U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1995 - Iceland

ICELAND   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 citizens have the right to hold private property. It provides residents with a high standard of living. The leading export, marine products, accounts for almost 80 percent of export revenues. The Government fully respects the human rights of its citizens, and the law and judiciary provide effective means of dealing with instances of individual abuse. There is some societal discrimination against women.

Respect for 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 other extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated 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 a construction program to alleviate these difficulties.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile, and the Government observes this prohibition.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the Government respects this provision in practice. 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. The judiciary provides citizens with a fair and efficient judicial process. 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 attorneys' 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. There were no reports of political prisoners.

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

The Constitution prohibits such practices, government authorities generally respect these prohibitions, and violations are subject to effective legal sanction.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the Government respects these rights in practice. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combine to ensure freedom of speech and of the press, including academic freedom.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

Although the official state religion is Lutheran, the Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government respects this right in practice.

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

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice. The Government cooperates with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. There were no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status.

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

The Constitution provides citizens with the right to change their government peacefully, and citizens exercise this right in practice through periodic, free, and fair elections held on the basis of universal suffrage. The most recent elections to the Althing (unicameral Parliament) were held on April 8. 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 feminist political party, the Women's List, which won 3 of 63 seats in the 1995 parliamentary elections.

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

A number of human rights groups operate without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials are generally cooperative and responsive to their views.

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

The culture of the 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).


Violence against women received increasing public attention, due largely to the efforts of the Women's List political movement, which continued to raise it in political debate. A public women's shelter offers protection to approximately 350 women and 180 children per year; these figures are virtually the same as in 1994, 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 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 (the typical prison term for a convicted rapist is 1 or 2 years). The police have introduced a program to train officers in correct interrogation procedures, and other government agencies are paying closer attention to the problem of violence against women. In September an all-male committee, working under the auspices of the Social Affairs Ministry, launched a 2-week campaign, "Men against Violence," highlighting men's responsibility for the majority of domestic and sexual violence, and sponsoring seminars on the problem and ways to eliminate it. Major economic and political institutions remain male-dominated. 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.


Great 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 been brought into force. The Foreign Minister opined that Iceland's practices in this area lay it open to criticism for possible violations of human rights. In 1994 the Foreign Minister submitted a bill in the Parliament to bring the Convention into force, but it was not voted on before the end of the session. The bill was reintroduced early in the new parliamentary term, which began in October.

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 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. Some 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 June 1993, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the 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 new Parliament is continuing 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 age 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 period 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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