Capital: Reykjavik
Population: 300,000

Political Rights Score: 1
Civil Liberties Score: 1
Status: Free


In a rare clash between police and protesters, 20 people were arrested during one of a series of truck-driver protests prompted by rising fuel prices in March and April. Later in the year, a credit crisis affecting the world's financial markets led to the collapse of Iceland's banking system and the beginning of what promised to be a deep recession.

Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944. It became a founding member of NATO in 1949, despite having no standing army. The country declared itself a nuclear-free zone in 1985. David Oddsson of the center-right Independence Party (IP), first elected prime minister in 1991, finally stepped down in 2004. He was succeeded by Halldor Asgrimsson of the Progressive Party (PP), the coalition partner of the IP. After a poor government showing in local elections, Asgrimsson resigned the premiership in favor of the IP's Geir Haarde in June 2006.

The ruling coalition broke up following May 2007 parliamentary elections, in which the IP took 25 seats and the PP slipped to 7, leaving the pair with a razor-thin majority in the 63-seat legislature. The IP then formed a new coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Alliance, which held 18 seats, and Haarde returned as prime minister. Among other parties, the Left-Green Movement took 9 seats, and the Liberal Party won 4.

In March and April 2008, truck drivers protested on several occasions against increasing fuel prices. In one instance, police arrested 20 protesters and used pepper spray to fend off the crowd, leading several people to seek medical treatment. Protesters threw stones at police, injuring one officer. Such clashes are rare in Iceland.

A global credit crisis devastated the economy beginning in September, and the government was forced to nationalize three large banks in October. By November, Iceland had arranged to borrow about $10 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and several foreign governments in order to meet its obligations to foreign depositors. That sum was reportedly equivalent to Iceland's entire gross domestic product. The grim economic situation appeared to alter public attitudes in favor of joining the European Union (EU) as the year drew to a close. The failing economy led to protests calling for Haarde's resignation at year's end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Iceland is an electoral democracy. The constitution, adopted in 1944, vests power in a president, a prime minister, the 63-seat unicameral legislature (the Althingi), and a judiciary. The president, whose duties are mostly ceremonial, is directly elected for a four-year term. The legislature is also elected for four years, but it can be dissolved for early elections in certain circumstances. The prime minister is appointed by the president but responsible to the legislature. Although the center-right IP has dominated politics since the country's independence, elections are free, fair, and competitive. Five political parties are represented in the Althingi. The IP formed a ruling coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Alliance after May 2007 elections, leaving the PP, the Left-Green Movement, and the Liberal Party in opposition.

Corruption is generally not a problem for Iceland, although it has experienced politically tinged business-fraud scandals in recent years. It was ranked 7 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. Iceland's wide range of print publications includes both independent and party-affiliated newspapers. The autonomous Icelandic National Broadcasting Service competes with private radio and television stations. Private media ownership is concentrated, with the Nordurljos (Northern Lights) Corporation controlling most of the private television and radio outlets and two out of the three national newspapers. A 2004 bill placing limits on media ownership was rejected through the first presidential veto in the republic's history. Some reporters practice self-censorship to avoid publishing libelous material. Internet access is unrestricted.

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, though nearly 90 percent of Icelanders belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The state supports the church through a special tax, which citizens can choose to direct to the University of Iceland instead. In 2006, the courts rejected a lawsuit by the Icelandic Pagan Association in which it sought state funding proportional to its membership. However, Reykjavik city authorities reportedly granted land for a pagan place of worship in January 2008. In May, the parliament passed a law that requires the teaching of theology in grades 1-10 and calls for teaching practices in general to draw on Iceland's Christian heritage as well as broader values including equality and tolerance; the previous statute had referred only to "Christian ethics." Academic freedom is respected, and the education system is free of excessive political involvement.

The freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are upheld. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely and enjoy extensive government cooperation. In 2004, the government cut all direct funding to the Icelandic Human Rights Center to help ensure its independence. The labor movement is robust, with about 85 percent of all eligible workers belonging to unions. All unions have the right to strike. In 2008, a series of spring fuel-price protests by truck drivers prompted at least one clash with police, and a late-summer wage protest by the Midwives' Association of Iceland was ultimately resolved with a 21 percent pay increase, though at one point the finance minister filed charges against the group.

The judiciary is independent. The law does not provide for trial by jury, but many trials and appeals use panels of several judges. 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, the charter does not specifically prohibit racial discrimination in other contexts. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

The Act on Foreigners was amended in 2004 to allow home searches without warrants in cases of suspected immigration fraud, among other changes. Foreigners can vote in municipal elections if they have been residents for at least five years, or three years for citizens of Scandinavian countries.

Women enjoy equal rights, and more than 80 percent of women participate in the workforce. A pay gap exists between men and women in spite of laws designed to prevent disparities. A five-year plan to reduce violence against women was launched in 2006, and in 2008 the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) affiliate in Iceland launched a campaign to support the organization's international antiviolence initiative. In 2008, the Althingi passed the Act on Equal Status and Equal Rights of Women and Men to advance gender equality. The government participates in the Nordic-Baltic Action Group against Human Trafficking. A committee was appointed in 2008 to develop new strategies to combat human trafficking in Iceland, which currently does not have laws to protect victims of trafficking.

This 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.