Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Iceland and Sustainable Development


Halldor Asgrimsson, Minister for Foreign Affairs
Address on Foreign Affairs
Althingi, 26 March 2002

Iceland and Sustainable Development

Mr. President,

As the members of the Althing will be aware of, I have submitted a report on foreign affairs. In my last two foreign affairs addresses I discussed mainly two international developments that have influenced the foreign affairs of Iceland in recent years. These are European integration on the one hand and globalization on the other. I will today focus my address on another important issue, namely sustainable development. However, I will of course be happy to discuss other matters in my report.

I have chosen to address this issue because sustainable development is of such great importance for Iceland. We depend on natural resources for our livelihood, be they fisheries, energy-production, farming or tourism. With ingenuity, knowledge and enterprise we have made extensive use of our natural resources and created a modern society on an equal footing with the best available in Europe. The natural environment is our workplace and in that workplace, sustainable development must have the highest priority.

There are a number of things we can do on our own to promote sustainable development in Iceland, but the fact remains that we will not be able to reach that goal all by ourselves. We live in a world of globalization that makes us constantly dependent on external trends and developments. I need hardly mention the consequences of radioactive pollution in the ocean around us. Our seafood markets would instantly disappear. It matters also greatly what attitude the world community has towards living resources and their utilization. I only have to mention our experience regarding commercial whaling and regrettably, we can find several examples of a similar misinformation regarding fisheries in general. Prevailing international trends and policies in the field of the environment have significant implication for our position in the world community and our possibilities to utilize our valuable natural resources. It is therefore imperative that we continue our active participation in international co-operation that form opinions and policies regarding these important issues of environment and sustainable development.

Sustainable development

It is appropriate to elaborate on sustainable development now as the world community prepares to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro where member states of the United Nations unanimously agreed to the objectives and principles of sustainable development. It is important that the Johannesburg Summit renew our commitments from Rio and makes a significant step forward in global cooperation for sustainable development, especially where the developing countries are concerned.

When the concept of sustainable development emerged on the international agenda, there were many who found it unclear and had doubts about its usefulness or practicality. Experience has shown, however, that the principal ideas of the concept is gaining hold, both in international cooperation and in policies of most, if not all states. The utility of the concept is exactly that it contains a vision which is flexible enough so that it may be adapted to new and fast changing circumstances.

Sustainable development, in all simplicity, only means that we live in harmony with our environment and community, with the intention of improving the heritage of our descendants. The idea has its roots in the environment movement of the late 20th century, yet its appearance was also a reaction to it. The movement had not shown satisfactory results, not the least because the objectives of environment protection and economic growth were often pitted against each other as irreconcilable contrasts. Through sustainable development we are actually looking for ways and means to optimize economic and social welfare without damaging the basic resources of the earth or the prospects of future generations to enjoy similar or even greater affluence.

Sustainable development, therefore, is not a policy blindly focused on environmental protection alone, but a policy aimed at giving human beings and their immediate well being the highest priority. The concept emphasizes that conservation of the natural environment is the prerequisite for continued economic development and the well-being of mankind, but at the same time it has to be kept in mind that a flourishing economy and social well-being are the prerequisites for environmental protection and sustainable utilization of natural resources. Therefore we must continually examine our operations and decisions on economic, social and environmental concerns in context.

Sustainable development in Icelandic society

We Icelanders pride ourselves of being among those countries that strive for sustainable development. We are bound to do so as we build our welfare on our natural resources. No other state can pride itself of meeting 70% of its energy needs by renewable energy sources. And our aim is to do still better in further reducing the share of fossil fuels in our energy profile. Enterprising Icelanders have, in cooperation with foreign investors, placed themselves among pioneers in the use of hydrogen to fuel automobiles and ocean-going vessels.

By utilizing our renewable energy sources -- hydro and geothermal -- we have built up an energy intensive industry that is unique in the world. Greenhousegas emissions by energy intensive industry in Iceland is approximately eight or nine times less than in most other industrialized countries. This was recognized at the Seventh Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Marrakech by the adoption of the decision on single projects with other decisions on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. Governments understood that climate policy must be based on sustainable development and that it would be absurd to prevent the location of energy intensive industry in places where renewable energy sources are abundant. If the rest of the world were in a position to operate energy intensive industry as it is run in Iceland, with renewable energy and best available technology, a giant leap would have been taken towards combating climate change.

Far and wide, our fisheries-policy has received much attention. It has again and again been pointed out as an example of how fishing can be conducted in a sustainable manner, and at the same time optimizing economic efficiency and benefits. Many sad examples can be found, where states have been tempted by short-term interests which have led to over-fishing of their fish stocks, or where states have supported a simple protectionist policy, undermining the entire fishing industry. A sustainable fishing-policy aims to optimize at the same time economic gains, job security and productivity of fish stocks.

Our knowledge and experience in the fields of renewable energy and the fishing industry has always been commended in the OECD Environmental Performance Reviews. Indeed, the OECD is the principal forum of the industrialized countries to develop ways and means to harness the market and the economy in the interest of sustainable development. In that respect, transferable quotas have been highlighted as efficient and effective means to reduce emissions of air pollutants and in promoting sustainable utilization of natural resources.

A large majority of the people of Iceland are of the unambiguous opinion that all our living marine resources should be utilized in a sustainable manner, including marine mammals. We have placed emphasis on the active participation in international cooperation on the whaling-issue, within the framework of international organizations dealing with these issues. We are active in the growing activity of the North-Atlantic Marine Mammals Organization, NAMMCO. Last year we re-joined the International Whaling Commission, albeit with reservation concerning the moratorium on commercial whaling. We were of the opinion that it was about time that we re-joined IWC, mindful of the increasing support of sustainable whaling and, of course, it could only be in our interest to take part in debates and to have influence on eventual decisions taken by the IWC.

The 2001 annual meeting of the IWC decided to reject the Icelandic reservation and, consequently, our membership of the Commission. We are of the view that such a decision is outside the competence of the Commission and, therefore, not valid. The decision cannot in any way affect Iceland's position as a member of the Commission. The present situation at IWC is that some member states acknowledge Iceland's membership while others do not. Therefore, to obtain as comprehensive an agreement as possible regarding our membership in the IWC before the next annual meeting in Shimonoseki in May, we have had bi-lateral consultations with several of the member states to reinforce our position.

There is an increased understanding of the need for an ecosystem based approach to the utilization of living marine resources. In the autumn of 2001, the Icelandic Government, in cooperation with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization hosted an international conference on responsible fisheries in the marine ecosystem. Both governmental representatives and scientists agreed unanimously on the dire necessity of an ecosystem approach in the management of living marine resources, where the effects of fishing on the ecosystem and of the ecosystem on fishing are equally taken into account. This is exactly the point of view that Icelandic scientists and fisheries administration have been stressing in discussions on whaling. As whales are a part of the marine ecosystem, utilization of whales can only be a natural part of a sustainable fisheries policy.

Certainly, we in Iceland have not always been in total agreement on every project or undertaking. But the nation has been unanimous in that we are obliged to utilize our natural resources in a responsible manner and that our industries should meet the requirements of sustainable development. We are in the process of finalizing a new and improved national sustainable development strategy. It is also a pleasure to note how the local authorities and the general public have been active in promoting sustainable development in Icelandic society. About 40 local authorities are now engaged in preparing and implementing Local Agenda 21 in order to promote sustainable development in their own communities. In addition to that, 28 local councils have agreed to the so-called Olafsvik-declaration and thereby made the commitment to implement the principle of sustainable development in physical planning as well as in all other decision making on community affairs, and to engage local communities, NGO}s, unions and businesses to join forces and take active part in all projects associated with Local Agenda 21.

Sustainable development -- a key factor in Iceland's foreign policy

During the last decade, Iceland has participated actively in international cooperation on sustainable development, be it under the auspices of the United Nations, in cooperation among the Nordic countries, within OECD or in European cooperation.

Iceland was among the first countries elected to the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. We have now been elected to the Commission for the second time. Established initially to oversee the implementation of the agreements of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the CSD}s principle task now is to prepare the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg later this year. We have taken an active part in the work of the Commission with a view to doing all that we can to help making the Summit successful. We have stressed the necessity that the Summit addresses all the three dimensions of sustainable development, namely the social, economical and environmental. More specifically, we support that poverty eradication be the principal issue of the Summit. We have also emphasized the utilization of renewable energy sources in order to reduce greenhousegas emissions and other air pollution from industry and transport and to meet energy needs in the developing countries. Furthermore, we have stressed the importance that the Summit address pressing issues regarding the protection and sustainable use of the oceans.

It is not without a reason that we have for years fought for the protection and sustainable use of the oceans. The oceans are the foundation of all life on earth and their living resources provide the basis of the well being of the Icelandic nation. We must take an active part in the international debate on the oceans. It is of vital importance for our interests that this debate takes sustainable use as its point of departure and that it takes place where we can actively participate in the formation of policies and ideas.

We have had the good fortune to influence international discussions and cooperation on the affairs of the oceans, both concerning actions to prevent pollution of the seas and issues relating to utilization of living marine resources. A recent example is the Reykjavik Conference on Responsible Fishing in the Marine Ecosystem. Regrettably, there is a tendency to respond to a deteriorating condition of fish stocks by protectionism. We Icelanders have so sadly experienced the consequences of that approach in the whaling issue. By soliciting the cooperation of the fisheries nations in promoting sustainable fisheries worldwide, we demonstrate responsibility and leadership. This we did by hosting the Reykjavik Conference, without which the contribution of the fisheries nations to the Johannesburg Summit would have been far less significant. In the Reykjavik Declaration, the fisheries nations agreed to strengthen still further sustainable fisheries by adopting ecosystem based management and thereby eliminate irresponsible fisheries. The Government of Iceland was requested by the conference to bring the Reykjavik Declaration to the attention of the Johannesburg Summit.

Sustainable development in the Northern hemisphere

Next October, Iceland will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council and will host the Council Secretariat for the next two years or until fall 2004. The Arctic Council is unique. It is a regional intergovernmental body, whose sole aim is to promote sustainable development. The Council was established on the basis of the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, but was meant to broaden the cooperation of the Arctic States to cover all aspects of sustainable development. The environmental cooperation of the Council has been fruitful, but we feel that the social, economic and cultural aspects of the cooperation need to be strengthened. That will be the objective during our chairmanship, which will be aimed at cooperation to improve the viability of communities in the Arctic Region. We should look to the opportunities in the regions. The key to meeting the various challenges and obstacles in the region are successful social and economic development and a positive adaptation to the natural circumstances of the region.

The Arctic Council has enjoyed excellent cooperation with the Nordic Council of Ministers which will continue. The Nordic Council of Ministers recently adopted a landmark strategy on sustainable development in the Nordic Countries. The strategy aims at making all sectors responsible for taking into account in their activity, the viewpoints and aims of sustainable development. This is exactly the key factor in reaching the goal of sustainable development, that is, that business, stakeholders and local authorities work together with the government at promoting the basic ideas and principles of sustainable development.

A continued cooperation between of the Arctic Council and the European Union is also necessary. Cooperation with the EU is particularly important in the fields of research, science and technical knowledge, which are so vital for further development and improved viability of communities in the Arctic region.

Development cooperation and sustainable development

Globalization along with last year's incidents makes international cooperation for sustainable development even more important. This applies especially to aid to the developing countries and reconstruction in the countries undergoing transition to market economies.

Emphasis has been placed on strengthening our development cooperation. A few years ago the government decided to triple its appropriations to the Icelandic International Development Agency (ICEIDA) during the period 1998-2003. The Government also decided to join the efforts of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to cancel outstanding debts of the world's poorest countries (the HIPIC programme). Some of these States are so deeply in debt that without this cancellation, there is hardly any hope of them ever becoming self-reliant. It is also expected that Iceland join the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), which grants the developing countries additional funds needed for projects concerning global environmental problems.

The very important United Nations Conference on the Financing of Development, ended recently in Monterey, Mexico. The Conference marked a watershed in international cooperation on the financing of development, both in the developing countries as well as in countries with economies in transition. We need to review our future priorities in the area of development cooperation, in the light of the Monterey Consensus.

In Iceland's bi-lateral development-assistance, emphasis has been placed on supporting sustained economic activity, improved governance, sustainable use and conservation of natural resources, health care and education as well as improving democracy, human rights and the status of women. All these issues are prerequisites for reinforcing the foundations of sustainable development in the poorest states of the world.

Gender equality and improved status of women are of particular importance. Experience shows that if development-assistance is directed to women and they are granted right to equal education and participation in decision-making, progress is much more probable. The fact is, that gender discrimination limits women's access to natural resources and finances and denies them property rights. It is now generally recognized that gender discrimination is an obstacle to sustainable development.

Women comprise approximately 70% of the 1,3 billion who live in desperate poverty. This must change. UNIFEM, the UN development fund for women, has made great strides towards empowering women and improving their status. We have enjoyed very good cooperation with UNIFEM in the reconstruction work in Kosowo, where Icelandic equal rights specialists have during the last two years been working on improving the condition of women and children. We are now in the process of exploring further possibilities for similar cooperation between the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and UNIFEM in other regions where improvement is needed, f. inst. in Afghanistan.

We are in a position to disseminate far more knowledge and experience to the developing countries. Through the United Nations University Geothermal Training Programme, Icelandic experts have provided students from 38 countries with valuable knowledge on the utilization of geothermal energy to meet the energy needs of these countries. There is a growing interest in the utilization of geothermal energy to meet energy needs. This is partly due to worries about climate change but also because developing countries and countries of Eastern Europe possess geothermal energy. We see here almost unlimited possibilities for cooperation between Icelandic companies and the Icelandic International Development Agency. In this connection, recent contracts made with Hungary and with China, as well as the increasing cooperation with Russia in this field are well worth mentioning.

Thanks to the excellent results shown by the United Nations University Geothermal Training Programme, Iceland was given the task of establishing the United Nations University Fisheries Training Programme. The Programme's activities have increased steadily year by year and, to date, students from 18 countries have graduated from the programme. International cooperation in support of development assistance in the field of sustainable fisheries leaves much to be desired. It is imperative that international financial institutions and funds provide finances and other support in this area. Next year, Iceland will take a seat on the board of governors of the World Bank on behalf of the Nordic Countries and the Baltic States. This will be a good opportunity to encourage increased activity on behalf of the Bank in supporting the buildup of sustainable fisheries in the developing countries.

It is important that Iceland gets more involved in international cooperation for development assistance in the area of fisheries, not merely because we possess valuable knowledge in this field but also it is in our own interest that nations lose no time in reverting to sustainable fisheries. Globalization not only concerns international trade, it is also manifest in international policies and trends. Overfishing and the consequent deterioration of living marine resources, where ever in the world, influence the international debate and public opinion on fisheries. It is imperative for us as a fisheries nation that the world community trusts fisheries nations that are responsible. Protectionism will only gain more adherence if we do not succeed in halting excessive fishing and subsequent deterioration of the resources of the oceans.

It is important to engage the private sector in developmental assistance. It is the private sector that has the technology and know-how that is so important for the developing countries in building sustainable development. Experience also shows that participation by the private sector is more likely to ensure the continuation of projects, even when official aid has been terminated.

In the autumn of 2000 an agreement was made between the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the New Ventures Fund and the Icelandic International Development Agency, on cooperation aimed at creating synergies between development aid and market-outreach by Icelandic businesses in the developing and recently developed states. The project aims at encouraging Icelandic businesses to invest and establish business relations in countries that benefit from Iceland's bi-lateral aid, as well as increasing business connections with other developing countries. Towards this end we have joined the World Bank programme of cooperation with small and medium size enterprises (EOS: Enterprise Outreach Service). We will explore further opportunities of cooperation with Icelandic companies and NGO's on development projects and possible cooperation with the Nordic Development Fund (NDF) and the Nordic Investment Bank (NIB).

The World Trade System

It is sometimes said that international trade is one of the most important driving forces for development. This is partly true, but this assertion says little about the actual quality of development. Markets are often blind towards the consequences they can launch. Therefore, it is the responsibility of Governments to ensure that the global trade regime supports sustainable development but does not undermine it.

The aspiration to make the World Trade System support sustainable development enjoy increasing support within the World Trade Organization (WTO). Iceland supports this view. At the Ministerial at Doha last autumn, agreement was reached to begin a new round of negotiations on international trade with the aim to further decrease trade barriers and to include more sectors in the Rules of the WTO. One of the decisions taken was to start negotiations on the removal of subsidies in fisheries, something we have been trying to reach an agreement about for a long time. High priority will be placed on these negotiations, since the removal of fisheries subsidies is not only vital for our trade interests but will also reinforce our position in international discussions on fisheries and sustainable utilization of living marine resources.

Iceland also supported the decision to start negotiations on two issues concerning trade and environment. Firstly, there was the agreement to clarify the legal position of international environmental agreements versus the regulations of the World Trade Organization in order to avoid contradictions between these two sets of rules. This is an important step, taken to ensure that neither environmental agreements nor WTO Rules are in conflict with the objective of sustainable development and responsible utilization of natural resources. Secondly, negotiations will be launched on tariffs on environmental goods and services.

The Doha Agreement includes important provisions on assisting the developing countries to adapt themselves to the international trade regime and facilitate their taking advantage of free trade in order to improve and elevate the current standard of living for their people. It is vitally important for the developing countries to be parties to the World Trade Organization and that they be encouraged to do so, f. inst through technical consultation and improved markets access. Iceland has in this respect granted to developing countries the same trade-terms as the EEA-states have enjoyed.

In making these decisions, the World Trade Organization has taken a groundbreaking step towards making the world trade system support sustainable development worldwide, in conformity with the goals set in Rio de Janeiro. Iceland welcomes this development.

Sustainable development -- the hallmark of Europe

The general idea of sustainable development has gained a foothold world-wide, but the European countries have been in the forefront, at home and internationally. It is with the states of Europe that Iceland relates the most concerning policy development in support of sustainable development.

Through the EEA-agreement, we became participants in the prolific environmental co-operation in Europe. The agreement has brought us effective environmental legislation, which had been sadly lacking. The EU environment legislation and activities have played an important role in protecting the oceans from urban- and industrial pollution in Europe. It is of vital importance for Iceland that the oceans, this important food-source, are kept as clean as possible. It is therefore important for us to be active participants in the development and the implementation of European environment legislation. This is no less important for the local authorities, which are responsible for the implementation of a large part of these laws. Therefore, we have emphasized the participation of the local authorities and their involvement in European cooperation.

The EEA Agreement further gives us admission to the prolific science and research programme of the European Union, much of which concerns environmental protection and sustainable utilization of natural resources. Iceland contributes to a special development fund which was established to assist the poorer states of the EU, among others in the field of the environment. In so doing, we participate in the environmental improvement of Europe and at the same time we create opportunities for Icelandic companies to participate in special projects, partly financed by this development fund.

The EU has now taken a step further, by including sustainable development as one of the chief aims of the Maastricht- and Amsterdam Agreements. The EU has also agreed on a special strategy, the so-called Cardiff-strategy, on the adaptation of all projects and policies to the aims of sustainable development.

It is important that Iceland continue its cooperation with the EU in advancing sustainable development, both within the European Economic Area and in international cooperation.

Mr. President,
Sustainable development is a vision, that is constantly evolving. By necessity, it is a never-ending project since we will constantly have to react to new situations and to initiate changes. We in Iceland must assume our share of the responsibility and be active participants in the advancement of sustainable development. Our natural resources are now, as before, the foundation of our economy. And we are responsible for the rational use of these resources. Only by so doing are we able to enjoy our present prosperity and guarantee our children and grandchildren the same opportunities we have had to utilize these resources.

It is of vital importance for us to be active participants in international cooperation on issues concerning the environment and sustainable development. Experience has taught us that in every issue, where we have had well-defined interests to protect and where we have made our voices heard, we have done so with good results. We will do well by recalling our important role in the drafting of the Convention on the Law of the Sea and in subsequent negotiations on the agreement for Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. We have also taken considerable initiative in international cooperation on the protection of the oceans, such as the drafting of the Global Plan of Action to protect the Marine Environment from Land-based Sources and the Stockholm-convention on persistent organic pollutants. With good cause and solid arguments we can exert our influence. Thus, we will be shaping our own future in cooperation with other nations.


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