Bjarni Sets Government Priorities in First Parliamentary Address

Bjarni Benediktsson icelandic politics

In his first parliamentary address after assuming the office of Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson highlighted the government’s focus on energy development, economic stability through continued inflation reduction, and a sustainable approach to immigration. Bjarni also emphasised the importance of democratic debate, the nation’s enviable living conditions, and the collaborative spirit of its diverse political landscape.

Economic challenges persist

In his first address before parliament after having assumed the office of Prime Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson reviewed some of the main issues that the coalition government intends to focus on for the remainder of the term, Mbl.is reports.

Among the issues discussed by Bjarni was a focus on energy development with a simplified power plant establishment process. “We cannot allow power plant options, which have been classified in the utilisation category in parliament’s framework, to be delayed by bureaucracy to such an extent that no progress is made.”

Despite the decline in inflation, Bjarni acknowledged the challenges, such as high family repayments, continue to persist. “Continued reduction of inflation and thus economic stability for households and the business sector will be our guiding light in all our work,” Bjarni observed.

Properly welcoming those who seek refuge

Addressing immigration, Bjarni stressed the importance of secure borders for sovereignty and the need for a sustainable approach to welcome those eligible for refuge. “Managing the number of people who come here is a precondition for us to properly welcome those who have the right to seek refuge here … specific Icelandic rules should not increase pressure on the borders in such a way that infrastructure fails.”

Bjarni further noted that the legislative proposals of Guðrún Hafsteinsdóttir, Minister of Justice, for changes to immigration and police laws, would be finalised at this session.

Bjarni also mentioned ongoing efforts to improve disability benefits and aquaculture, expressing the honour he felt in leading the government and seeking cooperative governance across parties.

“One of the freest democracies in the world”

He then reflected on the essence of democratic debate and compromise, celebrating Iceland’s strong economy, political stability, and rich natural resources as foundations of its enviable global position.

“One doesn’t need to look far beyond our borders to find countries where no compromises, no democratic debate takes place, where only one person decides. I believe few people would want such a reality, and we should all be grateful to live in one of the freest democratic societies in the world, even though the eight political parties that form the parliament here do not always agree on every issue.”

He concluded on a sanguine note: “Our situation as Icelanders is enviable in many ways in the international arena. Despite facing difficult weather and natural challenges … there’s hardly a nation that enjoys better living conditions than we Icelanders. Let’s remember this when we disagree on the way forward.”

 

Parliament Passes Controversial Agricultural Bill Amid Opposition

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

A revised amendment to the agricultural products law (búvörulög) passed yesterday despite opposition from various stakeholders, paving the way for a potential monopoly in the agricultural processing sector. Critics argue the bill goes too far, with concerns that it could lead to higher prices for consumers.

Paving the way to a monopoly

A revised amendment to the law on agricultural products was passed yesterday, after the third debate in Parliament, despite requests for a postponement of the vote from the opposition and warnings from the Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (ASÍ), the Consumers’ Association, and other stakeholders, Mbl.is reports.

The revised amendment, proposed by the majority of the Industrial Affairs Committee (atvinnuveganefnd), has been criticised for going further than the original bill, Mbl.is notes. Twenty-six MPs voted in favour of the legislation and nineteen against.

Members of the opposition, including Jóhann Páll Jóhannsson of the Social Democratic Alliance, Gísli Rafn Ólafsson of the Pirate Party, and Hanna Katrín Friðriksson of the Reform Party, requested a postponement. To no avail. The amendments include, among other things, an exemption for agricultural processing plants from competition laws, facilitating their consolidation.

“This means we will end up with Agricultural Products Inc. – a single company handling everything, and thus achieving an effective monopoly in Iceland, able to raise prices for us consumers without our ability to do anything about it. The same applies regarding what is paid to farmers, since there will only be one processing plant left,” Gísli Rafn stated in a speech before Parliament, as quoted by Mbl.is.

Competition from abroad

The Confederation of Icelandic Enterprise (ASÍ), the Commercial Workers’ Union (VR), the Consumers’ Association, the Federation of Trade and Services (SVÞ), and the Icelandic Federation of Trade have warned against the passage of the bill, stating it goes against public interest. The Chair of the Industrial Affairs Committee, Þórarinn Ingi Pétursson of the Progressive Party, argues, however, that consumers are prioritised in these changes. “There will be no farmers if there aren’t consumers to consume their products.”

Þórarinn stated that if farmers and processing plants cannot offer consumers high-quality goods at competitive prices, there will be no domestic food production anyway: “So, consumers are always a priority when discussing domestic food production, and let’s not forget that we have competition in the food market. It comes from abroad,” Þórarinn observed.

“Unnecessary” changes

Kristrún Frostadóttir, the chairperson of the Social Democratic Alliance, stated that while farmers could not live with the status quo, it appeared that “something has gone seriously wrong in the processing” of the legislation. Instead of revising the bill back within the ministry to grant exemptions to those agricultural sectors most in need, a decision was made to proceed with a flawed bill.

“The result is a blanket exemption that could lead to a single large processing plant for all meat processing in the country, regardless of the type of livestock. This was unnecessary,” Kristún stated, noting that the methodology employed disadvantaged those who needed the changes the most.

Icelandic Lawyer Urges Action on Gaza Visa Holders

Rafah_Border_Crossing

The Icelandic government is working too slowly to rescue Icelandic visa holders from Gaza, says a lawyer representing one Palestinian family waiting to be reunited. She has submitted a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman due to the government’s lack of action in their case. The lawyer says Iceland’s government is responsible for the individuals on the basis of humanitarian law.

Wife and children stuck in Gaza

Jóna Þórey Pétursdóttir is a lawyer representing a Palestinian family who has been granted family reunification visas by Icelandic authorities. The father has been in Iceland since February 2023, but his wife and children are still in Gaza, despite having been granted a family reunification visa by Icelandic authorities last December.

“The issue is about the speed of the case and that the Icelandic government is responsible, both on the basis of humanitarian law and human rights obligations. The interest are, of course, the right to life, prohibition of inhumane treatment, and their right to family life,” she told RÚV.

Children in immediate danger

The International Court of Justice in the Hague has confirmed that there is a possibility a genocide is occurring in Gaza. As Iceland is a party to the Geneva Convention, the Icelandic government is obliged to prevent genocide and complicity in genocide.        “There are three children there and they are in immediate danger of suffering and death,” Jóna stated.

Jóna says her complaint is now being processed by the Parliamentary Ombudsman. She adds that it was submitted in order to maintain pressure on authorities and “get answers about what is really being done and to actually ensure that adequate measures are taken.”

Volunteers have helped 24 out of Gaza

Around 100 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them children, hold Icelandic visas on the basis of family reunification. While other Nordic countries have assisted visa-holders across the Rafah border, Iceland’s government has yet to do so. Meanwhile, a group of Icelandic civilians has already gotten 24 Icelandic visa holders out of Gaza across the Rafah border and continue their efforts. In early February, Icelandic authorities sent three representatives to Cairo to look into the cases, but their efforts have yet to bring any visa-holders across the border.

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.

Iceland Facing Greatest Challenge Since Republic’s Founding

Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir delivered an oral report to Parliament yesterday on the new challenges facing the Reykjanes Peninsula due to recent volcanic activity. She emphasised that, while Iceland was facing its most significant natural disaster challenges, the country was better prepared than ever. A comprehensive hazard assessment led by the Icelandic Meteorological Office is underway and is expected to be completed by 2025.

The luxury of relative calm

Taking the podium before Parliament yesterday, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir delivered an oral report on the new reality facing residents of the Reykjanes peninsula. Katrín noted that the Icelanders had been no strangers to natural disasters since the settlement, although they had enjoyed “the luxury of a relatively calm environment” around the most densely populated area of the country over the past centuries. 

Geoscientists had, however, pointed out that the Reykjanes peninsula would awaken sooner or later, given that volcanic activity on the Reykjanes peninsula is cyclic, occurring every 800 to 1000 years.

Read More: In Focus (A Brief Chronology of the Recent Reykjanes Eruptions)

“As nearly 800 years have passed since the last known eruptions on the peninsula, and with eruptions starting almost four years ago, it should have been clear to everyone that events could unfold sooner or later,” Katrín continued. “This reality has become apparent to us and reminds us just how much our lives and existence are shaped by nature.” 

Greatest challenge in the history of the Republic

Katrín recalled visiting the area near the town of Grindavík on Monday and observing how new lava and protective barriers had altered the landscape, following the three eruptions that had occurred near Grindavík since December 18.

During the most recent event on February 8, the eruption initially seemed to pose little danger, but soon lava began flowing powerfully over Grindavík Road and the hot-water pipeline, known as the Njarðvíkur conduit, which transports hot water to all residents of the Suðurnes region from the Svartsengi power plant. This resulted in four days without hot water for residents of the Suðurnes region, representing one of the darkest scenarios we had anticipated.”

Given these recent events, the Minister went on to characterise the coming years on the Reykjanes peninsula as the greatest challenge facing the Republic since its founding: “I am confident in stating that our society is currently confronting the most significant natural disaster challenges in the history of our republic. However, I also assert that we are more prepared to address these challenges now than at any previous point in time,” Katrín stated. 

The Icelandic Republic was established on June 17, 1944, ending the union with Denmark.

Comprehensive hazard assessment to be finalised in 2025

Katrín concluded by emphasising that work had begun on the creation of a comprehensive hazard assessment for the Reykjanes Peninsula as led by the Icelandic Meteorological Office. 

“This is extremely important because there are many volcanic systems beneath the Reykjanes peninsula, and a great deal has been done to expedite this work because it takes considerable time. The aim is to publish the results in stages so that we receive interim reports on the work. We expect this project to be completed in 2025.” 

The assessment will cover the effects and impact areas of earthquakes and lava flow near populated areas, and it will also include a risk assessment on the effect of ash and gases in the atmosphere. Katrín noted that such a hazard assessment had already been conducted for the most active part of the Reykjanes Peninsula and that the rest of the assessment would be published in stages until the year 2025.

Parliamentarian to Submit Bill on Use of AI

Björn Leví of the Pirate Party

Björn Leví Gunnarsson, an MP for the Pirate Party, says that Iceland urgently needs a law in place on the use of AI, RÚV reports. A bill on that subject will be submitted within the next few days.

A controversial skit

To illustrate the importance of such a law, Björn referred to a skit in the year-end sketch comedy show Áramótaskaupið which used the AI likeness of beloved entertainer Hermann Gunnarsson, who passed away in 2013. The choice was controversial, and sparked a broader discussion about the legal ramifications on the use of AI.

In addition, he cited how AI is already being used in the US and the UK to spread misinformation.

The future does not wait

“The future doesn’t actually care about the speed limits within politics, which drags its feet in all projects for years, tossing them back and forth between committees and workgroups while things are happening,” he said.

Björn emphasised that the matter cannot wait for the European Union or some committee or another to catch up with ever-changing technology.

“We need to make it clear that the re-use of material that one could presume is real, whether we’re talking about images, video, sound or other media, is not permitted without the express consent of the individual in question or their immediate associates if the individual is deceased,” Björn said. “We need to respond to this immediately.”

Such a law would be put into effect through Iceland’s existing law on copyrights, he added. Parliament can expect the bill within the next few days.

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.

Pitch Tents Outside Parliament in Protest

No Borders Iceland / Facebook. Palestinian protesters camp outside Iceland's parliament

Local activists slept in tents in front of the Icelandic Parliament on Saturday night in solidarity with Palestinian protesters who have camped there since December 27. They criticise Icelandic authorities for not doing more to bring residents of Gaza who already hold Icelandic visas to the country.

“We won’t stop or back down until our demands are met,” Askur Hrafn Hannesson, one of the Icelandic activists who slept outside Parliament this weekend told RÚV. He says over 40 people joined the group of Palestinians who have been camping outside Alþingi for nearly two weeks.

Asking to be reunited with family members in Gaza

Most of the Palestinian protesters have family members who have been granted residence visas in Iceland on the basis of family reunification but are still stuck in Gaza. The group is calling on Icelandic authorities to do more to retrieve their family members from the strip, where over 30,000 people have been killed by Israeli attacks since October 7 and conditions are life-threatening.

While Icelandic authorities say the Rafah border crossing between Palestine and Egypt is closed, a statement from the group of protestors points out that countries such as the UK, Canada, Germany, Norway, and Sweden received refugees from Gaza in December.

Three demands to Icelandic authorities

The group has made three demands of Icelandic authorities. Firstly, to carry out the family reunifications for which they have already granted visas. Secondly, a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. Thirdly, to stop the ongoing deportations of Palestinian people in Iceland and grant them international protection.

Since October 7, protests and solidarity actions in support of Palestine have been held in Iceland regularly, with the next scheduled for tomorrow at 9:00 AM outside the cabinet meeting at Tjarnargata 32.

Iceland’s Parliament Grants Palestinian Girl Citizenship

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

A 17-year-old girl from Gaza says she’s grateful to the Icelandic Parliament for granting her Icelandic citizenship last week, RÚV reports. Asil Al Masri is currently in hospital in Egypt, recovering from injuries sustained in an Israeli attack that killed several of her family members and injured others. Asil looks forward to reuniting with her brother who lives in Iceland.

One of Alþingi’s last tasks before a holiday recess last week was to grant 20 people Icelandic citizenship by parliamentary decree. Seventeen-year-old Asil was within the group. She lost her mother, sister, and five-year-old nephew in an Israeli army attack on October 17, which also injured several more of her relatives. A short time later, Asil’s father died in hospital. Asil herself was also seriously injured in the attack, leading to her leg being amputated above the knee. After the amputation, she was transferred to a hospital in Cairo, Egypt.

Asil has therefore lost her home and all of her immediate family besides her brother Suleiman who lives in Iceland. It’s thanks to Suleiman’s efforts and supporters in Iceland that Asil is now officially an Icelander.

Wants to thank the Icelandic people

Speaking to RÚV reporters via video call from Cairo, Asil stated her condition was improving and she expected to be “in perfect health” by the time she reached her new home. Asked what her plans were once she reached Iceland, Asil stated “At first I want to meet every Icelander that helped me, that spent time and effort to reach my case to the Icelandic government.” Then she added: “After finishing my treatment, I want to start to study the Icelandic language to continue my studies.”

In the longer term, Asil stated that she wants to “give back to the Icelandic community and enter the labour market so I can help with the renaissance and the development of Iceland.”

She also asked to convey a message to those who helped her gain Icelandic citizenship. “I would like to thank the Icelandic Members of Parliament, the Icelandic people, and all the humanitarian associations and institutions that understood my humanitarian situation.”

Fourteen Prostitution Cases Reported in Iceland This Year

Chief Superintendent Grímur Grímsson

Fourteen prostitution-related offences have been reported to the police in 2023, with only a few leading to fines or prosecutions. The head of the central investigative department with the Metropolitan Police has told RÚV that the police lacks sufficient manpower to adequately investigate such cases

A total of 562 cases since the enactment

Fourteen cases of prostitution-related offences have been brought to the police for investigation this year. This was disclosed in responses from the Minister of Justice to queries by Brynhildur Björnsdóttir, deputy member of Parliament for the Left-Green Movement.

As noted on the Parliament’s website, the response indicates that of these cases, two have been subjected to fine procedures and three to prosecution. No verdict has been delivered in any of the cases that emerged this year.

As noted by Vísir, Brynhildur had inquired about the number of prostitution offences committed since the enactment of Law 54/2009, which criminalises the purchase of sexual services and provides penalties of fines or up to one year of imprisonment for those who buy or attempt to buy sex. Since 2009, there have been a total of 562 such cases.

Of these, 82 underwent fine procedures, 251 faced prosecution, and verdicts have been reached in 104 of the cases. The Minister’s response also notes the difficulty in compiling information on convictions or acquittals due to the extensive work entailed.

Rare for victims of prostitution to press charges

As noted by RÚV, the number of cases that have been subjected to prosecution procedures has declined significantly since 2013. That year, 126 cases were subject to prosecution and a verdict was delivered in 64 of those cases. Since then, prosecutory actions have been pursued much more infrequently and a verdict in such cases has only been delivered nine times.  

In an interview with RÚV published this morning, Drífa Snædal, spokesperson for Stígamót (a centre for survivors of sexual violence that provides free and confidential counselling), asserted that the statistical data do not align with the actual scale of the offences; the staff at Stígamót feel that incidents of prostitution have increased in recent years, with Drífa pointing to the number of websites offering services of prostitutes.

According to Stígamót’s annual report, 18 individuals sought help from the centre last year due to prostitution. The report notes that processing the traumatic experiences associated with prostitution often takes a long time.

As noted by RÚV, a likely explanation for the low rate of legal action in such cases, as presented in the response from the Minister of Justice, is that these matters are not a priority for the police. Cases often need to be actively sought out because it is rare for victims of prostitution to directly approach police stations to press charges against purchasers.

Drífa also noted that court proceedings in such cases are always closed, which she finds incomprehensible; the identity of the perpetrator never becomes public, which does not affect the victim’s standing in society. Meanwhile, the self-blame experienced by those in prostitution is significant, with victims often holding themselves responsible and resorting to prostitution out of some form of desperation.

Lacking sufficient manpower

Grímur Grímsson, head of the central investigative unit of the Metropolitan Police, told RÚV that the police lacked sufficient manpower to adequately address these cases.

Grímur agreed that there were a significant number of websites offering prostitution services in Iceland and not enough manpower to investigate. He mentioned that the increase in violent crime in recent years had also played a role in this regard. “Violent crime cases take a lot of time, and they are urgent. But it is a matter of prioritisation; hopefully, we can do better in the new year,” Grímur observed.