Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Changed Security Environment - New Perspectives in Defence

Speech given by

H.E. Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir

Minister of Foreign Affairs & Defence

November 27, 2007

Association for Western Co-operation

Reykjavik, Iceland




Mr. Chairman, esteemed guests,



New perspectives in defence


I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the Association for Western Co-operation for this excellent opportunity to discuss defence and security, Iceland’s position and the Government’s future vision.

We find ourselves at a remarkable stage in the history of our country, and as I look over the group of people assembled here today, it strikes me how different the significance of this transition we are currently going through must be for different generations of Icelanders. Here we have both people tempered by the conflicts of earlier decades, as well as people who are too young to remember the Cold War. 

The world has changed, Iceland has changed, and as a consequence of our changed circumstance, the Icelandic Government is now taking on a new and larger role in the country’s security and defence.

In my report to the Althing on foreign affairs earlier this month, I mentioned that it would be a challenging task for Iceland to assume increased responsibility of its own defences. When the new Government took office last 23 May, there were various loose ends waiting to be tied. Work has been in progress in that regard over the summer and autumn in co-operation with NATO, the United States and domestic ministries and agencies.  

Efficiency and determination are the keys to dealing with the task of taking over a complex operation of facilities and equipment. Defence is a matter of great importance and extremely sensitive to disruption, even for a short period of time. For this reason, every effort has been made to maintain tight control of the operation of the Icelandic Air Defence System – and the staff of the Radar Agency, as well as the Foreign Ministry, has frequently been called upon to make great efforts to ensure a smooth transition.

The takeover by the Government of Iceland of the Icelandic Air Defence System (IADS) last August 15th proceeded without a hitch. Immediately on that day there were reports of long-range Russian bombers flying into the Icelandic section of the Air surveillance area in the North Atlantic, and the required communication was promptly made to NATO commands in neighbouring countries, which reacted accordingly. During the days preceding the takeover, there was some discussion in the Icelandic press that the air defence system was unnecessary; that discussion however quickly fell silent.

I have just described a part of the extensive administrative work involved in taking over the NATO facilities and equipment in Iceland. In addition, the transformation currently under way includes the task for our society and our politicians of drawing up a strategy for the future, to assess risks in a measured manner, to build up knowledge, analyse our options and make political decisions accordingly.

We should come together in building a consensus on the fundamentals of Icelandic security and defence. Sensible defence is an essential duty of government, and all political parties possessing the responsibility required to participate in governing the country regard it as their obligation to account for their reasoned vision of what constitutes necessary defence. The big dispute regarding military protection and the permanent military presence of the United States is now in the realm of historians. Politicians have been assigned new and important tasks. And when the old talk of imperialism and superpower encroachment is now being transplanted to our kinsmen in Norway, as we have seen, the world at large must surely regard it as some kind of joke.

The Government manifesto specifically addresses the expanded role of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Althing, and I have taken steps to ensure that all members of the Committee are given security clearance by NATO so that they can be kept informed of issues that are classified by NATO as confidential. The response of the members of the Althing has given me hope that this approach represents the beginning of a new era, where Icelanders will work together in the interests of their own defence, where they will speak in measured terms, and concentrate on the complex challenges that we have to face.

I remarked at a meeting of the Historical Society last week, that the debate on the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement in the Althing some years ago was the best school I had ever attended; at the time I was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Althing. The EEA-discussion was a watershed in Icelandic politics, and the same thing will happen now, when we lay a new common foundation for our defences. I urge everyone in politics, and all interested Icelanders, to take advantage of the opportunities in the coming months to enlighten themselves and to understand the issues of security and defence in our times, without prejudice and with an open mind. During my tenure, the Foreign Ministry will focus on a dynamic co-operation with our universities, through open meetings of the kind that we have organised this autumn, and the internet will be used as before to disseminate information and knowledge to the public.

The Foreign Ministry should not be a secret council, as it has sometimes been. Last August, the decision was made to give the media more access than before to NATO’s analyses of the importance of the Icelandic Air Defence System, and recently, when a request was received from a media representative for a certain report that a working group in the Ministry had prepared we made every effort to facilitate and expedite the delivery of the report to the person who had requested it.

At the same time, it is to be expected that the Icelandic media will show the same responsibility that the media throughout our region of the world have shown when discussing national security and defence. This is in some ways a new working environment for everyone, so let us join forces in observing sensible rules. The appointment of a new press secretary in the Foreign Ministry, following a careful notification and selection process, is significant in this regard, as Urður Gunnarsdóttir brings with her substantial international experience from her work in recent years for the Press and Public Information Section of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

I foresee that when it really matters, different generations and people who disagreed in the past will find that Icelanders do not really have a significantly incompatible view on security and defence. On the contrary, it is more or less compatible. Icelanders wish to contribute in a positive manner, and we should all work together on achieving a consensus. That, in itself, is an important security issue.

Following the announcement by the United States of their withdrawal from Keflavik, Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde made the sensible decision to approach NATO for an assessment of Iceland’s air defence in peacetime and the necessity of the Icelandic Air Defence System for both Iceland’s and common Allied defence. As Chairman of the Social Democratic Alliance I had said, as soon the impending departure of the US military forces was made public, that Iceland should, on the basis of the Defence Agreement of 1951, seek NATO’s opinion regarding the new situation. My basic position remains the same: Iceland has not yet developed the independent expertise required for the assessment of our defence needs, and since our participation in NATO has now superseded our bilateral co-operation with the United States in peacetime, we should rely on NATO’s assessment.

The conclusion of the NATO Military Committee was confirmed in the North Atlantic Council on July 24th last summer. The Icelandic Air Defence System is required for both Iceland’s and the Allied defences, since a joint strategy on air defence is a key feature of the Alliances defined joint defences.

We are currently working on this basis; the Icelandic government will operate the air defence system and carry the associated costs.

Iceland no longer enjoys the military protection provided by a permanent military presence and must therefore provide for its own defence. We need to develop our own expertise and our own assessment of risks and defence needs and thereby prepare ourselves for the political decisions needed in the coming years. We will not wage war against anyone; we will not militarise; but we will look after our air space and territorial waters.

It is precisely with a view to developing our own Icelandic expertise that I have established an interdisciplinary working group, with the participation of three government ministries, which has been assigned the task of preparing a detailed and professional risk assessment for Iceland. The work is modelled on similar work in other countries, such as in Ireland and Norway, and the working group will draw on the best available knowledge in the field in close collaboration with security research institutions in Iceland’s partner states. Regular meetings are planned with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Althing, although no parliamentarians are members of the group. Open seminars will be held as well, and a special information gateway will be opened on the Foreign Ministry website for this work. Dr. Valur Ingimundarson will lead the group, with Alyson Bailes, former head of SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, serving as special permanent advisor. The completion of the group’s work is scheduled for next autumn.

The group’s purpose is not to conjure up imagined threats and militarise the country with unneeded defences. Iceland’s lack of a military was from the outset a declared condition for our membership of NATO and this condition is still in full effect and known to everyone. We will follow the assessment of NATO regarding the need for an air defence system and regular surveillance by Allied aircraft as long as that is the conclusion based on the best knowledge and the best available information.

Following the change in our security environment, the Icelandic government has followed a strategy based on four major components:

·        First, by taking over the essential NATO defence activities in Iceland;

·        Second, by reinforcing administrative responsibility and increasing democratic transparency;

·        Third, by increasing co-operation with neighbouring states,

·        Fourth, by increasing participation in the work of multinational organisations.

 The Bilateral Defence Agreement with the United States is virtually unique in global state relations in recent decades, and its value is significant for the defence of Iceland. However, the Agreement does not constitute a direct responsibility against any threats other than conventional military threats. For this reason, the core of our new task here in Iceland is to establish security through international co-operation.



Changed Security Environment


Ladies and gentlemen,

None doubts the transformation in recent years of the international security environment. It is safe to say, that in the past fifteen years all the military powers of the world and international organisations have undergone a thorough revision of their functions. The concept of security is no longer restricted to territorial defence; the concept is much wider and extends to coming to terms with new global threats. Individual states will not by themselves prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, international crime, the negative impact of climate change, poverty and destitution, nor the threat posed by failed states.

The Defence Agreement with the United States applies in wartime; it concerns first and foremost conventional warfare. Our new task in Iceland, in essence, concerns primarily the creation of security with respect to the global threats previously mentioned. This is only possible through active international co-operation.

 At the same time, domestic public security, police matters and civil defence are nothing new to us; their history extends back to the first policemen patrolling the streets of Reykjavík in the nineteenth century. As a result of the changes in our security environment, these domestic security tasks have become an important part and parcel of our security.

The defence of individual states has probably never been as dependent on international relations as they are now. In practice, NATO is no longer a strict Collective Defence Organization, but a Collective Security Organization as well. There, as in most other international organisations, supranational features are unavoidably becoming more evident. The new threats and risks of the 21st century recognise no borders and call for closer cohesion and more efficient responses.

Security can only be brought about by attacking the roots of conflict. The worst areas of conflict in the world, in Darfur, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, share the characteristic that people are in need of water, that the soil is drying up, that people are pulling up stakes to find new land, to find water and sustenance. This gives rise to cruel and seemingly endless conflict. Climate change is therefore a security issue.  

As Foreign Minister, I have repeatedly stated in speech and writing that in politics the boundaries between international and domestic affairs are diminishing rapidly. It could be argued that in the 21st century, world affairs are simultaneously internal affairs, and domestic undertakings are global undertakings.

This is nowhere more true than in matters of defence and security.

In a security environment where threats respect no borders and call for multinational solutions and co-operation, active participation in multilateral security cooperation will be of key importance for Iceland.

And when peace-building, support for democracy and social infrastructure are at the core of the security policy of international organisations, Icelanders can step forward fully confident that they possess proven knowledge, experience and know-how.

It is unanimously agreed, that the security structures of Europe and the world are transforming. This has become intimately clear to me as I have experienced international developments, and it also emerged clearly here in Reykjavík at the successful NATO Parliamentary Assembly last October, which the Icelandic press covered in considerable detail.

This transformation may lead to new defence structures in some areas, and new types of international action.

The justification of NATO’s “out-of-area” missions, such as military interventions for humanitarian reasons, is disputed, but in my opinion they must rest on a sound foundation of international law, which provides for the pre-eminence of human security. A rigorous assessment also needs to be made of the Alliance’s capacity to intervene in courses of events and bring them to a successful conclusion – with primary emphasis on human security, i.e. the fate of civilians, families and children. Human security is a new concept in international law, to which Iceland has given special attention and which it promotes internationally.  

In my assessment, we need more debate here in Iceland on the transformation of NATO’s activities that have already taken place and are currently underway.

As you know, the dispute within NATO concerning the war on terrorism had no precedent in the history of the Alliance, and many NATO states never participated in this war. The United States was also unsuccessful in convincing the UN Security Council of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and therefore received no lawful mandate for the invasion of Iraq. The troubles in Iraq have given much food for thought, particularly in American politics, and lessons have been drawn that will in all likelihood have a significant impact on the working environment of international organisations.

It is a matter of great satisfaction that Western co-operation is returning to the common understanding that the premise for peace and security is respect for human rights and the fundamental rules of international law, the struggle against poverty in the form of strong development co-operation and effective peacekeeping and rebuilding in conflict areas.  

Also, disarmament is re-emerging as a priority on the international agenda, which is welcome news. In those matters complacency is not an option.

The need for increased involvement of women in security and defence affairs both nationally and in international organisations is now internationally recognised. Security Council Resolution No. 1325 concerns women and security, and organisations of which Iceland is a member, including NATO, have or are on the basis of the resolution devising action plans to engage women in greater numbers in their activities. An action plan based on the resolution is currently being prepared by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and a consultation meeting with NGOs will be held soon.  I would like to use this opportunity to invite the Association for Western Co-operation and Varðberg to participate in this meeting. 



Iceland’s new position


The departure of US military forces from Iceland on 30 September 2006 was one of the many consequences of a changed global security environment.

I do not wish to dwell on the events leading up to the departure of the US military, nor on the time wasted here in Iceland when it had become readily apparent where things were heading.

Fortunately, we are living in peaceful times in our region of the world. The Artic Region is a new core issue of Icelandic foreign policy; there is insufficient time here to do the subject full justice, but I would like to use the opportunity to declare my interest in returning for a separate discussion of the Arctic Region in the new year. When NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer visited Iceland this autumn for the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the Prime Minister and I strongly recommended to him that NATO should focus increased attention on the Arctic Region. It is virtually certain that this will happen, as in fact there are more states who share our opinion.     

As I mentioned earlier, it was the assessment of the NATO Military Committee last summer that it was important for Iceland’s defence and the common defence of the Alliance to continue the operation of the Icelandic Air Defence System (IADS) and that it should be integrated into NATO’s Integrated Air Defence System (NATINADS). There is also the option now of linking the Icelandic system directly to North America.

When the radar system was set up in the eighties it was among the most advanced systems in the world, as Iceland was then a key region in US foreign policy. The facilities and equipment are owned by NATO, and this ownership entails strict rules which Iceland, as a member state, must respect. This places significant restrictions on any possibilities for improved efficiency through a merger with civilian organisations. It is also important to distinguish clearly between military defence activities and civilian activities. For this reason, there are plans to enact a special legislation on a new defence agency which will be responsible for the operation of all NATO facilities in Iceland, for the organisation of defence exercises and for communications which call for confidentiality within the Alliance or which form a part of the co-ordinated responses of NATO states.

Since Iceland took over the operation of the Radar Agency, long-range Russian bombers have ten times flown into the Icelandic sector of the North Atlantic air surveillance area. In two instances they flew around Iceland, and the closest they came to our coast was 35 nautical miles. In each instance, the air defence system monitored the Russian aircrafts and their flight paths and communicated information to the appropriate organisations in Iceland and in the member states of the Alliance.

Russia is a partner state of NATO, and neither Iceland nor other NATO states regard this return of the long-range bombers as a threat. However, the fact cannot be ignored that the flights of these aircraft have not been notified in advance. We have therefore submitted our comments on these activities, both bilaterally and within NATO.

In addition to the radars, Iceland has undertaken to operate a separate security area at Keflavik Airport, and the assumption is that the proposed defence agency will be responsible for the operation of the area. It is the site of the control centre of the Icelandic Air Defence System and of sophisticated facilities for the conduct of exercises relating to the defence of the country.

This is intended to comply with the decision of the NATO Permanent Council of last 26 July concerning the implementation of air policing around Iceland, which assumes that four fighter aircraft or more from NATO member states will be based in Iceland four times a year for up to three weeks each time.

Already, important member states have confirmed their willingness to participate in air policing activities in Iceland. France will deploy aircrafts to Iceland for five to six weeks in the first half of 2008. The United States will deploy aircrafts next summer and again in the summer of 2009 for two or three weeks each time. Denmark and Spain have issued a general declaration of intent concerning participation in 2009, and Norway will consult further with the Icelandic government on participation. Furthermore, Poland will deploy a flight to Iceland in 2010.

These actions – continuing the operation of the Iceland Air Defence System, linking it to the NATO Air Defence Systems on both sides of the Atlantic, and operating the defence area in Keflavik, e.g. for NATO’s air surveillance – are all in the interest of Iceland’s security. And what is more, air surveillance is now our responsibility and it is conducted in a more dynamic co-operation with our allies than before. 



Co-operation with neighbouring countries


Another important response by the Icelandic government to the changed environment has been the establishment of closer security and defence co-operation with our principal neighbours.

A poll conducted prior to the Meeting of the Nordic Council revealed that 73% of Icelanders want the Nordic co-operation to address security and defence. This is an extremely interesting indication, and a higher proportion than many might have expected.

Because of our close co-operation with the United States over several decades it can be argued that Icelanders have neglected to build up more efficient co-operation with our closest neighbours. For this reason, the actions taken over the last year can be seen as a timely improvement, as it can only be regarded as beneficial for states to co-operate more closely with all its neighbours on common security.

Recently, we have had talks separately with Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Canada, in addition to France and Germany. Already, a bilateral framework agreement has been concluded with Norway and Denmark concerning security and defence co-operation, and plans have already been made for follow up meetings and consultations with other countries.

It should be kept in mind that these are only the first steps of a longer journey, but they are promising steps. Our neighbouring countries have without exception reacted positively to Iceland’s proposals of examining possibilities for further security co-operation. This co-operation can take various forms, from political consultation on international security and defence to co-operation on rescue operations at sea, environment monitoring and participation in peacekeeping, to mention a few examples.

The task ahead is to define further individual projects and define further interfaces of co-operation. We Icelanders are entering this co-operation with a view to contributing to our common security as others do. The criticism that has been heard to the effect that Iceland is now asking to be taken under the wing of other states, appears to be based on some kind of misunderstanding. No one is asking for protection by another country; we are calling for security co-operation that will benefit both parties.

In this context I would like to point out that co-operation with our neighbouring countries is not intended to replace the defence co-operation between Iceland and the United States. Security co-operation with neighbours such as Norway and Denmark is intended as an addition to other defence co-operation.

The departure of the US forces is virtually a textbook example of how circumstances that, on the face of it, appear to be very difficult, in fact represent significant opportunities for innovation. The proposed co-operation on renewable energy sources is a good example of the possibilities that relations between Iceland and the United States have provided and will provide. We are building upon a sixty-year special relationship with the United States, from the time that they recognised the Republic of Iceland in 1944, and we wish to use this relationship for co-operation in the fields of science, trade and culture, to give a few examples, in addition to defence.


More active international participation


The third principal Icelandic reaction to the changed security environment is represented by our emphasis on a more active participation in the work of international organisations. Those days are long past when Iceland was primarily in the role of recipient; we are now full participants and we contribute our share in taking on joint challenges.

Iceland’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council is a clear manifestation of this new thought. In my work over the past months, it has appeared to me that our candidacy has excellent support, although it is too early to make any predictions regarding the outcome of the voting. Iceland benefits from its position as a strong, small democratic state which would be difficult to accuse of conflicting interests when it comes to the peaceful resolution of disputes. It was revealed today in the UN Human Development Report that Iceland is now in first place in the Human Development Index. This position brings responsibilities, as other countries will be looking to our example.

We should also bear in mind that the work itself on the candidacy brings significant benefits. The candidacy represents an opportunity to deepen our knowledge of issues and regions that we have not given much attention to date, but which are undeniably a part of Iceland’s broader long-term security interests.

Iceland’s participation in the work of the United Nations, NATO and the OSCE, in addition to our co-operation with the other Nordic countries and our political consultations with the European Union, are important in this context.  

All of these organisations have their own areas of expertise, so to speak, and each forum has its own significance. Their work is also closely linked.  To give an example, the views that Iceland expresses in the OSCE have an impact on our work in the United Nations, and positions we take in NATO shape our security consultations with the European Union.  Our policies and actions therefore need to be consistent, and decided in a measured manner with common interests in mind. International affairs are not short-term projects; only by pursuing a responsible policy and participating in multinational co-operation can Iceland earn the trust and respect of its partners. Only in this way can it be ensured that Iceland’s viewpoints are considered and our interests taken into account when needed.

NATO’s missions to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan are the Alliance’s most important tasks at present. The mission in Afghanistan enjoyed unprecedented support in the international community. It rests on three pillars: military assistance, development of law enforcement and a judicial system, and the development of social infrastructure. Key spokesmen of NATO in Afghanistan have told me that it is their opinion that the stronger the last two pillars are, the less need there is for the first.  

It should be kept in mind that in spite of the difficulties in bringing security to Afghanistan, the alternative was much worse. Discontinuing the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and departure of the numerous NGOs that are engaged in rebuilding, humanitarian efforts and aid in Afghanistan under the protection of the NATO peacekeeping forces could set off a chain of events that would be many times worse than the current situation.

The fact is also that in spite of everything, much progress has already been made in Afghanistan. Democratic elections have been held, both parliamentary and presidential, approximately 85% of the population now has access to health care, and almost five million refugees have returned to their homes. The situation of women has changed radically; women now represent one third of parliament, and millions of them are now attending school, whereas women’s education was banned under the Taliban reign of terror.  




Esteemed guests

We have an obligation internationally to defend basic values which are universal and independent of religion, ethnic background and economic position.

Concepts such as democracy, freedom, equal rights and human rights are not mere words. They are the foundation of justice and progress throughout the world. They form the core values of the Republic of Iceland and the international organisations of which we are members, such as the Nordic Council, the United Nations, OSCE and NATO. They are the guiding light of our international work, also in the field of security and defence.

Iceland enjoys the full benefits of democratic international co-operation based on the rule of law. It is therefore our moral duty to defend these values and promote them. We must have the ambition and the courage to make our voices heard and express our views, and we must be prepared to follow up our words with actions in the international arena.


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