HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE CONSIDERS REPORT OF ICELAND
10 July 2012
The Human Rights Committee has considered the fifth periodic report of Iceland on how that country implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Presenting the report, Ragnhildur Hjaltadottir, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior of Iceland, said that for the first time the Government had declared a commitment to adopt a National Action Plan on human rights. Following the collapse of the banking sector in 2008 the Government formed the Ministry of the Interior which was guided by three core values of humanity, foresight and professionalism, and was committed to ensuring that human rights considerations were reflected in all its activities. A key priority was the promotion of gender equality in all aspects of life; however despite many successes the gender pay gap persisted. A gender-neutral definition of marriage had been adopted into the Constitution while new legislation which strengthened the legal status of transgender people entered in force just a few days ago. Penitentiary issues were a focus of concern and consequently Iceland planned a new prison with improved facilities. In 2010 extensive amendments were made to the asylum chapters of the Act on Foreigners, which include a regime for subsidiary protection, more precise rules regarding residence permits on humanitarian grounds and enhanced legal aid to asylum seekers.
The delegation responded to a number of questions and issues raised by Committee Experts, such as reservations to the Covenant, establishment of a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles, the impact of the recent financial and economic crisis on the status and treatment of foreigners and a failure the absence of a definition of torture in domestic legislation. Experts welcomed action taken to implement gender equality and asked about concrete outcomes and lessons learned from the First Gender Equality Plan and for an explanation for the persistent and widening gender wage gap. They noted with satisfaction the legislative progress in the ongoing combat to fight violence against women in Iceland, and asked for more information on the number and identification of perpetrators, sanctions meted out and reparations to victims. Issues including shelters for women victims of violence, support to foreigners for integration and non-refoulement procedures were also raised.
Ms. Hjaltadottir, speaking in concluding remarks, said that there was an obvious link between recommendations made by human rights treaty bodies and human rights policy in Iceland. Considerable achievements had been made over in recent years, notably in the ratification of human rights instruments, revision of the Act on Foreigners and the strengthening of legal status of transgender persons. There was always room for improvement and thus Iceland was already addressing further revision of the Act on Foreigners, poor data collection and also violence against women, the gender pay gap and human trafficking.
In concluding remarks, Zonke Zanele Majodina, Committee Chairperson, noted the great strides made in improving the human rights situation in Iceland, and particularly in ensuring that gender equality became a reality. Progress had been made in protection of children rights, but there were still too few convictions of people who had committed sexual abuse against children. The Committee remained concerned about the three reservations to the Convention and noted the need to improve the legal framework for refugee status determination.
The delegation of Iceland included representatives of the Ministry of Interior and of the Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will resume its work at 3 p.m. today, Tuesday 10th July, when it will examine the third periodic report of Lithuania (CCPR/C/LTU/3).
The fifth periodic report of Iceland can be read here: (CCPR/C/ISL/5).
Presentation of the Report
RAGNHILDUR HJALTADOTTIR, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, introduced the report saying that while Iceland had a good human rights situation there was always room for improvement and that Iceland welcomed the Committee’s feedback. The Government of Iceland placed a heavy emphasis on human rights in its activities and for the first time had committed to adopt a National Action Plan on Human Rights. In November 2011 a working group, consisting of representatives of all Ministries, and a consultative group, made up of civil society and academia representatives, were set up. The Government recently underwent extensive restructuring which placed increased weight on human rights in public administration. Following the collapse of the banking sector in 2008 the Government formed the Ministry of the Interior which was guided by three core values of humanity, foresight and professionalism. The Ministry was committed to ensuring that human rights considerations were reflected in all its activities. The Government had taken important steps to improve the rights of individuals and groups, such as adoption of a gender neutral definition of marriage in the Constitution. New legislation which strengthened the legal status of transgender people entered in force just a few days ago.
A key priority for the Government was the promotion of gender equality and ensuring that women and men enjoyed equal rights and status in all aspects of life. While successes had been achieved in many areas of gender equality the gender pay gap remained persistent. Gender-based violence, domestic violence and rape should not be tolerated in any society and those ugly realities were openly discussed in Iceland, which was the first step in dealing with the problem. Prison issues were another human rights concern that the Government focused on, and there were plans to build a new prison which would play a key role in improving facilities for prisoners. In recent years Iceland had seen a rise in the number of asylum seekers, and owing to Iceland’s small scale the Government had been unable to address the issue of asylum seekers and refugees in accordance with international best practice. Extensive amendments had been made to the asylum chapters of the Act on Foreigners in 2010, which now included a regime for subsidiary protection, more precise rules for residence permits on humanitarian grounds and extra provisions for legal aid to asylum seekers. However, further improvements were needed. Last week an intergovernmental panel delivered substantive recommendations to the Ministry of Interior which would serve as a basis for a new Act on Foreigners which would adopt a more humanitarian approach to procedure and legislation.
MARIA RUN BJARNADOTTIR, Legal Adviser, Department of Human Rights and Local Government, Ministry of Interior, summarized her Government’s replies to the Committee’s list of issues for the fifth periodic report of Iceland. Ms. Bjarnadottir said it was clear that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights had an impact both on national legislation and in practice within the society. However, Iceland had three reservations to the Covenant. The issue of juvenile prisoners was a subject of wide discussion in Iceland, and in 2009 the Parliament instructed that the Convention on the Rights of the Child be incorporated into domestic law. The Government was now considering the possibility of separating juvenile prisoners from adults. Iceland did not have a national human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles. The Icelandic Human Rights Centre had assumed some of the functions of a national human rights institution but it was not established by the statute. Since 2008 the Centre had received funding from the Government; while the Human Rights Institution of the University of Iceland also played an important role in promotion of human rights in academic and social contexts.
Promotion of gender equality had been a key Government priority for many years; many mechanisms had been put in place to ensure gender equality and affirmative actions in a number of sectors. A Bill on Equal Salary Standards was currently being introduced in the Parliament as a measure to reduce the gender pay gap. Iceland had taken a firm stand to do its utmost to end gender-based violence and had amended the General Penal Code to introduce heavier sentences in cases of sexual abuse and other violent cases where there were close relations between the perpetrator and the victim. A new action plan, currently under preparation, would emphasize gender-based acts of violence and how such crimes were prosecuted in the judicial system. Sexual violence against children was mentioned in the list of issues; Iceland had taken a series of steps to address that issue, including ratification of the Lanzarote Convention in 2011. The Government had also made efforts to combat trafficking in human beings which included the 2010 amendments to the Act on Foreigners, which added ‘victim of trafficking’ to the list of possible grounds for obtaining a residence permit.
Questions by Experts
CORNELIS FLINTERMAN, Committee Rapporteur for the Report of Iceland, said he appreciated the attention accorded by Iceland to the Committee’s comments and recommendations and suggested that the sixth periodic report should be prepared according to the harmonized reporting guidelines of the United Nations treaty bodies. Did Icelandic legislation have provisions that could ensure implementation of the Committee’s recommendations?
Concerning Iceland’s reservations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Rapporteur said that the Committee had a consistent policy of asking States parties whether they still intended to keep their reservations. Reasons for that were the time gap since reservations were first entered and the 1993 Vienna Declaration which invited States to reconsider their reservations to international instruments. Had Iceland ever had a reason to use its reservation to Article 14 (7) which was entered in 1979? Regarding action on gender equality, the Rapporteur asked about concrete outcomes and lessons learned from the First Gender Equality Plan and the intentions for the preparation of the Second Plan. What were the most persistent gender-based stereotypes in Iceland and what would the Second Plan focus on? The Rapporteur asked why the gender pay gap – which was actually widening – was still a persistent problem in such an advanced country as Iceland.
Other Experts asked the delegation about how human rights instruments to which Iceland was party were being incorporated into domestic law, and about the attitude of the Parliament in that regard. Why did the Parliament give the Convention on the Rights of the Child priority over the International Covenant as far as incorporation into domestic law was concerned? Did the courts have a legal obligation to interpret the Constitution in accordance with the Covenant? What was the status of the establishment of the national human rights institutions in accordance with the Paris Principles and what was Parliament’s attitude in that regard? Could more information on the role and activities of the Icelandic Human Rights Centre be provided?
An Expert expressed concern about the impact of the recent financial and economic crisis on the status and treatment of foreigners in Iceland. What plans were there to educate the public about eliminating discrimination against foreigners? Would the Government continue to provide support to foreigners for integration, especially in learning the Icelandic language which was essential for integration in the labour market? The Expert voiced further concerns about delays in building a mosque in Reykjavik. Regarding Article 9 of the Covenant, an Expert asked how long after arrest had taken place a person had the right to contact a lawyer and at what point a doctor was involved. Another Expert asked whether municipalities provided grants for places of worship and whether land was provided free of charge to religious associations.
Response by Delegation
Responding to questions, the delegation said that the report had been delayed due to the establishment of the new Ministry of Interior, which started its operations in January 2011. The delegation took note of the suggestion to use the harmonized reporting guidelines and said they would also utilize them in elaboration of the National Action Plan, which would be an opportunity to discuss and review reservations on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
All human rights instruments to which Iceland was party to should be incorporated into the domestic law, and there was political will to do so, but there was also a need to assess implications for the legal framework and the Iceland’s dualist system. There were various very effective ways in which non-governmental organizations contributed to human rights issues in Iceland, including through constructive criticism, shadow reports and publishing books.
Iceland had two gender-equality Action Plans, a first that provided for structures within Government and local authorities, and a second on domestic and sexual violence. Research had been conducted within the framework of those plans, which would be used in the elaboration of the third Action Plan. The negative gender stereotypes that existed in Icelandic society were the typical ones, a delegate said, for example a belief that a builder could only be a man and a nurse could only be a woman. Research had shown that such stereotypes were grounds for gender-based violence and discrimination. Iceland shared the concern about ineffective anti-hate speech legislation and would do its utmost to address the issue.
In terms of Government support to foreigners in the light of the economic crisis, action focused on the young, and support was provided to help secondary school students from an immigrant background to stay in school.
The reservation on Article 14 (7) of the Covenant had been used in Iceland and had been a subject of political debate. Iceland had an open mind concerning the reservations of other Nordic countries and had gone hand in hand with the others as far as reservations were concerned. There was no pre-decided structural procedure for the implementation of the views of the Human Rights Committee in Iceland; there was only one such case regarding fisheries and that case had caused many human rights-related debates in the country.
Questions from Experts
An Expert said that drafting a list of issues was a way for the Committee to support a State Party in areas which were considered of particular importance. The Committee noted with satisfaction the legislative progress in the ongoing combat to fight violence against women in Iceland, and invited the delegation to provide information on the number and identification of perpetrators, sanctions meted out and reparations to victims. Such information gave a full picture of the rights of women in any given country. Why had so few women victims of violence filed complaints and why had only a small number of claims progressed to prosecution? Could the delegation comment on the failure to include in domestic legislation the definition of torture as per the Convention against Torture?
The Committee was pleased to note that legal protection from domestic violence applied to both Icelandic and foreign women and that the Government had published multi-lingual brochures raising awareness of domestic violence. The delegation was asked about the practical impact of those measures and whether immigrant women also brought claims. It was encouraging to note that Iceland had become a party to important international instruments to combat human trafficking, such as the Palermo Protocol. How many women had been given shelter in centres for victims of trafficking so far and how many were foreigners? The purchase of sex services had been criminalized in Iceland; what were the underpinning reasons for passing of that prohibition and what impact had it had?
In 2011 Iceland ratified the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, known as the Lanzarote Convention. As a result notable changes had been made in both law and practice in Iceland. However, there were very few convictions for sexual abuse of children. Why was that the case and would education on sexual abuse and offences against children be provided to people working with children?
Response from the Delegation
Only a small portion of rape victims filed charges and only a small proportion of those led to prosecution and conviction. That was an issue of great concern and the Government was taking steps to raise awareness and was in the process of revising legislation to endow the police with the tools necessary to act on that very serious problem. One reason for the low number of prosecutions was flaws in data collection system, which was insufficient.
There was great political will to lift the reservation to the Convention concerning juvenile justice, but it had to be done in the Icelandic context, a delegate explained. Iceland had a very unique situation: its population was just over 300,000 and at the moment no children were serving a prison sentence. The current regulatory framework was mindful of torture and there had been no reported cases of torture; that might be the reason why more attention had not been accorded to the issue of definition.
It was true that there was only one women’s shelter in Iceland and it was located in Reykjavik. There had been attempts to establish a second shelter in the second largest town in the north of the country, but it had not been much used and there were issues with anonymity due to the very small population size. That second shelter had now been closed. There was no official data to indicate what the contributing factor was in women lodging domestic violence charges. There was also no official data concerning the use of the shelter for victims of human trafficking, but the delegate said that just last week five women had used the services, three of whom had been foreigners.
In 2010 extensive amendments were made to the asylum chapter of the Act on Foreigners, which covered the regime for subsidiary protection, more precise rules regarding residence permits on humanitarian grounds and further legal aid to those who received a negative decision. Several amendments had been made to establish safeguards for the protection of unaccompanied minors applying for asylum. It was worth noting that the intergovernmental group had recommended the Ministry completely overhaul the Act on Foreigners. Since 2009 application for asylum had been increasing. In 2009 there were 35 applications for asylum, 51 applications in 2010 and 76 applications in 2011. As previously stated, the Government was concerned about the length of the procedure due to the small size of the administration.
The Ministry of the Interior had presented a new bill to the Parliament to amend the Act on Religious Organizations, according to which some non-religious organizations could, under certain conditions, gain the same State subsidies as religious organizations. There had been extensive debate about religion in Icelandic schools. Consequently the Ministry of Education established a working group to submit proposals on how relations between church and schools at all educational levels should be organized.
Questions by Experts
An Expert asked about non-refoulement procedures, particularly in cases where there was a threat to life or risk of torture or ill treatment. It appeared that the protection granted to persons under the Refugee Act was not always extended to asylum seekers and that their protection was not absolute. Some asylum procedures had been affected by the 2010 amendments to the Act of Foreigners.
Concerning the adequacy of legal aid, an Expert said that the amount of the legal aid provided was not sufficient given the complexities that might arise in those cases. Was it correct that the judicial review was limited to the examination of procedure rather than assessment of merits? What were the plans for the revision of those procedures and establishment of more independent judicial procedure for asylum seekers? Regarding residency permits, and Expert asked about issuance of the residence permit discretionary act and whether foreigners had a possibility to appeal the decision?
Dissemination of information about the Covenant was crucial in promoting human rights and preventing human rights abuses, an Expert noted, asking to what extend the Icelandic media had paid attention to the views of the Committee? Were special training programmes available for judges, lawyers and prosecutors? The Committee expressed concern that the increase in the number of judges in courts was only a temporary one and wished to know why it was only temporary and not permanent, and what Iceland planned to do to strengthen administration of justice.
How did the State ensure non-discrimination in treatment of religious organizations and non-religious organizations? What rights did spouses hold during marriage and how were marital assets distributed upon a divorce? The delegation was also asked to provide the information about military courts in Iceland.
Response by Delegation
The delegation confirmed that the views of the Committee did indeed attract a lot of media attention in Iceland. The Icelandic Human Rights Centre had performed quite a lot of the functions that any institution accredited to the Paris Principles would do and had played a key role in the landscape of those that provided the Government with the criticism. Iceland was looking into ratifying a number of Conventions, for example the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and in that regard the Centre was a key player and an important part of the human rights structure in the country.
The increase in numbers of judges was temporary because a new institution had been established to deal with economic and financial issues after the banking crash. The Ministry of the Interior must follow the proposals by the Committee for the Appointment of Judges; the only exception was if Parliament instructed otherwise but that had never happened. Until several years ago the Minister had been responsible for making a decision on the appointment of judges, but recently more independence had been introduced in the appointment process with the institution of the Committee for the Appointment of Judges.
Non-refoulment was the key principle in legislation and applied to all its aspects. It was true that Iceland had sent three asylum seekers back to Greece but after the outcome of the European Court of Human Rights ruling regarding Greece, Iceland had followed the Nordic example and stopped sending people back to Greece very soon after Norway stopped.
There was flexibility regarding the amount of legal aid provided in proportion with the complexity of a case. In general, upon divorce marital assets were divided in half between the spouses.
RAGNHILDUR HJALTADOTTIR, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, said that there was an obvious link between recommendations made by human rights treaty bodies and human rights policy in Iceland. For example, in recent years legal amendments had strengthened human rights protection and the Government had for the first time declared a commitment to produce a National Action Plan on Human Rights. Other achievements included the ratification of the Lanzarote Convention, legislation on hate speech, new legislation on the right of transgender persons, and extensive 2010 amendments to the Act on Foreigners. There was always room for improvement and the comments made by the Committee Experts were most welcome in that regard. Iceland was already addressing further revisions to the Act on Foreigners, and was aware that it must urgently address violence against women, the persistent gender pay gap and human trafficking. There were many ways to improve the situation in Iceland and some of them were awareness-raising, education and enforcement. The Ministry of the Interior was currently engaged in evaluating the interplay of the judicial system from investigation, to prosecution to imprisonment. That could contribute to more effective ways of enforcing law and human rights instruments. It was clear that the lack of data and statistics was a problem and there was room for improvement. Iceland would do its utmost to rectify that.
ZONKE ZANELE MAJODINA, Committee Chairperson, said that Iceland had made great strides in improving the human rights situation in the country and the Committee appreciated the efforts made to ensure that gender equality became a reality. Since the passing of the Gender Equality Act in 2008 it was evident that the legal position of women had improved, which gave opportunity to improve the situation of women of the ground if laws were implemented. Progress had been made in protection of child rights but there were still too few convictions of people who had committed sexual abuse against children. Another concern was that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights had still not been fully integrated in the domestic law and that three reservations remained to Article 10, Article 14/(7) and Article 20(1). While there had been valid reason to enter those reservations, there was a need for the State Party to evaluate whether the reasons were still valid. Iceland also needed to improve the legal framework for refugee status determination. The Committee hoped that more progress would be discussed during the consideration of the sixth periodic report of Iceland.
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