Protests in Front of Parliament Yesterday, Foreign Minister Accused of Possible Hate Speech

Following remarks made by Foreign Minister and Independence Party chairperson Bjarni Benediktsson last Friday regarding both the tents of Palestinian protesters and their allies in front of Parliament in particular and asylum seekers in general, protests were held in front of Parliament yesterday. Attendees gathered both to criticise the government’s policies towards Palestinian asylum seekers and to call on the government to show substantial support for Palestine.

In addition, the refugee and asylum seeker assistance NGO Solaris has said that the Foreign Minister’s remarks possibly fall under Article 233a of the General Penal Code, which is Iceland’s law on hate speech.

Family re-unification

At around 3:00 PM yesterday afternoon, protesters gathered in front of Parliament, many bearing the Palestinian flag and slogans showing support for Palestine and the asylum seekers who have been camping in front of Parliament since December 27th. Mayor of Reykjavík Einar Þorsteinsson has said that they have a license to camp on this property, and that their protests have been peaceful. RÚV reports that the license is set to expire tomorrow, January 24th, but that an extension of this permit has been applied for.

Intense but peaceful

Those camping in front of Parliament are doing so in large part because Iceland’s government has an established policy of family re-unification for those granted international protection in Iceland. The government has been criticised for not assisting in retrieving family members of asylum seekers from Gaza, while Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir has contended that the government is not obliged to do so.

They have also called for a meeting with relevant government ministers, and for authorities to cease deporting Palestinian asylum seekers from Iceland. As none of these demands have been met, and with the Foreign Minister’s recent remarks calling the tents “a tragedy” as well as calling for increased police powers and tightening border restrictions, protesters assembled en masse in front of Parliament yesterday afternoon, with many just outside the entrance. Police were called at that point, but saw no cause to intervene.

Minister has “neglected his government duties”

Meanwhile, Solaris responded to the Finance Minister’s remarks with a Facebook post of their own, saying in part:

“While the minister has neglected his governmental duties and continues to refuse to meet with the Palestinian community in Iceland with regards to family reunification for their family members in Gaza, he chooses instead to use his public influence to spread misinformation about community members at their most vulnerable moment.”

They accuse Bjarni Benediktsson of conflating those exercising their legal right to apply for international protection with organised crime. They add further that his remarks may well fall under Article 233a of the General Penal Code, often known as Iceland’s hate speech law, which states:

“Anyone who publicly mocks, defames, denigrates or threatens a person or group of persons by comments or expressions of another nature, for example by means of pictures or symbols, for their nationality, colour, race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, or disseminates such materials, shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 2 years.”

“Free to disagree”

For his part, Bjarni Benediktsson has dismissed this accusation, stating that people are free to have differences of opinion in a democratic society, including the opinion to disagree with his opinion.

Solaris also stated that they have witnessed numerous increased examples of hate speech, including threats and encouragement of violence towards people seeking international protection, and have filed charges with the police regarding some of them.

“This is a moment where we as a community must continue to show our rejection of deplorable attempts to undermine democracy, that we stand with and for human rights, hold our elected government officials accountable for their duties and intervene in hateful discourses against vulnerable members of our society,” they write in closing.

In Focus: Bjarni Benediktsson

bjarni benediktsson

A snap press conference On Monday, October 10, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson called a snap press conference. The call came on the heels of an opinion authored by the Parliamentary Ombudsman that concluded that the Minister of Finance’s role in the ongoing privatisation process of the Íslandsbanki bank – which had been nationalised following the 2008 […]

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Iceland to Strengthen Support for UN Aid in Gaza

Minister for Foreign Affairs Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced that it will contribute 70 million ISK [$504,000; €477,000] to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), in response to a UN call for increased aid to Palestine.

This contribution is in addition to Iceland’s regular funding to the organization, which is one of Iceland’s cooperation partners in humanitarian matters.

Iceland Travellers in Israel Brought Safely to Jordan

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, stated: “The terrible escalation of events in the Gaza Strip primarily affects ordinary citizens. The number of victims is in the hundreds of thousands. Iceland has condemned the actions of the terrorist organization Hamas and reminded Israel of the importance of adhering to international law, including human rights. Such words matter, but by making a significant financial contribution to help the victims of this crisis, we go beyond words and can alleviate the suffering of those who are suffering and are victims of these circumstances. I hope that the world’s nations will stand together in ensuring the safety and well-being of the civilian population in their response to the current situation.”

Iceland has cooperated with UNRWA for decades, and the organization provides humanitarian assistance and protection, basic education, health, and social services to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, as well as those displaced in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. UNRWA is the main United Nations agency responding to the current crisis, providing assistance to both refugees and others affected by the conflict.

Last September, the Minister of Foreign Affairs signed a framework agreement with UNRWA for the continued support of Icelandic authorities to the organization for the next five years. With the additional contribution announced today, Iceland’s funding to the organization for this year matches the contributions specified in the binding agreement for coming years.

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Bjarni and Þórdís Swap in Ministerial Reshuffle

bjarni benediktsson

Changes to the government were announced on Saturday, October 14. Former Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson is now Foreign Minister and former Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Gylfadóttir is now Finance Minister.

The ministerial swap was announced at Edda, the new Centre for Icelandic Studies, and the ministers formally took on their new roles at Bessastaðir, the presidential residence.

Read more: Bjarni Benediktsson Sits for Last Parliamentary Session as Finance Minister

The ministerial swap is considered especially significant given the current political and economic situation, including upcoming wage negotiations, high inflation, and the still-unfolding aftermath of the controversial Íslandsbanki share auction.

Bjarni resigned from office on October 10 when the Parliamentary Ombudsman issued an official statement criticizing his handling of the March 2022 sale, in which a group of “qualified investors” were given priority to purchase Íslandsbanki shares. Among these qualified investors was Benedikt Sveinsson, the father of the now-former Finance Minister.

According to the weekend announcement, another minister is needed to reach an agreement on the sale of Íslandsbanki. Bjarni claims to have found majority support in parliament to continue selling the state’s stake in Íslandsbanki, though he has acknowledged that opinions like those presented by the Parliamentary Ombudsman have made it difficult for him to lead this effort.

Trading places

Finance Minister Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stressed the importance of finalising the sale of Íslandsbanki in her first statement to the press. She expressed her excitement for the tasks ahead in her new position, stating that “the tasks I take upon myself are always on my mind.”

According to the new Finance Minister, the fight against inflation and better utilization of public funds are among the most pressing tasks ahead. She also stated that she is ready to take on a leadership position within the Independence Party, Iceland’s centre-right party and a member of the current governing coalition, when the time comes.

Bjarni stated to RÚV that he was excited to take over duties at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time,” he stated, adding that he was focused on “not worrying too much” over the past few days.

A revolving door

Ólafur Þ. Harðarson, a professor of political science, stated to RÚV that the news did not come as a surprise.

According to Ólafur, although there has been some tension within the coalition, he believes that the government is stronger now than if Bjarni had left the government.

However, Ólafur stated that it is unusual for a minister to shoulder responsibility by resigning and moving to another ministerial position.

“Some have said that such a revolving door policy is unprecedented in the Nordics,” he stated. However, he highlighted Denmark as a recent example of such ministerial reshuffling, adding: “Such practices are not without precedent, though it is not common practice throughout the region.”

 

 

 

A Matter of State

Evrópuráðið Harpa Reykjavík Pólítík

It’s a cold spring day in Reykjavík and winds buffet optimistic tourists in flip-flops. Above, the sky hangs low, an endless expanse of grey. Normal enough for May. Today, however, bulletproof, black limousines loiter in front of Harpa and reports of cyberattacks filter out of Alþingi. A helicopter belches shimmering-hot wakes of exhaust as it […]

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Iceland Donates Field Hospital to Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Representatives in Alþingi have proposed a resolution to authorise the Foreign Minister to secure the purchase of a mobile emergency hospital for Ukraine.

The mobile emergency hospital would be used by injured Ukrainian soldiers and civilians affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Read more: Zelenskyy to Meet with Nordic Leaders in Helsinki

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, Iceland has also accepted some 3,000 Ukrainian refugees. Iceland’s support from 2022 to 2023 for Ukraine amounts to approximately 4.5 billion ISK [$32 million, €30 million] in humanitarian and financial aid.

The hospital in question is designed to care for both wounded soldiers and civilians, and can be operated independently without connection to existing infrastructure.

Ukrainian authorities have informed Icelandic authorities of the urgent need for mobile field hospitals for wounded soldiers and have requested Iceland’s assistance in this matter. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly expressed gratitude for Iceland’s overwhelming support for Ukraine in his meetings with the Icelandic Prime Minister.

Three hospitals of this type have already been sent to Ukraine, and three more are requested. The production time for such a hospital is about six months, and the estimated cost is approximately 1.2 billion ISK [$8.6 million, €7.9 million].

PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir to Meet Zelenskyy Today

katrín jakobsdóttir ukraine zelenskyy

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland, is set to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials today, March 14.

With the European Council set to meet in Reykjavík this May, Katrín has previously stated that it’s key for Icelandic leaders to meet with Ukrainian officials, given the central role the Ukrainian conflict will play in the summit.

Prime Minister’s Office Iceland

Katrín and other Icelandic officials were shown some of the signs of the conflict this morning and will meet with Zelenskyy in the afternoon. Katrín and her entourage were also seen laying commemorative wreaths for the victims of the war.

The Prime Minister stated to Morgunblaðið: “We were first shown ruins in Borodianka, apartment buildings that have been blown up, and then we went to talk to some of the residents. Then the road led to Bucha, where newspaper photographs of the mass graves found there are on display. There, we met the mayor Anatolij Fedorúk, who explained the situation to us […] It’s a completely different thing to see this yourself and meet these people, who have been through this horror.”

Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, was the site of a civilian massacre by Russian troops during the initial invasion in 2022. In April of last year, photographs emerged in the press that indicated that some 400-500 civilians had been summarily executed by Russian forces. The massacre at Bucha has been identified as a likely war crime in the conflict.

katrín jakobsdóttir ukraine zelenskyy
Prime Minister’s Office Iceland

Now, Katrín is on her way to meet directly with Zelenskyy. Among her retinue is also Foreign Minister  Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir.

A major item on the agenda will be Zelenskyy’s participation in the upcoming meeting of the European Council. Although his participation is confirmed, it is not clear yet whether he will be attending remotely, or whether he will come to Iceland for the summit.

Katrín stated further: “We will be reviewing the upcoming meeting in May, as Ukraine will be the focus there. The involvement of the European Council will potentially comprise of assessing damages, possible compensation for Ukraine, and so on.”

 

Iceland’s Prime Minister Travelling to Ukraine

Katrín Jakobsdóttir Bjarni Benediktsson Sigurður Ingi Ráðherra

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir are on their way to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials, Vísir reports. One of the topics of discussion will be Ukraine’s participation in the fourth summit of the Council of Europe, to be held in Reykjavík in May.

Katrín and Þórdís Kolbrún’s trip has not been highly publicised, likely for reasons of safety. They will head to the country from Poland today on a trip that will reportedly take all day and all evening.

The main purpose of the visit is to underline Iceland’s continued support and solidarity with Ukraine in the country’s defence against the illegal Russian invasion. The Icelandic and Ukrainian officials are scheduled to meet tomorrow. Reporters from Iceland’s national broadcaster RÚV are travelling alongside the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and will report on the meetings tomorrow.

Read More: Council of Europe Summit to be Held in Reykjavík

The Council of Europe summit set to take place in Reykjavík on May 16-17 is the fourth-ever in the organisation’s 73-year history. Considerable security precautions will be in place during the summit, and Icelandic authorities have requested the assistance of foreign police forces for the event.

Some 46 nations are party to the Council of Europe, which is the oldest active pan-European organisation.

ISK 80 Million Towards Reconstruction Efforts in Afghanistan

The Icelandic government will contribute ISK 80 million [$583,000; €575,000] to the United Nations Multi Partner Special Trust Fund for Afghanistan. The funds are to be used for development projects in the country as well as humanitarian aid. The United Nations estimates that more than half of the country’s population currently requires humanitarian aid.

“Afghanistan is in complete crisis and the need for both humanitarian and development aid is extremely urgent,” Iceland’s Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stated. “It is therefore extremely important that Iceland does its part to respond to the disasters that have occurred there, both caused by nature and humans.”

Last month’s deadly earthquake worsened already difficult conditions in Afghanistan. Social infrastructure has collapsed and access to basic services is extremely poor.

The Multi Partner Special Trust Fund prioritises projects that focus on ensuring basic services, providing for people’s basic needs, promoting economic recovery, protecting agriculture against natural disasters, and increasing resilience and social cohesion.

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakosdóttir stated last year that the country must shoulder responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan, both as a member of NATO and as representatives in the UN human rights council.

Permanent Military Presence in Iceland Not on Government’s Agenda

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir NATO summit madrid

Iceland’s National Security Council has no plans to request permanent military presence in Iceland, according to the country’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Katrín told RÚV that Iceland is, however, reviewing its national security policy and working on an updated risk assessment in light of the war in Ukraine.

The security environment in Europe is in a period of change following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has led to Finland and Sweden applying for NATO membership, a move Iceland’s government has supported.

NATO member countries regularly monitor the airspace over Iceland, and increasing that monitoring is a consideration. The Prime Minister says, however, there are no plans to reinstate permanent military presence in Iceland.

Both Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir are currently attending a NATO summit in Madrid. “We have not been discussing a permanent military presence in Iceland, that we have not been discussing,” Katrín told RÚV reporters, adding that the current priorities of Iceland’s security policy were twofold: reviewing security policy and updating the risk assessment for Iceland.

The current security policy was implmented in 2016, and although the Prime Minister believes it has served well, there are “certain points that need to be fine-tuned.” The risk assessment focuses mostly on how Iceland can increase its preparedness, and Katrín emphasised that this does not involve any sort of permanent military presence.

Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir stated the government intends to increase investment at Keflavík Airport, taking into account NATO’s security priorities. Those priorities, however, are mainly focused on the east and south of NATO’s area of influence, Þórdís stated.

As for a permanent military presence in Iceland, Þórdís stated: “It’s not on the agenda.”

Iceland is a founding member of NATO but does not have its own military. US forces maintained a permanent presence in the country from World War II until 2006.