Freedom in the World
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Elected in 1991, Prime Minister David Oddsson, head of the conservative Independence Party, is the longest-serving prime minister in Europe. Under his leadership, the country has enjoyed economic growth, with unemployment at just one percent. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) refused Iceland's bid for membership for the second consecutive year for the country's refusal to sign a commercial whale-hunting ban. Iceland installed facial-imaging scanners in its international airport. American civil liberties groups have criticized such technology. Scientists and government officials explored transforming Iceland's economy into one based entirely on hydrogen power.
Iceland achieved full independence in 1944. Multiparty governments have been in power since then. On August 1, 1996, the former finance minister and former leader of the leftist People's Alliance, Dr. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, was sworn in as Iceland's fifth president. The current government is composed of a coalition of Prime Minister Oddsson's Independence Party and the liberal Progressive Party.
The standard of living in Iceland ranks among the highest in the world and Icelanders enjoy an extensive social welfare system. With unemployment at only one percent and ecotourism growing, public debt is expected to be dissolved by 2004. Fishing accounts for two-thirds of Iceland's exports and employs one-tenth of its workforce.
While Iceland has strong historical, cultural, and economic ties with Europe, Icelanders are hesitant to join the European Union, primarily because of its Common Fisheries Policy. Icelanders believe the policy would threaten their marine industry. While Prime Minister Oddsson continues to rule out joining the European Union, he has expressed his desire to cultivate a knowledge economy in order to wean the country from dependence on the fishing industry. The left-leaning opposition, consisting of two camps, is divided on the issue of EU membership. The Social Democratic faction of the United Left bloc is in favor of submitting an application to the European Union, and the Green-Left Alliance opposes EU membership. The country already has access to European markets as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA). Iceland is exploring ways to transform itself into a hydrogen-based economy. The country's abundant hydrothermal and geothermal resources place it in a unique position to phase out the use of fossil fuels in favor of hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel that could power all forms of transport vehicles and eliminate greenhouse gasses. All of Reykjavik is already heated by geothermal power drawn from the ground.
In May, for the second time in two years, Iceland was denied membership in the IWC because of its refusal to sign a commercial hunting ban. Whale hunting is a cultural tradition in Iceland and a lucrative trade. Iceland argues that numbers of endangered whale species have recovered and that a 1986 moratorium on whaling should be lifted. It also argues that the rising whale population consumes fish stocks vital to its economy.
Icelanders can change their government democratically. Iceland's constitution was adopted by referendum in 1944 and vests power in a president (whose functions are mainly ceremonial), a prime minister, a legislature, and a judiciary. The president is directly elected for a four-year term. The unicameral 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.
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.
In August, Transparency International ranked Iceland the fourth-least corrupt country in the world in its Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press. A wide range of publications includes both independent and party-affiliated newspapers. An autonomous board of directors oversees the Icelandic State Broadcasting Service, which operates a number of transmitting and relay stations. There are both private and public television stations. Iceland has the highest Internet penetration rate in the world, with more than 80 percent of the population accessing the Internet from home.
Iceland handed over its citizens' genetic data to a private, U.S.-backed, medical research company in 2000, raising some 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. Only 5 percent of Icelanders reportedly decided not to participate in the program.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Iceland introduced facial-recognition scanners at its airport in Reykjavik. The technology purportedly can identify anyone on a wanted list; its installation was deemed necessary since Iceland serves as a popular transit point between Europe and the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized facial-recognition technology as unreliable, with the potential to violate the civil liberties of nonsuspects.
In recent years, Iceland has not received a substantial number of refugees or asylum seekers, although it has accepted several dozen refugees from the Balkans. Legislation adopted in 1996 permits homosexuals to live together in a formal relationship with the same legal rights as in marriage, minus the right to adopt children or to be artificially inseminated.
Virtually everyone in the country holds at least nominal membership in the state-supported Lutheran Church. Freedom of worship is respected, and discrimination on the basis of race, language, social class, or sex is outlawed.
The constitution provides for freedom of association and peaceful assembly. About 76 percent of all eligible workers belong to free trade unions, and all enjoy the right to strike. Disabled persons enjoy extensive rights in employment and education.
Gender-based equality is guaranteed by law. In 2001, the United Nations ranked Iceland second in the world in terms of equal rights between the sexes. In 1995, women held 17 out of the 63 seats in parliament. That number rose to 22, or approximately 35 percent, after the 1999 elections. The Women's Alliance, an Icelandic feminist movement founded in 1983, is registered as a political party and has its own parliamentary faction.