Ambassador Nomination Draws Surprise and Criticism

foreign minister bjarni benediktsson

Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson has nominated his former assistant as Ambassador to the United States, RÚV reports. An administrative analyst has called the nomination unusual while Pirate Party MP Björn Leví Gunnarsson has called it a breach of ethics.

Svanhildur Holm Valsdóttir, Bjarni’s nominee, has been director of the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce for the past three years. Between 2013 and 2020, she worked as Bjarni’s assistant. Prior to that, she was the CEO of the Independence Party, of which Bjarni is the chair. Svanhildur holds a law degree as well as an MBA from Reykjavík University.

Threshold for ambassador lowered

“The threshold for the rank of ambassador has really been lowered with the appointment of Svanhildur Holm, as her promotion in this regard is very rare,” Haukur Arnþórsson, an administrative analyst, told RÚV. He added that the appointment was a surprise. While in the past, former politicians have been appointed as ambassadors, often to strong criticism, appointing a former political assistant and a public official from a minister’s former ministry is something completely new, Haukur stated.

Breach of ethics, says opposition

Pirate Party MP Björn Leví Gunnarsson asserted that Bjarni’s nomination of Svanhildur may constitute a breach of ethics. He stated that the Parliamentary Ombudsman can investigate the matter if he considers there to be reason to do so.

Position not advertised

Bjarni Benediktsson stepped into the role of Minister for Foreign Affairs two months ago, after resigning as Minister of Finance when the Parliamentary Ombudsman concluded he had been unfit to approve the partial sale of Íslandsbanki bank.

Svanhildur’s appointment is for a period of five years. The position was not advertised. US authorities have yet to accept the nomination.

In 2020, Bjarni’s fellow party member Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson proposed tightening the regulations for appointing ambassadors. The proposed amendments, which, among other changes, would have made advertising ambassadorial openings mandatory, were not passed.

President Biden Nominates New US Ambassador to Iceland

US President Joe Biden has nominated Carrin Patman to be the United States’ ambassador to Iceland, RÚV reports. Patman is a former trial lawyer, currently serves as the chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, and was a major donor to Biden’s presidential campaign.

The US’ last three ambassadors to Iceland have all been political appointees and fundraisers for the presidents who have nominated them. Prior to this, Robert C. Barber was appointed by President Barack Obama and Jeffrey Ross Gunter was appointed by President Donald Trump.

Over the last few decades, US presidents have generally given the country’s more comfortable ambassadorial seats to political supporters, says Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir, professor of political science at the University of Iceland. The president’s ambassadorial nominations must be approved by the senate.

“Today, they look at this as something of a sinecure,” she continued, saying that the opposition party tends to approve political appointees as a sort of quid pro quo. It’s a system that politicians seem largely satisfied with, but among “those who work within the foreign service and have worked their way up, there’s a fair amount of criticism,” said Silja Bára, “and of course within watchdog organizations as well.” Critics argue that “you can buy an ambassadorship.”

President Biden has now nominated around 90 ambassadors, 60-70% of whom could be considered political appointees.

US Ambassador to Iceland Wants to Carry a Gun

US Ambassador to Iceland Jeffrey Ross Gunter is reportedly so concerned about security in Iceland that he asked the US State Department to apply for special permission for him to carry a firearm, CBS News reports.

The Global Peace Index currently ranks Iceland as the most peaceful country in the world, but this does not seem to have put Ambassador Gunter’s mind at ease about his personal safety. Indeed, dozens of diplomatic staff and officials interviewed by CBS said that he’d been “paranoid about security” and the US Embassy in Iceland recently placed an ad in local papers seeking applicants for full-time bodyguards.

It has not been confirmed whether the State Department followed through with the ambassador’s request for a personal firearm, but it appears that his “irrational” security concerns did not end there. The former dermatologist and Republican Party donor—who only days ago drew swift criticism for retweeting a presidential tweet referring to COVID-19 as the “Invisible China Virus”—also floated the prospect of establishing door-to-door armored car service and suggested that he should be outfitted with a “stab-proof vest.”

See Also: Ambassadorial Tweet Denounced as ‘Deeply Offensive’

Although ownership of small shotguns and hunting rifles is fairly common and handgun ownership has been on the rise in recent years, there are still relatively few licensed personal handguns in the country. Per figures released by the Icelandic police, as of September 2019, there were 39,475 shotguns,  25,573 rifles, and 3,686 handguns as of September 2019—although it should be noted that the handgun total includes single-shot sheep guns used on farms. Icelandic law is very strict on gun control. In order to get a gun license, you must be 20 years or older, pass a mental and physical assessment, and have a clean criminal record. Applicants must also obtain recommendations from two people to attend a course on guns, gun safety, and gun and hunting laws. Only then, after passing a written test, can you get a license for smaller shotguns and rifles. In order to get a permit for larger rifles and semi-automatic shotguns, you must wait an additional year.

See Also: Hold Your Fire – Gun Ownership in Iceland

The CBS article goes on to describe an increasingly fractured and fractious work environment at the US Embassy. Ambassador Gunter has had seven Deputy Chiefs of Mission since his arrival in May 2019—one of whom prepared for over a year for the position and spent a considerable amount of time studying Icelandic only to be blocked because the Ambassador “didn’t like the look of him.” Ambassador Gunter also refused to return to Iceland after attending a conference in the US in February, took a personal leave of absence right in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reportedly wanted to conduct his job remotely from California.

Read the full CBS report here.

Proposes Stricter Guidelines for Appointing Ambassadors

Foreign Minister Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarsson.

Ambassador positions will be advertised more publicly and criteria for their appointment tightened if amendments proposed by the Foreign Affairs Minister are implemented. The proposed changes include capping the number of ambassadors at 30, outlining the jobs’ requirements in law, and making advertising of the positions mandatory.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson says the proposed changes to the Foreign Service Act would rectify the shortcomings of the current process used to appoint Iceland’s ambassadors. “These changes ensure the necessary balance between firmness and flexibility within the foreign service, as knowledge and experience of international affairs form the core without missing the opportunity to also utilise the talents and experience of individuals from other areas of society,” Guðlaugur stated in an interview with Morgunblaðið. He added that the amendments would also promote equal rights, increasing opportunities for women within the foreign service.

Guðlaugur has not appointed any new ambassadors since he took office as Foreign Minister in January of 2017. In that time, their number has decreased from 40 to 36.

In November 2018, the recorded conversation of six MPs at a bar in downtown Reykjavík, which later became known as the Klaustur scandal, revealed that Former Prime Minister Geir Haarde was appointed to an ambassadorial position as a political favour. Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, who appointed Geir to the position, also stated that he appointed his cousin Árni Þór Sigurðsson as a distraction from the former appointment.

Currently, the Minister for Foreign Affairs is permitted to appoint ambassadors without advertising their positions publicly. That would change in most cases if the amendments are passed.

Iceland and UK Reach Withdrawal Agreement

Iceland and the UK have come to a reciprocal agreement which “protects the rights of our respective citizens in each other’s countries, based on the similar Withdrawal Agreement made with the EU.” So confirmed an announcement made by Michael Nevin, the British ambassador to Iceland, on the UK in Iceland Facebook page on Thursday.

The agreement, which also extends to citizens of Norway and Liechtenstein, ensures that British citizens currently living in Iceland – 1,591 people as of January 1, 2018 – can “go on living here” after the UK leaves the EU. It also guarantees that the over 15,000 nationals from Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein who live in the UK will not be deported from their homes after Brexit.

“It means that UK and Icelandic citizens living in each other’s countries at the end of the implementation period in December 2020 will be able to continue on with their lives,” affirmed Nevin. Importantly, “[t]he agreement includes continuity arrangements on residency, healthcare, pensions and education, social security coordination and mutual recognition of defined professional qualifications. It will enable families who have built their lives together in the UK or Iceland to stay together.”

Nevin also emphasizes that “both the UK and Iceland governments have made commitments to each other’s citizens in the event of “no deal”. Citizens resident in our respective countries at the time of the UK’s departure from the EU will be able to continue living, working and studying here and in the UK as before.”

Although specific instructions regarding “administrative arrangements” for British citizens living in Iceland have yet to be finalised, the agreement undoubtedly will come as a relief to citizens on both sides who have been living in a state of limbo for some time.

“I hope that brings some certainty for your own future during a time of change,” writes Nevin. “The Iceland government is as keen as we are to not only ensure that you go on living here if you want to, but also to work as partners in trying to resolve any issues you still might have.”

Read the official statements on the Icelandic governmental website and on the UK governmental website.

Polish Ambassador Accuses Icelandic Media Source of “Fake News”

Polish March

Stundin newspaper received a formal letter of complaint from the Polish Ambassador to Iceland for their news story on a controversial march that took place on November 11 in Warsaw. The ambassador also complained to Iceland’s president and prime minister and asked Stundin to apologise for the news story and take it down.

Studin wrote about the march, which took place on the centennial of the re-establishment of Poland’s independence. Called the March of Independence, the event included Polish politicians as well as nationalist and far-right groups. More than 200,000 people are said to have taken part in the march.

Story called “fake news”

According to Stundin, Ambassador Gerard Pokruszyński accused the article’s author of calling all Poles who “love their fatherland” fascists or nazis. He also called the article “fake news” and said he hoped it wouldn’t have “serious consequences” in diplomatic relations between Poland and Iceland.

Journalist Jón Bjarki Magnússon, who wrote the article, says the newspaper has not received such a response to their writing in decades. He expressed concern at the ambassador’s letter, which had named him specifically.

He says Pokruszyński’s letter portrayed him as “an enemy of the Polish nation. It’s a really uncomfortable feeling to be portrayed that way. Because of course I’m not the enemy of any nation or people at all and I like Polish people, care about many of them, and go to Poland often.”

Messages “somewhere close to” threats

Jón Bjarki says he has also received “uncomfortable” messages from Polish people in Iceland in response to the news story. Though he says there have been no direct threats, the messages are “somewhere close to that.”

The journalist stated he considered the situation “very serious” but was choosing to interpret the action as “some kind of mistake” for the time being. He says Stundin will continue to cover current affairs in Poland, which fall 29 spots on the World Press Freedom Index between 2015 and 2016. “The state of affairs in the country in regards to freedom of press and then this reaction from the ambassador are not completely out of context,” Jón stated.

Government declines to respond

Pokruszyński sent a copy of his letter to the Icelandic Prime Minister and President, as well as the Parliament of Iceland and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The latter has stated it does not intent to respond to the letter.

PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir confirmed that the Prime Minister’s Office had received a copy of the letter and does not intent to respond to it. “It’s of course clear that in Iceland there is freedom of press and the government is not the right party to look to if a person considers they have been misrepresented in media coverage, therefore we will take no action on this issue as the Icelandic government has nothing to do with it.”

Former PM Haarde Takes Position on Board of World Bank

Former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde will step down as Iceland’s ambassador to the United States on July 1, 2019 and will take up a position as a representative for the Nordic and Baltic states on the board of the World Bank, Kjarninn reports. Geir’s new position was announced on the website of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs on Friday.

The announcement came almost ten years to the day since Geir notified the nation of the gravity of Iceland’s financial situation in a televised address. He concluded his statement with the words “Guð blessi Ísland” (May God bless Iceland). This marked the beginning of the economic collapse and in the next few days, Iceland’s banks crashed one by one.

Geir was later tried by the High Court in Iceland for violations of the constitution. This was a historic trial, marking the first time an Icelandic minister was indicted for misconduct in office.

He was acquitted of three charges, but was convicted of one, namely, not having held cabinet meetings on important matters in the lead-up to the economic collapse.

The majority opinion in the conviction stated that when Geir became aware of the risk to which the Icelandic banks were exposed, which could jeopardize financial stability in the country and thus the position of the state treasury, he should have realized that it had to be immediately investigated whether this information was true. Information on impending danger which Geir knew about, or was bound to know about, should have been reason for him as prime minister to discuss it at a cabinet meeting, if not immediately then as soon as possible.

Geir later referred the case to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds that he had not received a fair trial, and also stating that the Icelandic parliament’s decision to press charges against him was made on political grounds. The court ruled, however, that Geir’s rights were not violated in the landmark case.

Geir has been Iceland’s ambassador to the US since 2015. He will be succeeded by Bergdís Ellertsdóttir, who is currently Iceland’s permanent representative to the United Nations.