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Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Report on Foreign and International Affairs

Mr. Speaker

When the Progressive Party and the Independence Party formed a government in 1995, the international community was still coping with the consequences of the end of the Cold War and the expectations and problems that ensued when the iron heel of Communism was lifted from the states of Central and Eastern Europe. At that time it was the prevailing sentiment in the West that ahead lay a future of co-operation between free states combined with the globalisation of trade. It is interesting in this context to recall a book published by an American scholar, Francis Fukuyama, in the nineties entitled The End of History, where it is maintained that the end of the Cold War and the victory of liberal democracy marked the end of ideological rivalry in the world. The book was widely praised, and was in many respects indicative of the prevailing mood in the Western World down to recent years.

When we look back on recent months and years and the recent atrocities in Spain, it is clear that the idea that ideological rivalry has come to an end in the world approaches childish naivety. Western Europe enjoyed stability and security in the decades of the Cold War which was rooted in the common defences and solidarity of the western part of the continent. After the Cold War, a long-awaited unarmed peace appeared to be within our grasp. Now this stability and security is threatened, not by a superpower beyond our borders, but by extremists who will spare no one. Their ideology targets the very democracy and tolerance which constitute the foundation of Western values. The aggressive rhetoric and brutal acts of these extremists have confirmed to us that their objectives are not confined to their own home turf, but are global. Westerners, especially Europeans, tend to look for rational explanations and compromise-based solutions to conflicts. The question is frequently posed whether the violence is not the consequence of the US military presence in Saudi Arabia or the support of the US government for Israel, or the intervention in Iraq. None of these explanations will do, however, as the US military has largely withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, and large-scale terrorist attacks were launched against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania at the same time as the peace process in the Middle East was at its apex six years ago. Also, the opposition to the intervention in Iraq cannot explain the deadly terrorist attacks of the same extremists from the ranks of the Sunni Muslims on Shi’ite Muslims and Kurds, who represent the vast majority of the Iraqi people. Even less can support for the intervention in Iraq be at the root of threats by Islamic terrorists of attacks on France. Europeans will have to face the fact that not all human behaviour is rational.

Western governments have been criticised for trying to improve public security by combating the extremist forces and attacking their bastions instead of showing a will to compromise. The people who voice this opinion completely misunderstand the dangers that we are facing. They appear to assume that the terrorists are the legitimate representatives of the Islamic culture, in spite of their mass murders in Algeria, Indonesia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Turkey. Extremists have come from all religions and they have existed at all times, and it is therefore important to distinguish clearly between Moslems on the one hand and Islamic extremists on the other hand. However, we cannot allow political correctness to blind us to the obvious social problems in many predominantly Muslim states. What is it that people want to negotiate with Al Qaida or their host states? The extermination of the State of Israel? Regression in equal rights of the sexes or the rights of homosexuals? The prevalence of religious law over secular law? Let us not forget what the political objectives of Al Qaida and other similar organisations are. It is utterly incomprehensible that it should occur to any enlightened human being to negotiate with these forces of darkness, because the substance of such negotiations could only involve the fundamental principles of the democracies. No amount of obfuscation will suffice to hide the fact that all talk of negotiation inevitably entails compromise, rewards the terrorists and desecrates the memory of their victims. This would leave us only a small step away from the morally skewed misconception that the victims somehow brought the terrorist attacks on themselves and that it is they who are responsible for them rather than the fiends who committed them.

It is also frequently maintained that it will not do simply to attack the terrorists themselves and that the causes of terrorism must also be eradicated. This is often accompanied by statements to the effect that the hatred is rooted in oppression and deprivation. But in fact most of the better known members of Al Qaida and similar organisations are neither poor nor uneducated, and they have no use for western democracy or human rights. In their homelands they seek to overthrow current secular authorities in order to establish a religious totalitarianism; outside their homelands they seek to undermine communities which are not governed by the same religious fanaticism. Their disregard for other people’s lives is derived from the same motivation as the destructive acts of the Nazi supremacists and the self-appointed Communist elite in the last century; to moral blindness of this kind there is no rational response – not then, and not now. Comparisons with the armed resistance of colonised countries and oppressed minorities in totalitarian states are ludicrous.

It is certainly true that extremism and violence can feed on despair and desolation, but let us remember that the international community is trying to improve conditions in war-torn Muslim states in opposition to Islamic extremists whose objective is to bring about maximum insecurity and distress as a means of gaining power. They do not want democratic government or reconstruction in the Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, nor do they desire peaceful co-habitation in the Balkans. It is therefore vital for the support of the international community to return results precisely in these regions.

To be sure, the democratic states have a duty to promote conflict-prevention based on fair relations between states and nations, as Europeans themselves know best of all from bitter experience. Such an approach can ease regional and international tension, but, for the reasons I mentioned earlier, it can never bring about a perfect level of security. As always, the Icelandic government supports peaceful solutions to regional conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, but these solutions have to be reached in opposition to extremists, who reject a peaceful solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. But at the same time that the democratic states combat terrorism, they must also condemn all kinds of provocative counter-measures, including summary executions.

Mr. Speaker

It is crucial at this time that the democracies of the world should not break ranks and that the struggle against international terrorism should be intensified substantially by all legal means. All states, small and large, must contribute to that struggle. The declared and steadfast resolve to defeat the terrorists, even if it takes years or decades, is an absolute condition for success. At the same time, the democratic states must be careful not to serve the interests of the terrorists inadvertently by pointless curtailment of the freedom of their own citizens or unwarranted severity towards citizens of other states.

Iceland has stood by its neighbours in the struggle against this new threat that lies in ambush and attacks the innocent. One aspect of this struggle was the ratification and implementation of relevant international instruments in the course of intensified efforts following the terrorist attack on the USA in 2001, when the provisions of these international agreements were incorporated into Icelandic law. Iceland has also led consultations on preparations for practical measures against international terrorism within the OSCE. Iceland will have to work closely with other democratic states, particularly within NATO, the European Union, the United Nations and the OSCE, on further defensive measures to ensure public security against this threat. It should be kept in mind that international terrorism and organised crime often go hand in hand, and therefore great emphasis has been placed on strengthening internal security, e.g. at Keflavik International Airport and through the reinforcement of the Police Special Forces.

The atrocities in Spain occurred at a time when national attention was being focused on Iceland’s own security and defence. The Icelandic government has contributed to the necessary transformation of NATO and strengthened its relations with individual states, organisations and institutions, including the European Union. It is clear that Iceland will, as never before, need to count on the collective defence commitments of NATO, but in order for those commitments to hold up for the future, all the members, large and small, will have to be contributors as well as recipients. It has already been shown that even though Iceland’s contribution to the actions of the Alliance may be relatively small, they can nevertheless have great importance for the Alliance as a whole, in addition to strengthening the solidarity laid down in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

As regards the bilateral defence co-operation between Iceland and the United States, the efforts of some years ago, which were designed to ensure that reasonable changes in the composition of the Iceland Defence Force in light of changed circumstances should be compatible with continued defence preparedness in Iceland, resulted in a successful outcome. Since then the Icelandic government has been prepared to enter into substantive discussions with the United States Government on the means to preserve a credible defence preparedness in Iceland for the long term. It is well known that representatives of the two governments have held preparatory meetings, but substantive discussions based on a specific minimum capability have not yet started. It is the firm position of the Icelandic Government that a credible defence preparedness in Iceland is a perequisite for continued defence co-operation. The threat posed to all western democracies by international terrorism has hardened this resolve. A token defence might give a false sense of security and could therefore be worse than nothing. This does not change the fact that Icelanders will themselves have to take responsibility for their internal security and they must show a willingness to increase their role in the support of external national defence, particularly by means of increased participation in peacekeeping missions conducted by NATO.

In recent years, the concept of security has become much wider than before, and it is clear that a causal relationship can exist between such diverse issues as security, human rights, economic development, resource management and environmental affairs, to give a few examples. Thus, material contributions by Iceland, or the presence of Icelandic personnel in places of conflict or crisis, can promote local or even regional security and serve to foster respect for human rights, economic and social progress and the sustainable use of natural resources. In the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, work has been in progress on developing a comprehensive vision along these lines, which is reflected, among other things, in Iceland’s candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The Icelandic government’s emphasis on these issues is based on unselfish motives.

The establishment of the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit within the Foreign Ministry represented a new and unprecedented step, which has made it possible for a small state with no military and no professional search and rescue personnel finally to contribute to peacemaking, peacekeeping, monitoring missions and humanitarian aid in a real and useful manner. At the turn of this month, the Icelandic mission in Pristina Airport in Kosovo was concluded when the administration of the airport was handed to the United Nations; in less than two months, Iceland will be taking over a similar role at Kabul Airport in Afghanistan, when it is proposed that 15 members of the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit should take over management positions at the Airport, which is staffed by a total of about 500 people. This is yet another illustration of the fact that Iceland has a role to play and is trusted by the international community to take on important tasks. In this way, Iceland will contribute to the promotion of democracy and human rights in Afghanistan, which was virtually in ruins after almost a quarter of a century of armed conflict and infestation by terrorists who had made the country into a base for their war on the fundamental ideals of democracy.

There is no need to dwell on the obvious interrelationship between fundamental human rights and peace. In recent years, the Icelandic government has focused attention on human rights in all its international relations, bilateral and multilateral. While there have been disputes as to what methods are most conducive to promoting respect for human rights, the Icelandic government has always been prepared to exchange views on human rights and has always regarded this as more likely to return results than ostracizing the governments of states which are accused of human rights violations. This has not changed anything as regards the values or principal emphases of Iceland, nor has it prevented us from stating our views unequivocally, either directly or in the course of our work within international and intergovernmental organisations. Examples of Iceland’s general emphases include women’s rights and children’s rights, with special attention on the fate of women as the frequent victims of war. In this context, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs recently organised a conference on international action against trafficking in people, which is a manifestation of the connections between organised crime and human rights violations and leaves no country untouched. As regards the United Nations specifically, it is to be hoped that reforms in the activities of the UN will extend also to more efficient handling of human rights issues, perhaps even through increased attention to human rights in the Security Council.

Development aid is another way to promote respect for human rights and peace. Iceland has in recent years shown an increased awareness of the responsibility that comes with making the break from abject poverty to prosperity. Over the past nine years, Iceland’s contribution to multilateral and bilateral development aid has grown from 0.11% to 0.19% of GDP, that is to say from ISK 489 million to ISK 1,645 million per year. It is important that this positive momentum should continue, and therefore it gives me great pleasure to report that the Government has decided to increase allocations to development aid, as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product, from 0.19% in the current year to 0.35% in the years 2008-2009. This substantial increase in the scope of development aid will place Iceland on a par with other European states and represents a major step in the direction of the goal of the United Nations that the industrial states should contribute 0.7% of their gross domestic product to development. Also, we need to build upon the valuable experience that we have gained in the successful bilateral work of the Icelandic International Development Agency in four countries of Sub-Saharan Africa as well as the expertise in multilateral development co-operation obtained through the Icelandic representation of the Nordic States and the Baltic States in the World Bank.

Natural resources and environmental issues can become security issues when they involve the survival of nations, and this could be of particular relevance for Icelanders. In recent years, these issues have been growing steadily more important and prominent in the work of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, both because in most cases they require international or multilateral solutions, and also because Iceland’s interests and expertise provide us with a special perspective. Iceland’s successful Chairmanship of the Arctic Council ends later this year, but as a result of this tenure participation in various regional co-operation in the Arctic region will continue on a firmer foundation than before. Extensive tasks also lie ahead concerning natural resources and environmental issues, such as discussions of matters of the sea and the utilisation of renewable energy resources. The sustainable utilisation of marine mammals is one aspect of this, and Iceland’s membership of the International Whaling Commission will strengthen Iceland’s position as regards whaling, both from the point of view of international law and international politics.

In this context it is worth mentioning that work is currently in progress on a report to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf which is intended to support Iceland’s claims concerning the continental shelf beyond the 200-mile jurisdiction on the Reykjanes Ridge, in the Hatton-Rockall area and the so called “Herring Loophole”. This project, which among other things includes the survey of an area of the continental shelf corresponding thirteen times the area of Iceland, is scheduled for conclusion in 2006.

Mr. Speaker

The security of Iceland is inextricably bound to the security of other regions of Europe. Major conflict or tension on the Continent would have a direct impact on Iceland, and the same can be said of any major economic setbacks in Europe. Iceland’s manifold relations with other European states, particularly the Member States of the European Union, are and will remain a dominant aspect of Icelandic foreign policy. This does not preclude close bilateral relations with the United States, but rather strengthens them, as in fact a strong Transatlantic Link remains the goal of most European states. Since the end of the Second World War it has been the objective of the Icelandic government to preserve links both to the East and to the West, and this will obviously continue to be in the Iceland’s best interests.

From the Icelandic viewpoint, the closing decade of the last century was, more than anything else, a time of extensive adaptation to constantly expanding international relations. The EEA Agreement was an important aspect of this adaptation. The negotiation and implementation of the EEA Agreement transformed not only Iceland’s formal relations with the European Union, but the entire working environment of individuals and enterprises here in Iceland. The Agreement has also been a driving force in the development of the Icelandic administrative and regulatory environment. Without a doubt, one of the most important tasks of recent years has been the enlargement of the European Economic Area, which has now been brought to a successful conclusion. The conclusion that was reached in the agreement on enlargement, has placed the EEA co-operation on a firmer foundation. The increase in the number of Member States of the European Union will no doubt have some impact on the day-to-day implementation of the EEA Agreement, but at the same time it must be borne in mind that the enlargement entails various new opportunities. It has often been pointed out that the EEA Agreement was made a decade ago and that the European Union has undergone extensive changes during that period. It was therefore somewhat disappointing that support could not be obtained for the proposal of exploring whether the EEA Agreement should be reviewed in light of these changes. My position on this matter is clear. Enlightened and objective discussions will need to be conducted on the avenues open to Iceland in its co-operation with the European Union. Those who are most ardent in their support for membership of the EU appear to be labouring under the delusion that the results of negotiations are a foregone conclusion, but who could have foreseen the profound changes that have taken place over the last decades, and who is prepared to predict what reality we will face in this area in ten years’ time?

In light of the tumultuous changes that we have been going through, and in light of the fact that no end to those changes is in sight, Icelanders will have to prepare for any eventuality and react to changes as they occur. The EEA Agreement has withstood the test of time, partly as a result of the alertness and perseverance of the Icelandic government. Looking ahead, it is clear that there are numerous tasks that need to be addressed, and it is the perennial task of the Icelandic government to defend Iceland’s interests in the internal market of the European Union. It is important to make use of the opportunities offered by the EEA Agreement to influence the shaping of the rules of the integrated market. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs has taken the initiative in exploring means of improving the access of municipal governments in Iceland to the decision making process in matters that concern their interests. In addition, the new EFTA Financial Mechanism will be so designed as to open opportunities for Icelandic enterprises seeking co-operation with the new Member States.

European affairs will continue to ferment, and there are substantial changes ahead. There is still no end in sight as regards the enlargement of the European Union and a new constitution is in preparation. It is therefore important for Icelanders to remain watchful to ensure that they have time to react to changed circumstances on their own terms.

The theory concerning the “End of History” that I referred to at the start of this report shows how perilous it can be to attempt to generalise about future trends in international affairs. Nevertheless, it is safe to predict that a time of international instability lies ahead owing to continued terrorist activities and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Also, the fermentation resulting from globalisation in trade and culture and the concurrent mass migrations is far from over. In an international environment of this kind Iceland will need to play its cards well, since it is foreseeable that small states will increasingly need to find ways to exert their influence and gain support in the defence of their own interests. In this effort, a strong Foreign Service is a key element. The development of the Foreign Service is a natural result of the increased international activities of Iceland and its increased willingness to make a contribution in keeping with its capacity. The changes in the working methods of the Foreign Service are in line with changed circumstances and new needs, and these are most visible in technological advances and improvements in lines of communication. Establishing priorities in the Foreign Service is a perpetual task and will, as always, need to take account of trends in international affairs and strive for maximum efficiency in the use of human and financial resources. Although it is to be assumed that the future growth of the Foreign Service will go hand in hand with the challenges that arise, attention will also be focused on means of achieving maximum efficiency by shifting personnel and funds within the Ministry and among the Icelandic missions abroad. Public service of this kind must be kept in a state of constant review, especially now, during the time of preparation for Iceland’s candidacy for the UN Security Council, increased contributions to development co-operation and more active overseas business services. For this purpose I have appointed a working group within the Ministry for Foreign Affairs to return proposals on further efficiency measures.

Mr. Speaker

At the formation of the current government, the political parties agreed that on the 15th of September the Progressive Party should take over the office of the Prime Minister and the Independence Party should take over the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The changes in the Cabinet will not result in any changes in the government policy, and foreign policy will therefore remain unchanged in all major respects. A firm consensus has existed between the two parties on foreign affairs in recent years. The boundaries between domestic and foreign affairs are less clear than they used to be, and at the same time the consultation between the offices of Prime Minister and Foreign Minister on matters of foreign policy has become closer and the co-operation between the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and other ministries has increased. These trends will continue in the coming years.

The change in the Cabinet means that my nine-year tenure as Foreign Minister will soon be over. During this time Iceland’s position in international affairs has changed profoundly. The scope of Iceland’s activities abroad has broadened immensely, and foreign trade no longer centers exclusively on a few large companies engaged in the sale of marine products, shipping and imports. Numerous stakeholders in the services and industries are now engaged in exports, and Icelandic companies have become influential participants in the business sectors of neighbouring countries. The foundation for these changes was laid by means of favourable trade agreements and a sensible promotion of Icelandic interests abroad. It has been a privilege to have had the opportunity to play a leading role in the formulation and implementation of Icelandic foreign policy in these formative years and to see the outcome of the numerous tasks that we have undertaken.

The story of the Republic can be compared with the development of a person. The Apostle Paul had this to say about personal development: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” If we apply this simile to ourselves as a nation, Iceland grew out of its childhood in the last decade and became a fully mature participant in the international community. All Icelanders are now reaping the benefits that resulted from these changes, but they also need to take on increased responsibilities and obligations. We need to contribute according to our capacity to the nations of the world who do not enjoy the same security and prosperity as we do, bearing in mind that Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe at the start of the last century. We need to build upon our experience of European co-operation in order to secure our interests in Europe for the future. We need to be consistent and reliable partners of our friends and contribute positively to the community of nations to the best of our ability. We need an efficient foreign service to back up the expansion of the Icelandic business sector and ensure adequate market access and conditions of trade. We should be proud participants in the community of nations, but eschew provincialism and arrogance.

Looking back, what gives me the greatest satisfaction is to observe the general consensus that has prevailed in Iceland on making the best possible use of the opportunities that have come up during these tumultuous times with optimism and a will to succeed. Hopefully we will have the good fortune of continuing on the same path in the future.


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