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.

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.

In Focus: Police Powers

police iceland

Regularly ranked as one of the most peaceful places in the world, Reykjavík visitors were greeted by rather unusual sights this May. Police officers armed with submachine guns prowled the streets, helicopters hovered overhead, and surveillance cameras kept their silent watch over downtown. Though security measures had been heightened for the Council of Europe Summit […]

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Police to Keep Firearms from Council of Europe Summit

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has stated that the firearms bought for the Council of Europe Summit last week will not be sold. The capacity of the police had taken a leap after the summit, both in terms of training and equipment.

“No reason to sell”

In an interview with RÚV yesterday, Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson stated that he saw “no reason” to sell the firearms that were purchased for the police ahead of the Council of Europe summit last week: the police would be “better set” in the event that another meeting of this magnitude was to be held in Iceland.

“Who’s to say that there won’t be another big event like this here at some point, sooner rather than later; no one knows,” Jón Gunnarsson told RÚV.

As noted by the National Broadcaster, Arndís Anna Kristínardóttir Gunnarsdóttir, member of Parliament for the Pirates, was the first to draw attention to the issue in Parliament yesterday. She inquired of the minister what would happen to the weapons, now that the meeting was over. Jón replied that the authorities did not intend on selling the firearms.

“I’ve made the analogy that it’s akin to how newcomers to the national team gain a lot of experience by playing big national matches. This was our big national match on this stage,” Jón remarked on the floor of Parliament yesterday.

Significant improvement in police’s capacity

In his interview with RÚV, Jón stated that he didn’t believe there was “any reason” for the police to sell these weapons. “There is a big change in the capacity of the police after this meeting, in terms of education, training, and equipment,” Jón remarked. “I believe we’ve added three to five police motorcycles. We’ve also purchased a lot of clothing and protective equipment,” Jón added, citing the renewal and increase in police vests as an example.

When asked about the exact costs of purchasing this new equipment, Jón was unwilling to say, referring the matter to the police, who possessed information about which equipment was purchased and how much it cost.

Asked if the guns would be “put in a box and thrown into the attic” until the next meeting was held, Jón responded thusly: “Again, you’ll have to ask the police. I don’t think they have an attic, but they definitely have some storage room down in the basement, where a lot of equipment is kept.”

As noted by RÚV, data regarding the cost of purchasing equipment for the summit is not yet available, although it may be available later this week.

Minister of Justice Calls for Increased Funding to Prison System

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

Minister of Justice, Jón Gunnarsson, has stated the need for further public funding of the prison system. Vísir reports.

According to the minister, increased public support would allow Icelandic prisons to take further steps towards a rehabilitation policy. Such a rehabilitation policy would not just increase resources in the prison system, but also increase the available resources to former inmates once their sentences have ended.

Read more: Over 60 Prison Sentences Expired Due to Lack of Cell Space

The minister’s suggestions follow recent calls by experts for a more rehabilitative prison system which emphasizes re-integrating inmates into society through work and education programmes.

In recent statements to Vísir, the minister acknowledges that the issue is not new and that the situation has been unsatisfactory for years.

“We’ve been having this conversation for some time, and we have taken some measures that have helped significantly, but we must do better,” stated Jón Gunnarsson, adding that there must be cooperation between ministries to improve the situation of mentally ill inmates. “Prisoners have the right to healthcare like other citizens. There are far too many examples of people falling through the cracks of the healthcare system and the prison authorities. We need to find solutions for this.”

Read more: Prison Guards to Receive Stab-Resistant Vests

The minister likewise called for greater support in finding job placement for former inmates.

Although Iceland has made some advances in these fields, Jón reiterated the need to prioritize rehabilitation and allow inmates to contribute to society.

Read more: Mass Arrests Put Pressure on Already-Strained Prison System

“I am concerned that people are not being given adequate resources to provide them with appropriate treatment, and prison authorities are even keeping people longer than they are supposed to be in prison because they are considered a danger to their environment when they leave. This can create the expectation that when they leave prison, they may even immediately commit serious crimes. So, we need to improve in these areas,” says Jón.

He has additionally stated that it is necessary to improve the conditions of prison guards to enable them to deal better with prisoners’ needs, both in terms of mental health and rehabilitation.

 

Minister of Justice: Iceland Not Exempt from Russian Espionage

Dómsmálaráðherra Ríkisstjórn Alþingi Jón Gunarsson

The Minister of Justice says there is “no reason to believe that the Russians, and other dictatorial nations, are not engaged in espionage in Iceland, as elsewhere,” RÚV reports. The minister’s bill on the increased powers of the police has been submitted to Parliament, although there seems to be little interest in the establishment of an Icelandic intelligence service.

No basis yet for the establishment of an Icelandic intelligence service

Yesterday, Runólfur Þórhallsson, Deputy Superintendent of the National Commissioner’s Analytical Department, stated that it was “very likely that Russia and other dictatorial countries are conducting illegal intelligence gathering here in Iceland – as elsewhere.”

Runólfur observed that the Nordic countries had established special security services to investigate and work against illegal information gathering and to carry out supervision; in order to conduct such supervision in Iceland, a similar service needed to be established.

Addressing the subject in an interview with RÚV, Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson stated that there was no reason to believe that Iceland was exempt from foreign espionage:

“There’s no reason to believe that we aren’t on the same boat as the Nordic countries in this regard, or when it comes to organised crime in general, for espionage is nothing more than an aspect of organised crime. On the other hand, however, there has, perhaps, not been a sound basis for establishing an intelligence service in Iceland akin to those of our neighbouring countries. This is why we’ve now been bolstering that arm of the police that deals with organised crime, and, thus, these matters being discussed, as best we can,” Jón Gunnarsson stated.

Childish to think that Iceland is exempt

Jón also stated that his bill on the increased powers of the police is being reviewed by Parliament. Current legal powers severely limit the police’s ability to counter espionage.

“This bill of mine has been somewhat controversial to some people, but it has progressed very modestly and is nothing close to what is customary with the intelligence services of our neighbouring countries. But, of course, it is just childish to think that we’re somehow exempt. We need to equip our police in such a way that they can at least work in full confidence and with the necessary authorisation required to collaborate with these neighbouring countries so as to inform them of these cases, and others, related to organised crime.”

When asked if he thought it was simply “a matter of time” that an intelligence service was established in Iceland, Jón remarked that we would “have to see how things developed.” Iceland relied on its allied nations, with whom it collaborated in matters of defence and within the political field – given that intelligent services in these nations were afforded a much greater authority than the police in Iceland.

Scant understanding for critical voices

“I’d like to reiterate that it is necessary for us to come to terms with the changes that have taken place around us in recent years. We must respond to these changes. The first step is to strengthen the police in this regard, that is, to afford our police the opportunity to be able to fully collaborate with the police of other countries.”

As RÚV notes, this is why Jón has a “scant understanding of the critical voices that have been heard regarding his bill.” In his opinion, it is crucial that these questions are dealt with in the spring. He added that his bill was meant to protect the security of the state and that espionage falls under that category.

Justice Minister Promises Additional Tightening of Asylum Seeker Regulations

Jón Gunnarsson Minister of Justice

Iceland’s Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has proposed changes to regulations governing asylum seekers in Iceland that will be made public in the coming days, RÚV reports. The proposed changes include implementing systemic measures to encourage asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected to leave the country. Jón stated he believes the government needs to “go further” and says the Justice Ministry has been working on a bill that “tackles certain uniquely Icelandic rules.”

Changes for asylum seekers from Venezuela

Like other countries in Europe, Iceland is seeing a surge in the number of asylum seekers. Over 1,700 people have applied for asylum in Iceland since the beginning of this year, with the largest group, nearly half, from Venezuela.  The Directorate of Immigration recently updated its assessment of conditions in Venezuela so that asylum seekers arriving from the country no longer automatically receive additional protection in Iceland. The Immigration and Asylum Appeals Board has yet to take a stance regarding this change.

Read More: Refugee Man and Family Previously Deported Win Case

Iceland’s Parliament passed a highly-criticised immigration bill last month that strips asylum seekers in the country of their rights, including access to housing and healthcare, 30 days after their applications have been rejected. Human rights organisations in Iceland have strongly opposed the bill, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, and Amnesty International.

Motion of No Confidence Against Justice Minister Voted Down

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

A motion of no confidence submitted against Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson was voted down in Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, today. MPs voted mostly along party lines, with members of the four opposition parties, who had submitted the motion, voting in favour and members of the governing coalition voting against. RÚV reported first.

The motion of no confidence had been submitted in response to the formal opinion of the Alþingi Administration that the Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson had broken the law when he prevented the Parliament from acquiring citizenship application data from the Directorate of Immigration.

Second ruling that actions were illegal

Along with the standard process of applying for citizenship through the Directorate of Immigration, Icelandic law permits for Alþingi to grant citizenship by decree, which it normally does twice a year. In the past, those who have received citizenship through Parliament have often been individuals in extenuating circumstances. Applications for citizenship through Parliamentary decree nevertheless go through the Directorate of Immigration, which gathers necessary data and sends all the relevant material to Parliament, where it is reviewed by the Judicial Affairs and Education Committee. Parliament was set to grant citizenship to a group of applicants before Christmas 2021, but could not do so as the necessary documents had not been received from the Directorate of Immigration.

The Directorate of Immigration is under the Ministry of Justice. Jón Gunnarsson took full responsibility for the withholding of documents, stating that those who apply for citizenship via Alþingi should not get to “jump the line” ahead of others.

This is the second official ruling stating that the Ministry and Directorate’s actions were illegal: a legal opinion received by Parliament’s Judicial Affairs and Education Committee last year also stated that the Directorate of Immigration broke the law when it failed to hand over the citizenship applications to Iceland’s Parliament.

Minister under fire

Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir stated that the government coalition remained on strong footing, but criticised the Justice Minister’s comments in the chamber of Parliament on Tuesday.

Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson has also been under fire lately for a unilateral decision to arm Icelandic police with electroshock weapons. In a letter to the Prime Minister, the Parliamentary Ombudsman stated that Jón should have consulted the cabinet on the issue, calling the Minister’s decision a violation of formal rules that was not in accordance with good governance.

Minister Admits “Citing Rumours” Before Parliament Was Wrong

Iceland's Althing

In a speech before Parliament yesterday, the Minister of Justice questioned whether an unnamed MP had accepted “special tokens of gratitude” in exchange for granting citizenship to asylum seekers. In a Facebook post later that day, the Minister of Justice stated that he had been “wrong to cite rumours” before Parliament and that such a thing had not been his wont in the past.

The minister apologises

In a speech before Parliament yesterday, Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson made an oblique reference to a rumour that an MP had voted on citizenship applications for individuals for whom the MP had lobbied.

“Was it possible that someone had come to the table having previously been engaged in promoting the interests of asylum seekers who were being granted citizenship? Have people been awarded any special tokens of gratitude for having granted citizenship? These are, perhaps, questions that call for a review by the committee so as to determine whether any such rumours are substantiated,” Jón said in his speech.

Members of the opposition did not respond kindly to this accusation; Helga Vala, MP for the Social Democratic Alliance, was the first to respond to Jón’s statements:

“This is such an abomination, I’m so fed up with this. I’m so fed up with this slander from members of parliament and ministers of the Independence Party, that I just wish that the speaker would intervene whenever they show up armed with lies. I’ve had enough. Try to exercise some control please,” Helga Vala asked of the speaker.

A statement on Facebook

Yesterday evening, Justice Minister Jón Gunnarsson published a post on Facebook admitting that it had “not been right of him” to refer to a rumour on the floor of Parliament. He stated that it did not occur to him that he was accusing anyone of having accepted bribes and that it was not his intention of accusing MPs of accepting bribes in any way.

Bryndís Haraldsdóttir, Member of Parliament for the Independence Party and Chair of the National Defense and Education Committee, told RÚV that the minister’s words before parliament were not worthy of him. “I think he went a little too far in this regard, and he apologised for that, and I think he’s a better man for it,” Bryndís remarked.

Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir, MP for the Pirate Party, disagreed with her colleague’s assessment vis-a-vis that Jón had apologised. “He did not apologise … he’s simply trying to divert the attention of the media and the public from the fact that the Directorate of Immigration had been prevented from handing over documents to the committee.”