Address on Foreign Affairs
by H.E. Ms. Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir Minister for Foreign Affairs
and External Trade
Delivered at the Althing on 8 April 2008
Iceland should step forward boldly
The Icelandic Foreign Minister is charged with four principal fields of work which in many countries have their own dedicated ministries. These are international relations, international trade, defense, and international development co-operation.
It is important for us to turn this diversity of tasks into a strength for Icelandic interests through clear strategic planning.
The government manifesto expresses support for increased liberalisation of international trade, for Iceland to be in the forefront in the campaign against pollution of the sea and in international efforts to combat climate change. Moreover, respect for human rights, increased development co-operation and the peaceful resolution of disputes are defined as new cornerstones of Iceland´s foreign policy.
Since this government took office just under a year ago, systematic work has been in progress on implementing these policies, and I refer to my report, which was submitted earlier here to the Althing. The focus has been on proactive instead of reactive measures, on consistency and resolve in our diplomatic efforts. We have emphasised the importance of dynamic international co-operation based on the principles of international law and responsible participation in international collaboration based on Iceland’s three principal strengths:
1. Experience in the sustainable use of marine resources;
2. Expertise in the use of renewable energy sources;
3. Important historical milestones in the campaign for gender equality and the strong image of Icelandic women.
One example of a new project in the Foreign Ministry which is based on this methodology is what we have called the Small Island Development Project. Small island states are among the communities that are most exposed to climate change, and they are also among the poorest countries in the world. Our goal is to address the needs and wishes of these states in the Caribbean and the Pacific, and in close co-operation with their people we intend to work on resource management, energy matters, environmental affairs and gender equality.
I would also like to mention here at the start of my address two fundamental legislative bills concerning foreign affairs which are now before the Althing.
First, there is the Defense Bill, and I would like to express my satisfaction at the broad support for the Bill in the Foreign Affairs Committee. Second, I would like to mention the Bill for an Act on Icelandic Development Co-operation, which will align the working environment of Icelanders in the field of international development with highest international standards.
I would also like to report that yesterday the Prime Minister wrote a letter to the chairpersons of the political parties represented in the Althing and announced a new system of regular consultation on national security. The new system calls for meetings in the spring and autumn to discuss the state of and trends in national security, including risk assessment, current issues in international organisations and Iceland’s consultations with principal partners.
These consultations will be supplementary to the already active work of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The consultations represent an implementation of a pledge in the government manifesto. General measures to promote research on security and defense issues continue, with the aim of providing clear overview and the best available knowledge for future decisions.
Need for a dynamic foreign policy
The Prime Minister’s Committee on Iceland´s image abroad delivered its report and recommendations yesterday. The report reveals that although Iceland’s image abroad is generally positive, it is not particularly strong. This means that although those who are familiar with Iceland have a favourable impression of the country, there are too few who fully understand the underlying strength of Icelandic society.
The vacuum surrounding Iceland has been too great, and it has lasted too long, and the foreign media simply fills in the gaps.
It is under such circumstances that the so-called “Icelandic interest spread” is born, and there is a risk that Iceland and everything Icelandic will be caught up in a credibility problem.
Underlying this situation is the perception of Iceland as a rather eccentric and underdeveloped community. There is really only one response to this: Not to remain passive, but to move resolutely forward. Icelandic interests entailed in taking a proactive international approach can now literally be measured in the billions. We need to fill in the gaps ourselves by speaking in clear unambiguous terms and by establishing a positive international reputation.
A nation that manages its economy well, including the use of natural resources, environmental protection and health and education systems has much to offer in international relations. A nation which fulfills its obligation as an active member of the United Nations clearly bases such a record on a firm foundation.
The reason I mention this is that it is sometimes hinted that Iceland should keep a low profile in international affairs and does not have a great deal to contribute. There are still voices that say Iceland should only speak up when its own narrow interests are at stake. This viewpoint may have been appropriate at one time, but it is no longer.
Foreign policy in the 21st century cannot be based on passivity or special interests. Such a policy is not only irresponsible – it is ineffective. The world has changed, Iceland has changed, and there are few who whish to hark back to the past. All the talk that Iceland should not, cannot and must not, is baseless and suggests a lack of confidence.
Iceland is a clear example of a country that has benefited from international co-operation and the work of international organisations. The international Law of the Sea brought us control over Icelandic fishing grounds, international human rights courts brought us significant legal reforms, the integration of the European markets transformed the Icelandic economy for the better, and progress in labour and environmental law benefited Icelandic wage earners and facilitated work on environmental matters.
This progress was not accidental but the reward for unflagging cooperation with other countries. The alternative is to emulate the trolls in Peer Gynt, who never left their mountain. Allow me to quote Henrik Ibsen, with the permission of the Speaker:
Out yonder, under the shining vault,
among men the saying goes: "Man, be thyself!"
At home here with us, 'mid the tribe of the trolls,
the saying goes: "Troll, to thyself be sufficient!"
“Troll to thyself be sufficient?” Respected members, this does not apply to Icelanders, who have always enjoyed their greatest successes in trade and culture when our relations with the rest of the world have been most extensive.
Iceland is currently standing in the crossfire of international finance. We are under observation around the world. These conditions demand a unified determination of the parliament and the nation to make a strong case and reinforce our position.
Africa and the increased role of women
Work is currently in progress in the Foreign Ministry on a comprehensive plan on Icelandic cooperation with Africa. The plan will cover not only various development projects and peace building efforts, but also political relations with African states.
In my opinion, we have to some extent underestimated the political importance of African countries and focused too exclusively on the aid component of our relations with them.
In many places on the African continent there are dynamic societies with increasing economic growth and democratic government. Our political relations with African countries are therefore increasingly important. It should not be forgotten that these are 53 countries which have a significant share of votes in the international community.
During my term as foreign minister I have attended the African Union Summit in Accra in Ghana, in 2007, and again in Addis Ababa in January 2008. Last month, I attended a meeting of the foreign ministers of the Nordic Countries and ten of the most influential democratic states of Africa in Botswana in a political forum organised on the initiative of Anna Lindh, former foreign minister of Sweden.
Last year, Iceland was granted observer status in the African Union. In order to strengthen Iceland’s co-operation with the Union still further, Iceland will send a special envoy to Addis Ababa for the next months. This measure will among other things serve to support our bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The envoy appointed will be Ambassador Svavar Gestsson, former cabinet minister and Ambassador of Iceland to Denmark.
In the course of my visits to Africa I have sensed a strong harmony between the struggle for equal rights for women in various African countries and our corresponding campaign here in the north. Women’s rights, or the lack of them, access to employment and opportunities for financial independence, health and education: these issues are the same everywhere and they affect women globally.
Last month, Liberia’s foreign minister, Olubanke King Akerele, visited Iceland and described vividly the importance of women’s rights to progress in Africa. Releasing groups from chains of oppression – whether national freedom or women’s freedom – sets free vast resources of energy and talent.
Iceland bases its campaign for an increased role for women in peace processes on Security Council Resolution number 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Iceland’s action plan on resolution 1325 was published recently and affects our work in numerous areas. The resolution is a key aspect of Iceland’s bid for a seat on the Security Council.
In this context, I would like to refer to the support for the International Women´s Commission for a just and sustainable Palestine - Israeli peace (IWC), whose representatives visited Iceland recently to discuss the situation in the Middle East. One of the reasons we invited them was to give Icelandic politicians and the general public an opportunity to become acquainted with their work.
Together with women presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers of several countries, I was offered honorary membership of the IWC, and I have decided to take on the obligations that this entails. My visit to the Middle East last summer and my meetings with influential Palestinian women and with members of the Israeli parliament, convinced me to support this cause.
On Friday, I will meet with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At our meeting we will discuss security and defense as well as Arctic issues and the opportunities brought by increased bilateral trade. We will also discuss the role of women in peace processes.
Integrity and steadfastness in foreign affairs
Much has been done to integrate human rights perspectives into our policies and actions into our international work, including peacekeeping, development cooperation, free trade negotiations and environmental affairs.
Today’s conflicts invariably involve human rights. Iceland’s human rights policy must be clear and reasoned. When decisions are made in specific cases, the determining factor should be what is most likely to deliver results.
I mention this here because of the loud demands of a small group of people that Iceland should go further than other European countries and break off diplomatic relations with countries criticised for human rights violations. Such a reaction would not necessarily be effective, but would more likely reduce our influence, thus benefiting no-one. Victims of human rights violations across the world would be no better off.
A willingness to visit regions of conflict, to understand the circumstances and to engage in a frank dialogue with leaders allows us to make our voice heard. Following my meetings in the Middle East I have repeatedly expressed Iceland’s concerns and observations in direct conversations with leaders, either at meetings or in telephone conversations. Iceland should not break off diplomatic relations; Iceland should use them in the interests of peaceful dispute resolution.
In this context I would like to repeat, here in the Althing, what I have already conveyed to the Ambassador of China to Iceland, that it is Iceland’s view that Chinese authorities are bound under international law to respect human rights in Tibet.
In Afghanistan the United Nations conducts is most extensive peacekeeping operation with international security forces led by NATO. The international force is mandated by the Security Council to ensure security and stability so that reconstruction can follow. It should be noted that a number of non-NATO states are actively participating in the international force, including Finland, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Jordan, Switzerland and Austria.
I recently visited Afghanistan. In my travels through the country, and in my conversations with Afghan politicians, representatives of women’s associations and human rights associations and others, I obtained a strong sense of the scope and importance of the Afghanistan issue.
Afghanistan is in many ways a community where the social fabric dates from the 16th or 17th century. For this reason, any attempt to set up a system of government based on a US model, with strong central powers vested in the president, and transpose it to a society of this kind will inevitably face some problems. The president of Afghanistan not only appoints all cabinet ministers but all district governors as well, and the minister of the interior appoints all mayors. This means that these leaders are working without their closest community having had opportunity to vote for them; they are working under limited democratic control.
Any move towards democracy is of course a tremendous step forward from the harsh dictatorship of the Taliban, but the international community will have to seek new ways to strengthen the culture of democracy in the country. This is where Iceland should contribute.
I observed other obvious problems, and I would like to specify three of them: A lack of co-ordination among the international forces, the necessity of matching the work of the international force with the needs of the community, and corruption in the administration.
Obviously, peacekeeping and reconstruction under these circumstances are challenging. A number of people have asked, “why is Iceland involved in a work of this kind? What is the purpose of Iceland in Afghanistan?”
In my opinion these questions are easily answered.
First, stability in Afghanistan is a security concern for the entire international community, which knows from experience the consequences of failed states becoming safe havens for criminal elements.
Second, there is an unprecedented international consensus on the reconstruction work in Afghanistan. This consensus was evident at the NATO Summit in Bucharest, which was attended by about sixty countries. The security forces are in the country under a mandate from the United Nations and at the request of the Afghan government. Iceland is a member state of both the UN and NATO, and should carry a fair share of the burden with others.
Third, Iceland’s contribution makes a difference for the people of Afghanistan. It is our duty as human beings to render assistance to the people of this war-torn and poverty-stricken country and not to run in the other direction. Indifference is not an option.
Recently, the Secretary General of the United Nations appointed the Norwegian Kai Eide, who is known to us from his good work, as his special representative in Afghanistan. Eide possesses extensive experience of post-conflict situations and there are high hopes that he will succeed in strengthening the international co-operation in the country and achieving improved results.
There is general agreement among the Nordic countries, including Iceland, to coordinate their contributions and actions in Afghanistan.
After my trip, I am convinced that Icelanders are doing outstanding work in Afghanistan. For instance, in a poor country the construction of 20 small hydropower stations makes a great difference to the quality of life and public health. Social advice of all kinds and legal aid, in particular to women, also constitute excellent work. I am proud of the work of Icelandic peacekeepers in Afghanistan after seeing it with my own eyes.
Iceland is preparing a long-term strategy for its support for the reconstruction work in Afghanistan for the period 2008-2010. The strategy involves new points of emphasis. First, the strategy calls for a longer-term commitment extending over three years, which will facilitate organisation and implementation.
Second, Icelandic peacekeepers will focus primarily on human rights, development projects and reconstruction work in co-operation with international agencies, NGOs and the local population. I hope soon to be able to present this strategy to the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council
The final stretch of Iceland’s bid for a seat on the UN Security Council has begun. Next October, a vote will be held between Iceland, Austria and Turkey for two seats in the group of Western European and Other States for the years 2009-2010.
Our bid has been well received. Iceland already has written declarations of support from over 100 of the 192 member states of the United Nations; a 2/3 majority vote is required.
The experience of other states shows that there are no guarantees in secret ballots of this kind, nor is it safe to declare victory until the ballots have all been counted.
For obvious reasons, the Icelandic government is working on the assumption that Iceland could take a seat on the Security Council at the start of next year. This year, the Foreign Service has been working on the preparation of a catalogue of issues and analyses of the principal subjects of discussion in the Security Council. These include 31 conflicts and six principal categories of issues. In the event that we win the election, I can confidently say that we will be ready to hit the ground running.
The Icelandic government has made a point of mounting a campaign focused on substance and issues. Iceland’s principal points of emphasis in the campaign are protection of civilians in regions of conflict, particularly women and children, the increased role of women in peace negotiations and peace building, and the importance of addressing threats to security in the widest possible context. In addition, Iceland intends to work toward improved and more transparent procedures in the Security Council.
Iceland’s campaign is in part the campaign of a small country stressing the importance of international law in relations between states. It is the campaign of a country that, on the basis of sound utilisation of natural resources, has progressed from poverty to prosperity, and the campaign of a country without a military that is willing to make a contribution to the peaceful resolution of disputes and to tackling the roots of conflict.
Strong cost containment measures have been observed in the conduct of our campaign, and the total cost now amounts to ISK 250-300 million since the year 2001. We have heard that our competitors are waging an expensive election campaign. I would like to assure you that Iceland will keep to its plans and principles on the final stretch.
The bid for a seat on the Security Council has already brought benefits. Iceland’s relations with other countries, far and near, have intensified. Since Iceland declared its candidacy in 1998, diplomatic relations have been established with 75 countries. This alone has had an immeasurable effect on the promotion of our views and interests. Participation in the campaign has given us access.
Although the Foreign Service is carrying the main weight of the Security Council bid, there have been significant contributions from others. Cabinet ministers and a number of other people have been unflagging in their efforts to promote the campaign and generate support. The President of Iceland has also made valuable contributions. In this context I would like to refer to the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding conferred on him yesterday by the government of India, which is a well deserved recognition of his work.
Icelanders have always agreed on the importance of participating in the work of the United Nations. The bid for a seat on the Security Council is one of the most demanding tasks ever undertaken by Iceland in its international relations. Support for the bid has increased significantly here at home. It is important for the Security Council bid to have the greatest possible consensus, and I hope that an objective public discussion will continue to build such a consensus.
Let us accept the challenge
Iceland’s history through the centuries has taught us that our country, its economy and culture, tend to flourish when relations and co-operation with other countries are at their most extensive. Never before has this truth been as clear and obvious as now, when economic affairs and international affairs coincide. Through a dynamic foreign policy on all fronts, based on Iceland’s strengths, we can take advantage of opportunities and overcome the challenges we are faced with. Let us welcome these challenges.