Hoppa yfir valmynd
Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Speech by the Minster for Foreign Affairs and External Trade, Halldór Ásgrímsson, on Foreign Affairs



 by the Minster for Foreign Affairs and External Trade,

Halldór Ásgrímsson,

on foreign affairs to the Althing


Delivered in the Althing at its 130th legislative session, 2003-2004

 Ministry for Foreign Affairs and External Trade

November 2003




1.         Introduction

Mr. Speaker

Earlier this autumn, Iceland’s candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Security Council was formally announced to Council members in accordance with the decision of the Government of Iceland. It is therefore appropriate at this time to discuss in some detail what the candidacy involves and what Iceland’s policy focus will be during the course of its campaign for appointment to the Security Council and, subsequently, in the course of its work within the Council. The election will take place in 2008.

In the United Nations Charter, the member states jointly resolved to unite their strength to maintain international peace and security. Under the Charter, the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security is conferred on the Security Council. We submitted to this obligation by our accession to the United Nations in 1946, but we have never taken a seat on the Security Council.

It has been suggested that the protection afforded to Iceland for centuries by physical distance has resulted in isolationism. This is reflected in Halldór Laxness’s incisive social criticism in his novel, Independent People, where the protagonist, Bjartur, discussing the consequences of the Great War says, if the Speaker will permit me to quote him: “If the swine can be bothered to go to the trouble of butchering one another –from imbecility or ideals, it’s all the same to me –  I’ll be the last man to grieve for them. To hell with the lot of them. All I say is this: let them continue till doomsday, as long as the meat and the wool keep rising in price.” End of Quote.

We are all familiar with the world view attributed to Bjartur, and it was characteristic of Iceland’s attitude to the world at large for centuries. We were far from the battlefields of the world and the threats and events of each succeeding age had less of an impact on us than on other European nations. This changed in the last century. At the beginning of the twentieth century Icelanders were the poorest nation in Europe, but by the end of the century we were among the most prosperous nations on earth. This was a result of increased trade and increasingly complex relations with other states. The conflagrations of the twentieth century had a direct impact on Iceland. It is sometimes forgotten that the proportional loss of life in Iceland as a result of the Second World War was greater than in many neighbouring countries. As a result, the policy of neutrality collapsed, as it became clear that non-involvement was no longer an option. Icelanders were forced to defend their interests, and they succeeded well.

 The Icelandic candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council is not an objective in itself, but a logical continuation of an ongoing trend. Our historical background enables us to understand the problems faced by poor countries, and makes it easier for us to allow others to benefit from our own experience. It is surely our duty to use our newly won prosperity to contribute to a more peaceful, secure and more prosperous world. The majority of the member states of the United Nations are former colonies. Icelanders know from their own experience the nature and consequences of colonialism and the profound changes that resulted from our freedom to manage our own affairs. Our candidacy for a seat on the Security Council therefore constitutes a confirmation of the international standing of Iceland and the responsibilities that we have undertaken. We have focused on contributing to peacekeeping and rebuilding work in regions afflicted by war, we have stepped up our development aid and in the forum of the World Trade Organisation we have supported increased equality in international terms of trade between the richer countries and the poorer countries. We have also played an active role in the promotion of human rights and democracy within the United Nations and regional organisations.

2.         Reasoning for the Icelandic candidacy for a seat on the United Nations Security Council

The decision of the government of Iceland to seek a seat on the United Nations Security Council is based on the vision that Iceland could use its past experience and current position for the benefit of all the member states. Iceland enjoys a special position as a small prosperous state that enjoys good relations with most of the influential players in world affairs. There are practical lessons that can be learnt from our rise   from destitution to prosperity and subsequently our assistance in the economic development of poorer countries. Icelandic initiatives might also meet with less suspicion than initiatives of other states, since Iceland has no great power aspirations which might appear to bias our position on individual issues. In addition, the comparatively small size of the Icelandic economy is an advantage, as there is less risk of any suspicion that Iceland might be working in the interests of Icelandic corporations and placing their interests ahead of those of the states concerned. In this context Norway provides a good example, with their reputation for positive and constructive action in international affairs. Larger states may have more power and clout, but in fact the intervention of the Norwegian government in difficult disputes between distant parties has frequently had the effect of reducing tension and facilitating negotiations.

First and last, the candidacy is a manifestation of Iceland’s international aspirations and initiative. It would be cheaper, to be sure, and far more comfortable, to sit idly at home and leave world affairs and the cost of dealing with them to other countries. Sometimes one detects in Iceland a tendency toward isolationism, often advocated under the banners of pragmatism or economy or supported by the argument that Iceland is so small that its contribution is of no consequence anyway. This is a fundamental question of the nature of Iceland’s self-image. There is no virtue in avoiding payment of a fair share of joint costs. If Iceland wants to be judged on the basis of equality in the international community, it must contribute in proportion to its capacity. Despite the great change for the better in our contributions in recent years, we still have a long way to go.

In recent years we have taken significant steps in the direction of more active international co-operation. The government has increased Iceland’s contribution to development aid and intends to do even better in the coming years.

Iceland has participated in numerous peacekeeping and peacemaking missions, where we have rendered assistance to victims of war in conflict areas. Icelandic peacekeeping work has from the start been conducted in close co-operation with the United Nations, first in Bosnia and Herzegovina and later in Kosovo, where we contributed nursing staff and police officers to the peacekeeping missions. The Iceland Crisis Response Unit has undertaken several complex and difficult assignments, including the administration of the Pristina Airport in Kosovo, and now the ICRU has offered NATO its services in a similar co-ordinating role in Kabul, Afghanistan. Co-operation with the United Nations has been increased and there are plans for the ICRU to send staff to crisis areas under the auspices of the UN World Food Program and to increase the number of peacekeeping personnel working under the banner of the UN.

The response has been immediate. All the parties who have benefited from Iceland’s contribution have expressed their great appreciation and the countries working with us have called for our involvement in further projects.


3.         Preparations for candidacy

Mr. Speaker

It is important to start preparations for our candidacy in good time. Considerable work has already been done, both in analysing the conduct and arrangements of other countries’ campaigns and in heightening our profile still further within the United Nations and its agencies. When the time comes for the campaign and the subsequent service on the Council, the Icelandic government will be able to draw on its experience from other international and multinational co-operation, most recently Iceland’s presidency of the Arctic Council. The work of the Arctic Council is in many ways connected with the United Nations. It is clear, for instance, that the Council, as a regional organisation, can make a significant contribution to the implementation of the member states’ Johannesburg undertakings, particularly in environmental affairs, although in the course of its presidency Iceland has also focused increasingly on living conditions in the Arctic Region. Relations with the European Union have also been strengthened on the basis of the Nordic Dimension. The presidency of the Arctic Council is therefore a good example of the ways in which Iceland’s international responsibilities and visibility can be increased. Also worth mentioning in this context is that we will be taking over the presidency of the CBSS in 2005-2006, and we are seeking a seat on the UN Economic and Social Council in 2005-2008, in addition to our regular presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, starting next year.

Iceland is currently represented on the Executive Board of UNESCO and the Executive Board of the World Health Organisation. Also, Iceland was elected to a seat on the Committee on Sustainable Development which was entrusted with following up the decisions of the Conferences in Rio and Johannesburg, as well as the Committee on the Status of Women as of next year.

The work ahead will involve close and increasing co-operation with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Althing and a number of non-governmental organisations. There is a long tradition of participation by members of parliament in the work of the UN General Assembly, and it is the wish of the Foreign Ministry to increase this participation still further in co-operation with the Althing. This will give the Althing an opportunity to monitor closely the preparations for the candidacy and, later, Iceland’s work in the Council. I have already mentioned the close consultation with the Nordic countries; their assistance, both in the course of the candidacy and in data-gathering on the issues addressed in the Security Council, will be of significant value.


4.         Objectives and policy focus of Iceland

Even though elections to the Security Council for the term for which Iceland is a candidate are still five years away, the Icelandic government is conscious of the fact that, for understandable reasons, certain issues have been prominent in the work of the Council in recent years, particularly the diverse problems in certain African states, the Mid-East Situation and Iraq, and that, unfortunately, it may be assumed that these issues will continue to be prominent for some time to come.  Experience has shown that smaller countries, no less than larger countries, can play an important role in the resolution of complex problems with global implications. For this reason, efforts will be made to expand still further our current expert knowledge of these subject areas to the extent possible.

The promotion of Iceland’s candidacy, and the subsequent work within the Security Council, will focus on the following principal issues:

-                     Contribution to peace and security in the world. Iceland will emphasise unconditional respect for basic human rights, promotion of democracy, efforts to eliminate poverty, respect for the basic principles of international law, and thereby sanctions for genocide and gross violations of human rights.

-                     Promotion of reforms through recommendations and participation in the work of the Security Council with the objective of increasing efficiency. In recent years, Iceland has emphasised reforms in the work and structure of the United Nations and supported the attempts of Secretary-General Kofi Annan to effect such reforms. In this way, Iceland has earned the respect and confidence of its partners. The Iraq situation has in many ways revealed the weaknesses in the structure of the United Nations and uncovered the need for improved efficiency. Iceland supports an increase in the number of elected and permanent seats in the Security Council and qualifications for the exercise of the veto. We hope that these changes will have the effect of making the Security Council better equipped to perform the tasks originally entrusted to it.

-                     Disarmament, with special emphasis on efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. No single organisation has been more involved in disarmament than the United Nations. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the danger of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially to terrorists, is one of the most urgent disarmament challenges faced by the world. It is important for the United Nations to establish guidelines and uphold the existing international commitments relating to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to continue to serve as a forum for discussions designed to reduce tension between member states. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction could result in a dangerous arms race, regional and global. The use of weapons of mass destruction would have unforeseeable global repercussions, which would unavoidably impact on Iceland. For this reason it is clear that measures to check the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are a matter of direct interest to Iceland. It is an occasion for cautious optimism that the government of North Korea has now declared its willingness to enter into discussions on the discontinuation of further attempts to produce nuclear weapons. Hopefully these discussions will have the effect that North Korea once more becomes a party to the UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Iceland has supported all international initiatives undertaken to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, most recently by supporting the Proliferation Security Initiative, proposed by the United States, United Kingdom, Japan and other countries. A newly appointed Icelandic ambassador to North Korea recently presented his credentials in Pyongyang, in the first event of its kind in 20 years. Following on from this, Iceland will make known its viewpoint on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is also welcome news that the government of Iran has shown flexibility as regards the requests of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna for unobstructed access to their nuclear program in order to verify that it will not be used as a platform for the manufacture of nuclear arms. I am planning a visit to Iran myself next month, in co-operation with several Icelandic business enterprises, and will use the opportunity to discuss this matter with my hosts; I also intend to use the same occasion to raise the subject of human rights with the Iranian government.


In addition to these principal focal points, the Icelandic government would also seek to use a prospective seat on the Security Council to achieve some progress in important issues that Iceland has supported within the United Nations in recent years. Iceland has already played a prominent role as regards the Law of the Sea and environmental affairs, and will of course continue to do so. In the current session of the General Assembly, Iceland has been entrusted by the Nordic countries with the submission of a resolution relating to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Iceland is working hard, in co-operation with the other Nordic States, on securing the implementation of certain undertakings concerning the protection of women in war and ensuring their participation in the peace process following conflict. In this context it is worth noting that within the United Nations Iceland has supported measures to stop and eradicate trafficking in human beings, as we have done within the OSCE and the Baltic Council. Recently, a decision was made to reinforce the struggle against trafficking in human beings on the Balkan Peninsula by paying financing a special post dedicated to this issue within the OSCE delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is also worth mentioning in this context that the Foreign Ministry has plans to organise a seminar on the campaign against trafficking in human beings early next year. Iceland was among the first countries to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and preparations for the work of the Court are well under way. The international community must have a recourse for the imposition of sanctions for the horrific human rights violations of recent years, which have primarily been inflicted on civilians, women and children, not only to mete out punishment for crimes already committed, but to exert a preventive influence and to deliver a clear message that the impunity of perpetrators of crimes of this kind is a thing of the past.


5.         Iceland’s benefits from candidacy and seat on the Security Council

Mr. Speaker

The objective of Iceland’s candidacy for a seat on the Security Council is to contribute to the preservation of world peace and security and to the implementation of other policy issues of the United Nations. There is no question of any direct benefits being the objective of the candidacy, but all the same, Iceland would undoubtedly benefit in various direct and indirect ways.

 First, there is the candidacy itself and the seat on the Council, which will greatly strengthen Iceland’s international standing. The candidacy will not only facilitate the protection of Iceland’s fundamental interests, but also strengthen the government’s position in negotiations on numerous difficult international issues that need to be resolved.

In addition, the candidacy will provide a unique opportunity to promote internationally the principal points of Icelandic and Nordic foreign policy, and of smaller nations in general. If we are successful, Iceland will earn the respect and trust of other states, which in turn will improve our ability to present our views in the international sphere.

One aspect of the preparations for our candidacy involves the establishment of diplomatic relations with those countries where no relations already exist. Establishing diplomatic relationships with more countries will place Iceland in a better long-term position to preserve its interests. At the same time, diplomatic relations will provide a foundation for future trade and other relations. Also, the campaign will have the effect of strengthening ties with other member states of the United Nations.

The candidacy and seat on the Council will require Iceland to serve as a positive model for other countries, particularly in the areas on which we intend to focus. As a result, these areas are likely to receive more attention here in Iceland, e.g. through increased public discussion or even active measures. It is quite likely that increased public discussion of UN affairs in Iceland could promote some degree of self-scrutiny or constructive action as Iceland will be loath to lag behind other countries in issues which are perceived as important.

Iceland’s points of emphasis and preparatory work will also be useful to us outside the United Nations. It is clear, for instance, that the candidacy will strengthen the position of the EFTA/EEA states in their foreign policy consultations with the European Union. If we do our work well, this may prove a unique opportunity for all Icelandic political relations with other countries, bilateral and multilateral.


6.         Development co-operation and participation in international development work

Conflict can often have the effect of obstructing humanitarian aid and development co-operation, and this can result in a seemingly unbreakable vicious circle. It is only when peace has been established that the possibility arises for real development co-operation of the kind that we have attempted to provide in recent years. Iceland has been taking systematic measures to increase its participation in development aid in Africa.

In recent years, Iceland has increased budget allocations to development. In 1997, the Icelandic government set itself the goal of allocating 0.15 per cent of GDP to official development aid by 2003.  This objective has been met, with the public contribution of the Icelandic State to development aid more than doubling over this time to slightly less than 1.4 billion krónur, or 0.17% of GDP. Iceland intends to increase this contribution substantially in the coming years.

The recently established Icelandic embassy in Mozambique was set up to facilitate our development co-operation in Africa. It has already had the effect of strengthening our political ties and relations with the countries in this part of the continent. There are now eight countries in the district served by the embassy, but there are plans for the embassy to take up closer co-operation with other states in the region.

It is not only because of the increased Icelandic emphasis on participation in the work of the United Nations that it is important to strengthen our relations with African states. The African Union plays an important role for the developing countries within the United Nations and in negotiations within the World Trade Organisation. Also, knowledge of African issues will be important to Iceland when it comes to participation in the Security Council. Although the current focus within the United Nations is on Iraq and Afghanistan, most of the decisions and discussions in the Security Council center on Africa.

Sadly, the lives and everyday reality of a large proportion of Africans are characterised by conflict and poverty. Last month, I had an opportunity to visit two of Iceland’s four partner states in Africa – Mozambique and Uganda. On my journey, I witnessed the great poverty and social problems confronting the people of Africa every day. But I also witnessed the results of the great work that the Icelandic Development Agency is doing in these countries, both in the fisheries and in various social projects.

I mentioned earlier that peace is the prerequisite for development co-operation, but if disease and abject poverty are a fixture of daily life, that in itself can also prevent results of development work. In many of the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa the spectre of the AIDS epidemic haunts all daily life. In village after village there are only children and old people, as entire generations have succumbed to AIDS. Worst of all is that it does not have to be this way at all. With improved access to preventive measures and medication, sufferers would be able to care for their children and fewer would get sick. Iceland should, as a matter of course, contribute more to this issue.

In Africa I witnessed the fruits of our work and I felt the great gratitude of our African partners for the assistance we have provided. The work performed by ICEIDA in these difficult conditions convinced me that development co-operation works and can in fact make all the difference for the poorest people in the developing countries.

Just recently, the Foreign Ministry commissioned a report on Iceland’s development co-operation which included a review of the experience of recent years and attempted to draw lessons from the must successful efforts of other countries. The report includes some recommendations concerning the future of development co-operation and increased budget appropriations. Future work on the preparation of a comprehensive development aid policy will be based on the conclusions of the report.

In early October, Iceland took over an important role within the World Bank, the world’s largest development organisation. Iceland will lead the co-ordination of the Nordic states and Baltic states within the Bank, which has the principal function of improving the situation of the developing countries. This shows that Iceland is trusted to do good work and to watch over the important interests of a group of countries who have been deeply involved in development affairs.


7.         World Trade Organization

Peace and effective co-operation constitute the basis for further economic improvements in the developing world. Experience has also shown that the developing countries which have opened their markets have been more successful and development there has been more rapid than in the countries which have chosen to protect their markets with trade barriers. The best way to improve conditions in the developing countries, and other countries, is to ensure freedom in international trade and promote increased participation in world trade. The World Bank has expressed the opinion that if all trade barriers were removed, this would increase world trade by the equivalent of 2,180 billion US dollars and lift 320 million people above the poverty line. Of course, one can doubt whether calculations of this kind can ever be realistic, but they reflect the enormity of the interests at stake and the importance of achieving success in the work of the World Trade Organisation, especially as regards the position of the developing countries.

At a meeting of the member states of the World Trade Organisation in Cancun last September, the negotiations admittedly hit a reef, but it would be an exaggeration to say that they foundered. The round was a great disappointment, but all is not lost. It should be noted that the discussions were characterised throughout by an emphasis on the interests of the developing countries. There is a general consensus that the industrialised countries should take on a greater burden and that account should be taken of the special position of the developing countries.

Shortly before the Cancun meeting a historic agreement was reached on the sale of cheap medication to poor countries, including HIV drugs to Africa; as I mentioned earlier, it was quite obvious to me when I was in Africa that AIDS is the biggest health and social problem on the continent.

Discussions within the WTO have also focused, and will continue to focus, on trade in goods and services where the developing countries are well positioned to participate actively in international competition.

As regards agriculture, the emphasis is on the industrial countries granting market access for third-world products and reducing state aid which distorts competition, of which export subsidies are the worst form. The Icelandic market is already open to most of the agricultural products which are significant for the developing countries, and in this respect Iceland is in a much better position than many other countries. We have also favoured a ban on export subsidies, or some sort of moratorium, as export subsidies are, in reality, simply a means of exporting domestic problems and thereby distorting competition.

In spite of the setback in Cancun, the discussions returned some results. It is unlikely that it will be possible to conclude the negotiations in one year, as originally scheduled, but the member states do want to bring them to a conclusion as soon as possible. Iceland is among the states that emphasise the need to arrive at a comprehensive consensus as early as possible, as in fact this would be in the best interests of both the small countries and the developing countries. At a recent meeting of foreign ministers of the Nordic countries and several African states in Pemba, I suggested that the permanent representatives of the Nordic countries to the World Trade Organisation should meet with the representatives of these African countries in an attempt to arrive at a compromise. In this way, the Nordic countries might assist in bridging the wide gap which has formed between North and South. I reiterated this suggestion at a meeting of the Nordic foreign ministers in Oslo a short time ago.


8.         Service to the industries

It is safe to say that Icelandic participation in trade and international affairs in recent years has secured economic growth in the country and brought about increased self-confidence in our international co-operation. In a recent United Nations report on human development, Iceland ranked second in the human development index. Also, Iceland came out eighth in the overall world competitiveness ranking of the World Economic Forum in a comparison of 102 of the leading industrialized and emerging economies of the world.

The EEA Agreement has had a profound impact on economic development in Iceland and is now one of the cornerstones of the Icelandic welfare state. The recent signature of an agreement on the enlargement of the European Economic Area was therefore an extremely important milestone on the route to securing Iceland’s continued unrestricted access to the most powerful trade network in the world.

Expansion by Icelandic business enterprises beyond our borders is a prerequisite for continued economic growth in Iceland. The enactment at the close of 2002 of new legislation on export assistance took account of this. Under the law, a new Advisory Committee on External Trade and Export Assistance was formed as a forum for all the public entities which are involved in one way or another in export assistance and the interest groups of manufacturers of products for export. The government bodies and interest groups are intended to share their ideas concerning tasks and points of focus within the Advisory Committee to enable more coherent and efficient use of the funds allocated to the promotion and marketing of Iceland and Icelandic products abroad. The composition of the Committee reflects a new vision of export activities, as providers of services, creators of culture and producers of agricultural products now sit at the table with the manufacturers of traditional export products such as marine and industrial products.

Concurrently with these changes, the Foreign Ministry decided on certain structural changes designed to strengthen the services provided by the Foreign Service to Icelandic enterprises and the domestic infrastructure of the Icelandic industries outside Iceland. Co-operation agreements have been made with the Iceland Export Council providing for co-ordinated efforts and a clearer division of tasks in the field of foreign export. At the same time, all embassies have been instructed to undertake certain defined tasks in the interests of export assistance, and the Overseas Business Service has entered into contracts on that subject with all embassies and missions. Under the contracts, all diplomatic missions undertake to define their objectives in this area, and all diplomatic staff abroad are engaged in tasks relating to export assistance.

The primary avenue of growth for the Icelandic economy is the cross-border expansion of Icelandic enterprises into foreign markets based on inventive business ideas or expertise in the manufacturing or service industries. The entire industry needs a strong foreign service with numerous and widespread branches providing as much service as possible.

I have discussed development co-operation in my speech, and in fact there is much interest in discovering methods of combining development co-operation with Icelandic exports. This would not be done for the purpose of embarking on a policy of tied aid, but rather with a view to monitoring all opportunities where the interests of the donor and recipient might go together. We have an extremely interesting example of co-operation of this kind in a recently built freezing plant at the source of the river Nile in Uganda, which I visited on my trip to Africa. The freezing plant is furnished with equipment purchased from Icelandic enterprises, but ICEIDA has provided an Icelandic expert to assist in the installation and use of the equipment. This co-operation is a model example.


9.         In summary

            The decision of the government on Iceland’s candidacy for a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations represents a milestone in Icelandic foreign policy. Both the campaign itself for appointment to the Council and the participation in the work of the Council will transform the image and position of Iceland in the international community. The decision represents an unequivocal message to the world at large that Iceland is an independent and sovereign state which is prepared to contribute to the preservation of peace and security in the world. The foreign service has been strengthened in recent years, and is now better equipped than ever before to take on the complex task of membership of the UN Security Council. Iceland now has embassies in the capital cities of seven of the major industrial powers of the world. The embassies outside the Western World are important in the context of trade interests and development aid, but they also have an important political role. This role will grow with the prospective membership of the Security Council, and in fact the embassies are an absolute prerequisite for our candidacy. 

            Geographical or cultural isolation can only create a false sense of security, and is not a realistic option in the changing world of ongoing globalisation. Indifference to distant dangers or catastrophes are neither morally defensible nor consistent with Icelandic interests. Those facts have shaped our foreign policy in recent years, and the candidacy for the Security Council is a logical step forward. Iceland can draw on its experience as a nation which has undergone profound political and economic change in what may well be an unprecedentedly short period  of time. This experience will enable Icelanders to co-operate with the vast majority of the member states of the United Nations on the basis of mutual understanding. There is nothing in Iceland’s past or the pursuit of its interests which poses any threat to any other country. For this reason, Iceland possesses a potential ability to bridge gaps between different groups of nations. In addition, the viewpoints of smaller member states need to be expressed to secure the equilibrium of the Security Council.


10.       Conclusion

            The candidacy is an ambitious undertaking, and it will be important in the next few years for all government agencies to lend their support. The Althing, as the national legislature, the parliamentary parties and individual members of parliament all have a role to play. With a concentrated national effort, we will succeed in attaining our objective.


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