Iceland Suspends Palestine Relief Payments

bjarni benediktsson

Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs has suspended payments to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Opposition MPs criticise the decision, calling it “harsh.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres has appealed to countries who have suspended UNRWA payments to reconsider, saying: “The dire needs of the desperate populations they serve must be met.”

Allegations of participation in October 7 attacks

Founded in 1949, the UNRWA is the United Nations’ main agency supporting the relief and human development of Palestinian regufees in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. UNRWA runs shelters for the displaced and currently distributes the only aid that Israel is allowing into the Gaza strip.

Iceland has been working with UNRWA for decades. In September last year, Iceland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs signed a contract with the organisation for continued support until 2028.

Several Western countries have temporarily suspended financial support to UNRWA over allegations that some UNRWA staff members were involved in the October 7 attacks on Israel. The staff members in question have already been fired from the organisation, which will also conduct an independent investigation into the matter.

Contrary to ruling from International Court of Justice

“It’s absolutely horrible that we’re taking part in this. And we should follow the Norwegians’ example, who have decided in light of the terrible situation in Gaza, to continue their funding while this investigation is ongoing,” Pirate Party MP Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir told RÚV.

“What is absolutely clear is a ruling from the highest court of the international community that humanitarian aid must come to Gaza,” Þórhildur Sunna continued. “And the Icelandic government’s first rection is to stop humanitarian aid to Gaza. It’s absolutely horrible.”

Social Democratic Alliance MP Logi Einarsson also criticised Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson’s decision to suspend the payments harsh. “Thirty thousand people work for the organisation, including 13,000 in Gaza and the investigation is on 12 individuals,” Logi stated. “It is therefore a very harsh reaction to punish millions of people in a complete humanitarian crisis and on the verge of starvation.”

Iceland to Support Immediate Ceasefire in Gaza

Katrín Jakbosdóttir, Bjarni Benediktsson

Iceland will vote for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza at the United Nations General Assembly today confirms Foreign Affairs Minister Bjarni Benediktsson speaking to Vísir. The United States vetoed such a move in the U.N.’s 15-member Security Council last week. However, no country has veto power in the 193-member General Assembly, whose resolutions are non-binding, but carry political weight.

Bjarni has previously brushed off the idea that Iceland sever political ties with Israel or use unilateral sanctions, as global calls for a ceasefire grow louder. Health authorities in Palestine confirm that over 18,000 people have been killed in Israel’s two-month offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Protesters glitter bombed minister

In October, the General Assembly passed a ceasefire resolution, proposed by Jordan. 120 countries supported the resolutions and 14 opposed. Iceland was among the 45 countries who abstained. The news of Iceland’s abstention caused strive in the Government coalition, as it contradicts Iceland’s foreign policy on Palestine and the policy of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s party, the Left-Green Movement. Katrín says she was not consulted on the decision and blamed the vote on a failure of communication. Protests outside Government buildings have been ongoing since and activists threw glitter on Bjarni last week as he attended an event at the University of Iceland.

As Foreign Affairs Minister, Bjarni bears responsibility for the UN vote. Bjarni resigned from the position of Finance Minister in October following criticism of his handling of the sale of state-owned bank Íslandsbanki. Following his resignation, his fellow Independence Party MP Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir took over as Finance Minister, while Bjarni took over her position as Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Nordic countries support resolution

Today’s vote is a result of Egypt and Mauritania calling for an emergency meeting of the General Assembly. They claim that since the U.N. Security Council has not been able to discharge its primary responsibility of maintaining global peace due to lack of unanimity, the General Assembly must step in. After a meeting of the Icelandic cabinet this morning, Bjarni told press that the Nordic countries share in their support for the resolution, along with other countries.

Disappointed in Icelandic Government’s Response to Gaza

Icelandic government Palestine protest

Locals in Iceland have held regular protests outside the Icelandic government’s cabinet meetings since the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas began on October 7. Protesters are calling on the government to condemn Israeli authorities for their actions and use its influence to call for a ceasefire in the conflict. Iceland abstained from voting on a ceasefire in an emergency meeting of the UN last month.

Call on government to condemn Israel’s actions

“We are here to tell the government of Iceland that it has not done its job in these matters, because it has only condemned Hamas. It has not yet gotten around to condemning Israel and the atrocities that are currently being committed. And the performance at the UN is of course shameful,” Hjálmtýr Heiðdal, chairman of the Iceland-Palestine Association, told RÚV reporters at this morning’s protest. A sizeable group gathered to wave flags, chant in support of Palestine, and express their disappointment towards cabinet ministers.

Iceland was the first Western country to officially recognise Palestine’s independence and support for the Palestinian cause is fairly strong among the Icelandic public. The Iceland-Palestine Association chaired by Hjálmtýr was founded in 1987.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Bjarni Benediktsson, who recently took on the position after resigning as Minister of Finance stated that he was not consulted on the UN General Assembly ceasefire vote. In a recent press conference, he refused to call Israel’s bombing of refugee camp Jabalia as an “attack on a refugee camp,” insisting it was “a matter of how you approach it.”

PM: Communication Failure Hampered Gaza Truce Resolution

Prime Minister of Iceland Katrín Jakobsdóttir

The Icelandic government has faced criticism for abstaining from a UN vote on a truce in Gaza due to a failed amendment condemning Hamas. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir expressed regret over the lack of support for the resolution and admitted that communication between ministries was inadequate.

A controversial abstention

Last Friday, Iceland abstained from voting on a UN resolution calling for an immediate and sustained humanitarian truce in Gaza. The reason for the abstention was that an amendment to the resolution – proposed by Canada and backed by over 35 Member States, which sought to include an explicit condemnation of Hamas – failed to pass.

Iceland’s abstention faced immediate criticism at home. A professor of political science told RÚV that it was “yet another example of how divided the parties within Iceland’s governing coalition were.” Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir told the media that she had not been consulted, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pushing back against this claim, maintaining that the Prime Minister’s Office had been notified before the vote.

A failure of communication

Speaking from a Nordic Council session in Oslo yesterday, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir addressed, among other things, the statements that have been exchanged between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs concerning the vote. In her interview, Katrín emphasised that Iceland’s abstention was not to be interpreted as opposition to the main objective of the resolution: a ceasefire in Gaza and humanitarian aid to the region. On the contrary,  she would have voted for a compromise.

In an interview with Vísir yesterday, Katrín observed: “I would have preferred that we seek ways to support the resolution even though it was not exactly as we would have liked. We, of course, voted for Canada’s amendment – but I would have liked to explore ways to support this resolution,” Katrín stated, noting that Norway, as the one Nordic country that approved the proposal, had chosen an alternative different path.

Katrín also admitted that communication between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry could have been better: “Clearly, the ministries should have communicated better beforehand on this issue, but events can unfold rapidly. Nonetheless, my stance on the matter remains unchanged.”

“No one really consulted me on this; that’s just how I see it,” Katrín stated. “This problem isn’t going away, and our conversations should really centre on that – especially given the terrible daily toll on civilian lives.”

Iceland’s vote in line with its foreign policy

Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson told RÚV yesterday that he, in his capacity as the leader of a governing party, had not been consulted on the vote in the United Nations General Assembly.

Bjarni observed that Iceland’s stance had been in line with the country’s foreign policy and in harmony with the majority of European nations and that of all the Nordic countries, with the exception of Norway.

Iceland Abstains from UN Gaza Vote, Causing Tension

Katrín Jakbosdóttir, Bjarni Benediktsson Ríkissjórn Alþingi

Iceland abstained from voting on a ceasefire in Gaza at an emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly last Friday. The decision contradicts Iceland’s foreign policy on Palestine and the policy of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s party, the Left-Green Movement. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir says she was not consulted on the decision.

Katrín told RÚV that she was not consulted before the vote, adding that the decision to abstain from voting is in opposition to Iceland’s official stance on the conflict. “Iceland’s stance was totally clear before the vote, it was that we support a ceasefire for humanitarian reasons,” Katrín Jakobsdóttir told RÚV. She added that it was also her personal stance and that of her party.

Support for Palestine among Icelandic public

Iceland was the first Western country to officially recognise Palestine’s independence and support for the Palestinian cause is relatively strong among the public in Iceland, in part thanks to the work of the Iceland-Palestine Association, founded in 1987. Many locals in Iceland have expressed disappointment and anger at the decision to abstain from the UN vote on a ceasefire. Several public protests have been held in Iceland in support of a ceasefire since the most recent conflict between Israel and Hamas began.

Divisions within governing coalition

Iceland abstaining from the vote on a ceasefire is yet another example of how divided the parties within Iceland’s governing coalition are, Professor of Political Science Eiríkur Bergmann told RÚV. The governing coalition consists of PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement; the Independence Party led by Bjarni Benediktsson, currently Minister for Foreign Affairs; and the Progressive Party, led by Infrastructure Minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson.

As Foreign Affairs Minister, Bjarni Benediktsson bears responsibility for the UN vote. Bjarni resigned from the position of Finance Minister earlier this month following criticism of his handling of the sale of state-owned bank Íslandsbanki. Following his resignation, his fellow Independence Party MP Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir took over as Finance Minister, while Bjarni took over her position as Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Three governments in Iceland

“This is, of course, a very unusual issue, that there has been such a rift in the government over an issue this serious,” Eiríkur stated. “But, of course, this reflects what we have been seeing for a long time now, that there are actually three governments in the country. Each of the three political parties deals with the affairs of their [ministry], and the Independence Party manages foreign affairs, and it is therefore its policy that determines Iceland’s position in this matter, not the policy of other governing parties.”

The Climate Disaster Has “Already Begun to Materialise”

Climate Change

The international community is “falling far short of the Paris goals,” a new UN report finds. “The disaster has already begun to materialise,” Halldór Þorgeirsson, Chair of Iceland’s Climate Council, told RÚV yesterday.

The 2022 Emissions Gap Report

Yesterday, October 27, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published its 2022 edition of the Emissions Gap report. The report provides an update on the progress towards “achieving national mitigation pledges” and the goals set by the Paris Agreement by taking stock of the so-called “emissions gap.”

As noted by a UN press release, the report concludes that the international community is “falling far short of the Paris goals, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place.” The authors state that the only way to avoid climate disaster is via an urgent “system-wide transformation.”

Read More: The Age of Eco-Anxiety

“Global and national climate commitments are falling pitifully short,” Secretary General of the UN António Guterres stated in a video message during an introduction of the report yesterday. “We must close the emissions gap before climate catastrophe closes in on us all.”

Chair of Iceland’s Climate Council

To address the report’s findings, RÚV invited the Chair of Iceland’s Climate Council Halldór Þorgeirsson (and a retired Senior Director at the UN Climate Change Secretariat) to an interview during yesterday’s nightly news. Halldór was blunt: “These disasters have already begun to materialise, and this year, we have seen disasters that are truly man-made. The strongest example being Pakistan, and, just as bad, and nearer to home, Florida.

“These things are already manifesting in such a way that it’s no longer a question of the future. Our meagre achievements means that the window of opportunity grows ever narrower; there’s much less time. That’s why the only feasible path forward is to undertake fast and extensive system-wide transformation.”

The only way to do this, Halldór maintained, was increased investment. “These are large figures but in reality, it’s only about 2% of the total budget. So it certainly seems doable. Central banks play a big role, and we need to rethink the economy. That’s what this is about – alongside greater cooperation between nations.”

The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) will be held from November 6 to 18 in Egypt. It will mark the 27th United Nations Climate Change conference. According to Halldór, no “big decisions” are expected to be made during the conference.

“This conference will focus more on following through with the agreement,” Halldór observed. “The implementation of the Paris Agreement was concluded in Glasgow last year. During the first two days of the conference, global leaders will be present, and the messages that they send matter. All eyes will be on China. They’ve been quite reticent. Then there’s this very strong undercurrent, connected to those aforementioned disasters because one of the big questions of this conference is how we provide aid to nations who suffer such disasters.”

Iceland Ranked Fifth Globally for Digital Public Services and Infrastructure

Iceland is among the top five nations in the world when it comes to digital public services and infrastructure. According to the United Nations’ annual digital government assessment, the eGovernment Development Index, Iceland is ranked fifth globally, out of 193 countries. This is up from the nation’s twelfth place ranking in 2020.

Denmark came in first place in the rankings, followed by Finland, the Republic of Korea, New Zealand, and then Iceland in fifth. The remaining top ten nations are: Sweden (sixth place), Australia (7), Estonia (8), The Netherlands (9), and the United States (10).

The UN’s bases its assessment on three main areas and indexes: digital services (Online Service Index); ingenuity (Human Capital Index); and technical infrastructure (Telecommunication Infrastructure Index). Iceland ranked particularly high in both ingenuity and technical infrastructure. The Icelandic government has made digitizing services a particular priority this term, with the goal of making all applicable applications, payments, and receipts for services accessible online.

Screenshot via island.is

“The government has set itself the goal of Iceland becoming a leader in digital public services, and surveys show that good progress is being made,” reads an announcement about the rankings on the government’s website. “Digital services are already simplifying people’s lives—saving time while improving service.”

The announcement also points to the European Commission’s eGovernment Benchmark 2022, in which Iceland ranked fourth amongst the 27 EU member states, as well as Norway, Switzerland, Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey. The Benchmark compares how governments across Europe deliver digital public services by asking citizens from the participating countries to visit and evaluate local websites. Iceland rose three places in this assessment since 2021.

See the full rankings and Iceland’s full eGovernment Development assessment, in English, here.

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.

Iceland Doubles Contribution to UN Climate Fund

Katrín Jakobsdóttir UN Climate Action Summit

Iceland will double its yearly contribution to the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries counter climate change. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir announced the decision yesterday at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. With the added funding, Iceland’s contribution will amount to $2 million (ISK 250m/€1.8m) between 2021 and 2025.

“Globally, we need to do more to protect carbon sinks, plant trees, and reverse desertification. We need a price on carbon, an end to dirty subsidies, greener lifestyles and clean investments. We need a stronger Green Climate Fund and that’s why the Icelandic government has decided to double our contribution to the fund,” the Prime Minister stated in her address.

During the summit, Katrín also met with Namibia’s President Hage Geingob, and Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Since 2013, Iceland and Namibia have co-led a group of 23 countries which aim to combat desertification, soil erosion, and soil dessication.

“We humans can reach the moon, if we want to. We can save the Earth if we want to. We will need hope, cooperation, green technology, and relentless persistence in breaking dirty habits and advancing clean solutions,” the Prime Minister stated. “Let us embrace hope and let us ensure that all our actions against the climate crisis will result in climate justice.”

The Prime Minister’s speech can be read in full on the Government of Icleand’s website.

Duterte Considers Cutting Diplomatic Ties With Iceland

Rodrigo Duterte.

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has stated he is considering cutting diplomatic ties with Iceland, Al Jazeera reports. The reason is a resolution that Iceland initiated asking the United Nations to investigate the deaths of thousands of people under Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs.” Philippine police have stated that at least 6,600 have been killed in the first three years of Duterte’s presidency, exclusively in shootouts with police. Rights groups assert, however, that the number of deaths has surpassed 20,000 since 2016.

“Seriously considering cutting diplomatic relations”

Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo told reports that the UN resolution, which was adopted by vote last week, showed “how the Western powers are scornful of our sovereign exercise of protecting our people from the scourge of prohibited drugs.” He added that the Philippine President was “seriously considering cutting diplomatic relations with Iceland,” and called the resolution “grotesquely one-sided, outrageously narrow, and maliciously partisan.”

Filipino-Icelanders fear reprisals

Lilja Védís Hólmsdóttir is from the Philippines and has lived in Iceland for 20 years. She is the representative for Filipinos in Iceland in a larger European Filipino Association and celebrates Iceland’s initiation of the UN resolution. She told Fréttablaðið, however, that there are Filipino-Icelanders who support Duterte “almost unfailingly.”

According to Statistics Iceland, around 1,900 Filipinos live in Iceland. Many of those to whom Fréttablaðið spoke requested not to be named, fearing reprisals from their government. “This is very sensitive and you have to be careful,” one interviewee stated. “People have been killed for this. I’m going to the Philippines soon and I don’t want to be stopped at the airport because of what I say.”