norway, Iceland gained independence in 1944. It became a founding member of NATO in 1949, and two years later, it entered into a defense agreement with the United States that has allowed it to keep no military forces of its own. In 1985, Iceland declared itself a nuclear-free zone. Although the United States had proposed a withdrawal from Iceland, it was decided in fall 2003 that the U.S. Air Force base will remain, at least in the short term.

Economic growth in Iceland was at 4.5 percent for five years before dipping slightly in 2002. The UN's Human Development Index ranked Iceland second worldwide in quality of life last year. The country's abundant hydrothermal and geothermal resources make it one of the cleanest environments in the world.

Iceland held general elections on May 10, 2003. Oddsson's right-of-center Independence Party won 34 percent of the votes, giving it only 2 seats more than the left-leaning Social Democratic Alliance. The Independence Party now rules in coalition with the Progressive Party.

In August, Iceland began whale hunting after not having done so since 1989. Although the program was set up for scientific purposes only, it has been severely criticized by environmentalists and Iceland's own tourism industry, which fears that the hunting could damage Iceland's image. Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have formally condemned the practice, but about three-quarters of Iceland's population supports it.

While Iceland has strong historical, cultural, and economic ties with Europe, Icelanders are hesitant to join the European Union (EU). The reluctance is primarily because of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, which Icelanders believe would threaten their own fishing industry, on which Iceland's economy is predominantly dependent. While Prime Minister Oddsson continues to rule out joining the EU, he has expressed a desire to cultivate a knowledge economy in order to wean the country from its dependence on fishing. The largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, favor EU membership for Iceland. In the meantime, the country has access to European markets as a member of the European Economic Area.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Icelanders can change their government democratically. Iceland's constitution, which was adopted in 1944, vests power in a president, whose functions are mainly ceremonial, a prime minister, a unicameral legislature (the Althingi), and a judiciary. The president is directly elected for a four-year term. The legislature is also elected for four years (subject to dissolution). The prime minister, who performs most executive functions, is appointed by the president but is responsible to the legislature. Elections are free and fair.

Five political movements are represented in the Althingi. The largest is the Independence Party, whose leader, David Oddsson, is Europe's longest-serving prime minister. Although the Independence Party has dominated Icelandic politics since the country's independence, elections are competitive. Since the May 2003 parliamentary election, the second-largest party, the Social Democratic Alliance, has had only two fewer seats than the Independence Party. Of the 63 members of the Althingi, about 30 percent are women.

Corruption is not a problem in Iceland. In October, Transparency International ranked Iceland the second least corrupt country of those included in its 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and Iceland was tied for first place in the latest Reporters Sans Frontieres world press freedom index. A wide range of publications includes both independent and party-affiliated newspapers. An autonomous board of directors oversees the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, which operates a number of transmitting and relay stations. There are both private and public television stations.

The constitution provides for the right to form religious associations and to practice any religion freely, although nearly 90 percent of Icelanders belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The state financially supports and promotes the Church, both through a church tax and through religious instruction in schools. However, citizens who do not belong to a recognized religious organization may choose to give the tax to the University of Iceland and have their children exempted from religious instruction. The education system is free of excessive political involvement.

Freedom of association and peaceful assembly are respected. About 85 percent of all eligible workers belong to labor unions, and all enjoy the right to strike.

The country's judiciary is independent. The law does not provide for trial by jury, but many trials and appeals use panels consisting of several judges. All judges, at all levels, serve for life. Since amendments made in 1996, the constitution states that all people shall be treated equally before the law, regardless of sex, religion, opinion, ethnic origin, race, property, or other status. However, there is no constitutional provision specifically prohibiting racial discrimination.

The new Act on Foreigners, which went into force on January 1, 2003 specifies the government's powers with regard to foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers. Given its geographic isolation, Iceland received only 22 asylum applications and just 207 refugees in 2002. Despite the new provisions, nongovernmental organizations have commented that some issues relating to the reception and treatment of asylum seekers remain unclear or unsatisfactorily resolved under the new legislation.

In 2002, Iceland gave its citizens' genetic data to a private, U.S.-backed medical research company, an action that has raised fears over privacy issues. Iceland, the most genetically homogenous nation on earth, went ahead with the plan on the grounds that the data could provide scientists with vital clues into the origin of diseases, thus increasing the chances of discovering cures. While a law was passed requiring doctors to hand over patient information, the law did contain a provision allowing citizens to opt out of providing genetic data; about 7 percent have done so.

Women enjoy equal rights in Iceland. However, there has been some concern about women of immigrant origin, who may not have the opportunity to learn the Icelandic language and customs and may be unaware of their rights and status under the law. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has also criticized Iceland over immigrant women who become sex trade workers after being caught by traffickers. However, there has been little research done on the issue.

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