Freedom in the World
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President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson spurred a constitutional crisis in May 2004 when he vetoed a law, sponsored by then prime minister David Oddson and passed by parliament, restricting media ownership. Grimsson was reelected by a wide margin in presidential elections held the same month. In September, Oddsson swapped portfolios with Foreign Minister Halldor Asgrimsson in accordance with an agreement struck after the 2003 parliamentary elections.
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.
In general elections held on May 10, 2003, Oddsson's right-of-center Independence Party won 34 percent of the votes, gaining only 2 seats more than the left-leaning Social Democratic Alliance. As a result, the Independence Party formed a ruling coalition with the Progressive Party, acceding to the condition that Oddsson would hand over the post of prime minister to Progressive Party leader Asgrimsson the following year. This condition was fulfilled on September 15, 2004, with Oddsson taking Asgrimsson's previous post as foreign minister.
In May, Grimsson vetoed a law placing limits on media ownership - the first time an Icelandic president had done so in the republic's 60-year history. The veto will force Icelanders to vote on the issue in an upcoming referendum and catalyzed a constitutional controversy, as many felt that Grimsson had overstepped the traditionally apolitical bounds of the presidency. The controversy was exacerbated by the fact that the legislation was sponsored by then prime minister Oddson. Nevertheless, Grimsson was reelected by a wide margin in the June 26 presidential election, capturing more than 85 percent of the vote.
Iceland began whale hunting in 2003 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 sector, which fears that the hunting could damage the country's booming whale-watching industry. In response, the Fisheries Ministry announced in June 2004 that it would cull only 25 minke whales that year, a substantial decrease from the ministry's previous projections. Countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom have formally condemned the practice, but a majority 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), primarily because of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy, which Icelanders believe would threaten their own fishing industry, upon which Iceland's economy is predominantly dependent. While Oddsson ruled out joining the EU, Asgrimsson is more EU-friendly and has expressed willingness to compromise on fisheries issues. The largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, favors EU membership for Iceland. In the meantime, the country has access to European markets as a member of the European Economic Area.
The 2004 UN Development Program's Human Development Index ranked Iceland 7th worldwide in quality of life. The country's abundant hydrothermal and geothermal resources make it one of the cleanest environments in the world.
Icelanders can change their government democratically. The constitution, 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, was Europe's longest-serving prime minister until handing power to Progressive Party leader Halldor Asgrimsson in September 2004. Although the Independence Party has dominated Icelandic politics since the country's independence, elections are competitive. Of the 63 members of the Althingi, about 30 percent are women.
Corruption is not a problem in Iceland. Transparency International ranked Iceland the third least corrupt country of the 146 countries surveyed in its 2004 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 National Broadcasting Service, which operates a number of transmitting and relay stations. There are both private and public television stations. However, media ownership is concentrated, with the Northern Lights Corporation controlling television networks, most radio stations, and two out of three of the country's national newspapers. A proposed law to restrict media ownership has been the cause of one of the country's most severe political crises.
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.
Academic freedom is widely respected and enjoyed, and 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. Many domestic and international non-governmental organizations operate freely in Iceland and enjoy extensive government cooperation. In November, the government cut all direct funding to the Icelandic Human Rights Center starting in 2005, a move which elicited protest from public figures and civic actors.
The 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.
In May, the Act on Foreigners, which specifies the government's powers with regard to foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers, was amended to close perceived loopholes in the legislation. Foreign spouses must now be at least 24 years of age, and those suspected of fraud are subject to house searches or DNA tests without a court order. These new provisions led to criticism for human rights organizations, which claimed the law was discriminatory and violated privacy rights.
In 2002, Iceland agreed to give its citizens' genetic data to a private, U.S.-backed medical research company to create a national medical record database, an action that has raised fears over privacy issues. Objections from patients and doctors and security considerations have stymied the completion of the database.
Women enjoy equal rights in Iceland, and more than 80 percent participate in the workforce. 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 in the country after being caught by traffickers.