Icelandic Police Bill to Boost Surveillance Powers

police station reykjavík

Icelandic police would be given increased powers of surveillance if a bill proposed by Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir is passed. RÚV reports that Guðrún introduced the bill in Parliament yesterday. Opposition MP Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir believes the power the bill grants police is too extensive.

The aim of the bill is to strengthen the police’s ability to respond to organised crime and to give it the authority to monitor individuals who have not committed a crime. To have this authority, there must be a suspicion that an individual is connected to criminal organisations and could potentially commit a serious offence.

The bill would grant police the right to carry out such surveillance in public places, but not within private homes. The police would not need a court order to carry out such surveillance, although a special steering group that includes police officials would have to approve the measure.  The Minister of Justice stated that the bill would bring Icelandic legislation closer to legislation in other Nordic countries.

No independent supervision of police

Pirate Party MP Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir criticised the bill for not including any independent supervision of police and the use of this surveillance permission. “What is being done here is that the police are being given authority to monitor ordinary citizens who have done nothing wrong and even without any suspicion that the person has done anything wrong,” she stated. The Minister of Justice stated that the bill also includes increased supervision of police through establishing a monitoring group for police work and regular reports on the matter to Parliament.

Read More: Police Powers in Iceland

The Ministry of Justice, under the leadership of the Independence Party, has been pushing for increased police powers for some time. In 2022, then Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson introduced a crime bill with similar measures to the bill Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir introduced yesterday. It was criticised by the Icelandic Bar Association as well as opposition MPs.

“There are, of course, some conditions in the bill, but it gives the police authority to monitor people’s movements without they themselves being under suspicion of criminal conduct, whether or not they have committed a crime or are preparing to commit a crime,” Sigurður Örn Hilmarsson, the chairman of the Icelandic Bar Association, stated at the time. He suggested that establishing a dedicated organisation such as an intelligence service would be a better way of investigating the most serious crimes, such as terrorism or organised crime.

Human Rights Groups Criticise Draft Bill on Detention Centres

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

The Icelandic Red Cross, UNICEF Iceland, Save the Children Iceland, and the Icelandic Human Rights Centre strongly criticise a draft bill that would establish detention centres for asylum seekers in Iceland. In its current form, the bill allows for the detention of children for up to nine days and permits staff to “use force in the performance of their duties if considered necessary.” Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir plans to introduce the bill in Parliament by the end of this month.

Oppose the bill on human rights grounds

The draft bill was published in the government’s consultation portal last month, where members of the public, organisations, and interested parties can comment on it. A total of 19 comments were submitted through the platform, only one of which supported the bill. Several human rights organisations in Iceland have submitted formal criticism of the bill through the platform.

The Red Cross criticised the permissions the bill would grant police to detain individuals, asserting that they are unclear and subjective. The Icelandic Human Rights Centre echoed that criticism, asserting that the bill’s measures go further than the European Union’s Return Directive, a document outlining regulations on the deportation of asylum seekers.

Children’s rights at risk

Save the Children Iceland firmly opposed that the bill would permit the detention of children, which they say conflicts with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Detention in closed facilities has a negative impact on children’s development, the organisation stated, and children should not and cannot bear responsibility for their parents or relatives’ actions.

Tightened legislation on asylum seekers

The bill comes on the heels of other new legislation that left dozens of asylum seekers in Iceland homeless and without services last year. The legislation strips asylum seekers in the country of access to state housing, social support, and healthcare 30 days after their applications for asylum have been rejected. It was also strongly criticised by human rights organisations in Iceland.

Grindavík Evacuated Again Due to Crevasse Risks

Grindavík earthquakes crevasse

Grindavík, the Reykjanes peninsula town of 3,800 people that was evacuated due to seismic activity in November, will be evacuated again Monday evening. The reason is ongoing danger of crevasses opening up in the area without warning. No unauthorised personnel will be allowed within the town limits for three weeks.

Director of Civil Protection Víðir Reynisson announced this in a press conference today and expressed his sympathies to the family of a man who fell into a crevasse in Grindavík Wednesday. Minister of Justice Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir also addressed attendees and promised government action to provide evacuated families with housing. She added that she hoped that the town would be safe and habitable again by this summer or fall.

Following seismic activity for months, a volcanic eruption began at Sundhnúkagígar, north of Grindavík, on December 18 and lasted for three days. By Christmas, the residents of Grindavík were permitted to go back to their homes and businesses were allowed to reopen. However, crustal uplift continues in the nearby Svartsengi area and the Icelandic Meteorological Office warns that a new eruption could begin at any time.

Search for man discontinued

Further search and rescue operations for the man who fell down a crevasse are not justifiable for safety reasons, the Suðurnes police commissioner announced today. Search was called off Friday on the third day of operations, due to concerns over hazard to the rescue group. “A man died there and there was a collapse in the crevasse,” commissioner Úlfar Lúðvíksson told Vísir. “This is an indication about the dangers at play. In my estimation, this is the correct decision. We can’t search under these circumstances, unfortunately.

Úlfar warned that the situation of crevasses opening up within town limits was unprecedented. “Like we’ve repeatedly stated, I advise people to stay out of town,” he said earlier today before evacuation was announced. “There are crevasses all over and they’re treacherous. They are opening up. During this operation, this horrible event, we could see how deep they are. How life-threatening they are.”

2023 in Review: Community

Kvennafrídagurinn - kvenna verkfall Arnarhóll Women's strike

As the year draws to a close, Iceland Review brings you a summary of the biggest stories in community, culture, and nature in 2023. Here are some of the political, economic, and social interest stories that most affected Icelandic communities this year.

 

Wage battle

This year started out tense for the labour movement, with Efling Union and the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (SA) in a wage negotiation deadlock. One-third of all labour contracts in Iceland had expired in the fall of 2022, and while most trade unions were able to reach compromises with SA in the form of shorter-term contracts, Efling Union, the country’s second-largest, held out.

In February, Efling workers voted to strike, leading to the temporary closure of several hotels and shortages of fuel at the pumps. At the height of strike actions in late February, some 2,000 Efling members were on strike. SA responded by proposing a lockout against Efling workers, which was approved in a members’ vote on February 22. Such a lockout would affect all members of Efling, around 21,000 in total, neither allowing them to show up to work, receive a wage, or accrue benefits and leave.

On March 1, the lockout was later postponed after temporarily-appointed state mediator Ástráður Haraldsson submitted a mediating proposal to SA and Efling. Efling members then voted in favour of the proposals, bringing months of tension to an end. The approved agreement is only valid until January 2024, however, and negotiations for the next one have not gotten off to a good start.

Read more about the Efling and SA collective agreement negotiations.

 

Police powers

Iceland is regularly ranked as one of the most peaceful places in the world. However, in May 2023, residents of the capital were greeted by rather unusual sights. Police officers armed with submachine guns prowled the streets, helicopters hovered overhead, and surveillance cameras kept their silent watch over downtown. These security measures were due to the Council of Europe Summit in Reykjavík, but not all of them were destined to pack up and leave alongside the private jets of world leaders. It was reported that Icelandic police would keep the additional weapons imported for the summit.

Unfortunately, 2022 proved to be a particularly violent year for Iceland, with a high-profile knife attack in a downtown Reykjavík club, a thwarted domestic terrorism plot, and four homicides (higher than the annual average of two, but not as many as in 2000, when Iceland reported a record six murders). In the wake of this violent year, Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson declared a “war on organised crime,” the keystone of which is a sweeping package of reforms that includes provisions for increased police funding, pre-emptive search warrants, and better-armed police. For Iceland, a nation where police officers still do not carry firearms on their person, the changes are novel.

They have also not been introduced without pushback. The Icelandic Bar Association submitted many comments on the Justice Minister’s bill that would increase Icelandic police’s powers to monitor people whoa re not suspected of crimes. Later that same month, the Parliamentary Ombudsman published a legal opinion stating that Jón Gunnarsson was guilty of a lack of consultation with the cabinet when he signed an amendment to regulations, authorising Icelandic police to carry electroshock weapons. This issue in particular triggered a failed vote of no confidence in Parliament.

Read more about police powers in Iceland.

 

Regulations on asylum seekers

In the spring of 2023, after several failed attempts and harsh criticism from human rights groups, Iceland’s Parliament passed new legislation that tightens restrictions on asylum seekers. The most significant change is that people whose asylum applications have received a final rejection are now stripped of essential services unless they consent to deportation. As a result, dozens of asylum seekers unable to leave the country for reasons personal or political are being stripped of housing and services, leaving many of them on the streets.

When the legislation took effect, municipal and state authorities could not agree on who was responsible for providing for the group’s basic needs. Now it appears that municipalities will provide basic services to the group, but the state will ultimately foot the bill, in a system more costly to taxpayers than the one it has replaced. Iceland’s Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir has proposed erecting detention centres for asylum seekers and stated she will introduce a bill to that effect in early 2024.

Icelandic authorities have been criticised for the deportation of many asylum seekers this year as well, and how such deportations have been handled. The country deported 180 Venezuelans back to their home country in November, where they received a cold welcome. A disabled asylum seeker left Iceland with his family this month after a ruling that his family members would be deported.

Read more about the eviction of asylum seekers from state-subsidised housing in Iceland.

 

Bjarni Benediktsson resigns

On October 10, 2023, 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 of Íslandsbanki bank – which had been nationalised following the 2008 banking collapse – had not conformed to state guidelines.

The official opinion of the Ombudsman stated: “In light of the fact that a company owned by the Finance Minister’s father was among the buyers in the sale of the state’s 22.5% share of the Íslandsbanki bank, sold in March 2022, the Minister was unfit to approve of a proposal made by Icelandic State Financial Investments (ISFI) to go ahead with the sale.”

At the press conference, Bjarni announced his decision to step down as Minister of Finance, despite his “own views, reasons, and understanding” of the Ombudsman’s opinion. Only six ministers have ever resigned from office following criticism or protest since the Republic of Iceland was established in 1944. However, the historic act was somewhat tempered when it was later announced that Bjarni would “switch seats” with Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir to become Minister for Foreign Affairs while Þórdís took the position of Finance Minister. Þórdís has announced that she will move forward with selling the remainder of Íslandsbanki.

Read more about Bjarni Benediktsson.

 

Persistent inflation

As elsewhere in the world, 2023 has been marked by persistent inflation and a significant increase in the cost of living in Iceland. In an attempt to curb inflation, the Central Bank of Iceland continued raising interest rates throughout the first three quarters, to a height of 9.25% for the key interest rate. In October and November, however, it decided to keep that rate unchanged, citing economic uncertainty.

In June, Iceland’s government introduced measures to counter inflation, involving a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. The measures have yet to show a significant impact, as inflation remains high. In November, it had measured 8% over the past 12 months and risen by 0.1% in the previous month.

Food prices have risen amid inflation, with the price of perishable good rising 12.2% year over year, significantly above inflation. When the króna appreciated mid-year, the Minister of Culture and Business Affairs sought clarification from major grocery chains on why prices had not fallen. Iceland ranks third globally when terms of food prices, trailing only Norway and Switzerland.

The rising interest rates have significantly impacted the housing market and put many families in a tight spot.

 

Women’s strike draws huge crowds

On October 24, 2023, women and non-binary people in Iceland held a strike in support of gender equality that drew historic crowds. Inspired by the original 1975 “Women’s Day Off,” the aim of the protest was twofold: to call for the eradication of gender-based violence and rectifying the undervaluation of female-dominated professions.

Public gatherings were held across the country, and in Reykjavík the turnout exceeded expectations. Chief Superintendent of Reykjavík Metropolitan Police Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson estimated that between 70,000-100,000 people attended the event on Arnarhóll hill in the city centre.

While Women’s Strikes have been held in Iceland from time to time over the last several decades, this event was only the second full-day strike of its kind, the first one being the original historic protest in 1975. This year, even Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir walked off the job and attended the protest. The news about the Women’s Strike in Iceland spread fast around the globe, with international media outlets reporting on the event, including the New York Times, BBC, and the Guardian.

Read more about the 2023 Women’s Strike.

Justice Minister Proposes Detention Centres for Asylum Seekers

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

Asylum seekers in Iceland whose applications have been rejected will be placed in detention centres if Justice Minister Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir’s proposal is approved by Iceland’s Parliament. In an interview on Kastljós, Guðrún stated she would introduce a bill this autumn to set up detention centres for asylum seekers who have been stripped of housing and services due to new legislation that went into effect last month. Humanitarian organisations have harshly criticised the legislation, which has left many asylum seekers living on the streets.

Guðrún is an MP for the Independence Party and took over the post of Minister of Justice from Jón Gunnarsson two months ago. In the Kastljós interview, she stated that her policy on asylum seekers would emphasise adapting Iceland’s reception of asylum seekers to that of other Schengen countries, which she asserted all had detention centres for asylum seekers whose applications had been rejected.

The centres would “have restrictions,” Guðrún stated, and would constitute housing where “people don’t have full freedom of movement.” She stated that no discussions have yet begun on how Iceland would implement such detention centres and that she could not answer when they would become operational, as “it has to go through Parliament.”

Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir Succeeds Jón Gunnarsson as Justice Minister

Guðrún hafsteinsdóttir

Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir officially succeeded Jón Gunnarsson as Minister of Justice at a state council meeting this morning. At a press conference following the meeting, Guðrún stated that immigration was “the most urgent issue” facing Icelandic society today.

“That’s politics”

At a party meeting in Valhöll yesterday, Minister of Finance and Chair of the Independence Party Bjarni Benediktsson confirmed that Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir would take over as Minister of Justice from Jón Gunnarsson. Guðrún was promised a ministerial position following the elections in 2021.

In an interview with Vísir, Bjarni Benediktsson stated that he did not worry about the divisiveness of the decision; Jón had done an excellent job as a minister, that he enjoyed the support of party members all over the country, but that he had faith that Guðrún could do well as his successor. Bjarni also made mention of the fact that this was the first time that women were in the majority of the Independence Party’s ministerial staff.

Guðrún told Vísir that she was excited about her new role. Asked if policy changes could be expected, she stated that Jón had worked according to the policies of the Independence Party and its national conference. “Which I will, of course, also do.” Some changes would be made, but first, she planned to identify the most urgent issues facing the Ministry: “We will see how things go from there,” Guðrún remarked.

Jón observed that the decision was in accordance with what was proposed at the beginning of the election period, although he did not deny wanting to remain as a minister. “But that’s politics,” he added.

Ministerial change confirmed at Bessastaðir

The ministerial change was officially confirmed at a state council meeting at Bessastaðir, the presidential residence, this morning. Jón Gunnarsson will remain an MP, although it remains to be seen whether he will take over as Chair of the Economic and Trade Committee from Guðrún.

At a press conference after the meeting, Guðrún stated that like her predecessor would follow the Independence Party’s policy in matters of immigration, adding that all systems in the asylum seeker system were being severely tested. “Immigration is the most urgent issue in Icelandic society today,” she observed. Guðrún also mentioned police matters and the sale of alcohol as urgent issues facing the cabinet.

Appointments to the National Court imminent

One of the projects that Guðrún takes on is the appointment of judges at the National Court.

The application deadline for one judge position at the National Court expired a week ago. While the state council meeting took place, the Ministry of Justice published a list of candidates: Ásgerður Ragnarsdóttir and Kjartan Bjarni Björgvinsson have applied for the position. As noted by RÚV, either of them will be appointed to the position starting August 21 after a jury considers their qualifications.

Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir
Golli

Ambiguity on If, When, and How Ministers Will Be Shuffled

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

When Icleand’s current government took power in November 2021, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson stated that Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir would take over the Ministry of Justice from Jón Gunnarsson within 18 months. More than 21 months later, however, Jón Gunnarsson remains in the post. Bjarni recently told RÚV that Guðrún would be appointed minister within the coming days, but not necessarily over the Ministry of Justice.

Bjarni Benediktsson is the chairman of the Independence Party, of which both Jón and Guðrún are members. The constituency council of South Iceland, Guðrún’s constituency, sent Bjarni a letter last week encouraging him to fulfill his promise of making their representative minister. “I am grateful to feel the broad support there is for me in the constituency and it shows that the South Iceland constituency has become very impatient,” Guðrún stated at the end of last week. She added, however, that she had not discussed the issue with Bjarni recently and that she had not heard anything about the potential ministerial assignment.

RÚV reported yesterday that some Independence Party members from Guðrún’s constituency, as well as others from East Iceland, had encouraged Bjarni to keep Jón in the cabinet.

Sweeping decisions marked by controversy

Jón’s tenure as Minister of Justice been marked by large-scale decisions regarding both law enforcement and immigration, many of them controversial. He unilaterally passed a regulation to arm Icelandic police with electroshock weapons, a move the Parliamentary Ombudsman later concluded was a breach of procedure. A bill on increased police powers introduced by Jón and since made law by Alþingi, was criticised by the Icelandic Bar Association for granting police the authority to surveil those who had not been suspected of criminal activity.

Under Jón’s direction, the Directorate of Immigration withheld data from Parliament, delaying the processing of citizenship applications. In April, the Minister promised additional tightening of asylum seeker regulations and introduced a bill that would increase financial incentives for asylum seekers who left Iceland voluntarily. Jón’s initial appointment was criticised by opposition MPs due to his record on women’s rights.

Calls on the Banks to “Lighten the Load” of Households

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir

The Minister of Culture and Commerce has called on the banks to “lighten the load” of households faced with rising interest rates. The net profit of Iceland’s three largest commercial banks amounted to approximately 80 billion ISK ($643 million / €564 million) last year, Vísir reports.

“Super profits” and civic duty

In an interview published in Morgunblaðið yesterday, Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir, Minister of Culture and Commerce, called on Iceland’s three largest commercial banks to “lighten the load” of families faced with rising interest rates.

The Central Bank raised key interest rates by 0.75% on Wednesday, which may strain the finances of households who have signed non-indexed mortgages.

The inflation rate in January was 5.7% – the highest since April of 2012 – and the Central Bank predicts an inflation rate of +5% in 2022 (+5.8% in the first quarter), which is double the Bank’s target.

According to Lilja, the three commercial banks have recently reaped “super profits” – a total of ISK 80 billion ($643 million / €564 million) last year – which puts them in a prime position to assist young people and low-income families.

Íslandsbanki announced 2021 profits amounting to ISK 23.7 billion ($190 million / €116 million) this week. Landsbanki, 95% owned by the government, had previously declared profits of ISK 28.9 billion ($232 million / €204 million) for 2021, and Arion Bank announced a profit of ISK 28.6 billion ($230 million / €202 million) for 2021.

Speaking to Morgunblaðið, Lilja invoked the banks’ “civic duty.”

“I think it’s imperative that certain households, especially that of young people and low-income families, are not left holding the bag. It would be better for the banks to intervene immediately and tend to these households. If the banks don’t find a solution, I believe that we should reinstate a levy on banks.”

Lilja followed up her comments by referring to a levy imposed by former British PM Margaret Thatcher, which sought to harvest around £400m from the banks, for they were seen to be “escaping the pain of that recession”: “In 1981, Thatcher instated windfall taxes to deal with precisely such conditions, to level the playing field among the citizenry,” Lilja remarked.

Intervention lowers the selling price

In an article published on Innherji this morning, Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir, Chair of the Economic and Finance Committee, stated that forcing the banks to spend a portion of their profits to subsidize interest payments would serve to devalue Íslandsbanki shares (the government has yet to sell 65% of its share in the bank).

Asked to respond to Lilja’s comments, Guðrún remarked that they had taken her by surprise. “If the government intends to alter the banks’ operational conditions, such a thing must, one way or another, influence the price of the remaining shares in Íslandsbanki. It’s obvious that if the government, as a shareholder, intervenes in such an encumbering manner, the selling price will be affected.”

As noted by Innherji, the government expects to sell its remaining 65% of shares this year and the next. The treasury received ISK 55 billion ($442 million / €388 million) when it sold its 35% share in a stock offering of Íslandsbanki last year. Since then, stocks have risen considerably. Innherji estimates that, according to the current market valuation, the government stands to receive up to ISK 160 billion ($1.3 billion / €1.1 billion) for its remaining shares.

FSA Iceland Investigates Pension Funds’ Decisionmaking Following Icelandair Stock Offering

The Financial Supervisory Authority of the Central bank of Iceland is investigating the pension funds’ involvement with Icelandair’s stock offering last week, Central Bank Governor Ásgeir Jónsson revealed yesterday. No specific pension funds were mentioned but the last few days have seen disagreement within the board of the Pension Fund of Commerce surfacing over the decision not to participate. The Director of VR (the Store and Office Worker’s Union) declared in an open letter in Fréttablaðið that he had no confidence in the board’s Vice-Chairman after she aired her opinion that she was surprised at the board’s decision.

“We worry that the independence of individual board members wasn’t sufficiently secured; that it wasn’t entirely certain that board members made their decisions based on pension fund member interests instead of the interest of individual companies or corporate disputes. We want to reiterate that that should be the case,” Ásgeir told RÚV.

The Pension Fund of Commerce, formerly the largest shareholder of Icelandair, didn’t participate in the company’s stock offering last week. After the successful stock offering, the country’s pension funds are no longer majority shareholders in Icelandair. The board of the Pension Fund of Commerce’s votes were even, as Chairman of the board Stefán Sveinbjörnsson and Vice-Chairman Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir were on opposite sides. The board is made up of eight members, four of whom are appointed by the board of VR and four by the employers’ associations. Ragnar Þór, the director of VR, was heavily criticised for his comments last year during controversial wage negotiations for Icelandair’s flight attendants when he suggested that the pension funds connected to the unions should not participate in the airline’s stock offering. He rescinded his comments once the wage dispute was settled.

The Vice-Chairman is one of the four board members appointed by employers associations, and after the board’s decision, she openly aired her disagreement. “I considered [Icelandair’s] forecast to be modest, and it showed moderate optimism. That said, I thought we should maintain our share in the company. To get a good return on investment, you sometimes need to take risks. And I was ready to do so in this particular case,” Guðrún told Rúv.

Guðrún told Fréttablaðið last week that she was surprised at the position the board’s VR representatives had taken, that they did not wish to take part in the stock offering. The director of VR criticised Guðrún in an open letter in Fréttablaðið yesterday over the comments, which he claims are merciless.

“She thinks sinister points of view are the reasons behind the decision not to participate in Icelandair’s stock offering, other than professional. I think this behaviour is unacceptable. I will assume that FSA Iceland will investigate her position and comments,” says Ragnar. He also stated that he has for a long time held the opinion that neither employers nor union representatives should have a hand in the boards of pension funds.

“It should be the pension fund members themselves. The real owners of the funds, who are best suited to make decisions on how the money is distributed and who should control the funds,” says Ragnar.

Does Guðrún believe that the pension fund’s board went against the interest of fund members when they decided not to participate in the stock offering? “Well, let’s not forget that a few thousand Icelandair staff members are pension fund members in Lífeyrissjóður Verzlunarmanna. In this case, everyone was probably looking out for people’s interest even if there were different opinions,” says Guðrún.

Ragnar Þór said that he has no confidence in Guðrún as a board member of the pension fund. “I think Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir should focus on what she does best, which is to manufacture ice cream,” says Ragnar. Guðrún and her family are the owners of Kjörís, an ice cream factory.

“One does feel it’s unfair that my person is dragged into things in this way, my company and my family,” was Guðrún’s reply.