CHANGES TO ICELAND’S PENAL CODE AIMED AT COMBATING TERRORISM FOCUS OF DEBATE IN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE
CHANGES TO ICELAND’S PENAL CODE AIMED AT COMBATING TERRORISM FOCUS OF DEBATE IN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE
Human Rights Committee
2258th & 2259th Meetings (AM & PM)
Changes to Iceland’s penal code aimed at combating terrorism
focus of debate in human rights committee
Changes to Iceland’s general penal code, especially those aimed at combating terrorism, dominated the Human Rights Committee’s consideration today of that country’s report, with experts highlighting some troubling aspects of the legislation, and suggesting that it was too vague and might infringe on human rights.
The 18-member Human Rights Committee is meeting in New York through 1 April to examine compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The panel of independent experts, which also monitors implementation of the Covenant’s two Optional Protocols -- the first allows individuals to submit complaints to the Geneva-based Committee, and the second seeks to abolish the death penalty -- continued its eighty-third session today with a review of Iceland’s efforts to promote and guarantee a respect for fundamental rights.
Concerning amendments to Iceland’s general penal code, intended to comply with obligations under a wide-ranging anti-terrorism resolution 1373 adopted by the Security Council in 2001, the expert from Mauritius said that terrorism was like sin, which was very difficult to define and to legislate. That was why it was very important to consider a person’s human rights and then decide in what manner those rights could be adversely affected by the legislation. Under the amended general penal code, terrorism was criminalized and subjected to life in prison, but the scope of the acts constituting terrorism were unclear and risked jeopardizing people’s exercise of normal rights in a democratic society, he said.
A member of the Icelandic delegation took the floor to explain the new sections in the code on terrorism, explaining that an act must have as its purpose one or more of the following intents: to cause considerable fear among the public; to illegally force Icelandic authorities, foreign authorities or international organizations to take action or to remain passive; or to weaken or cause harm to constitutional, political, economic or social foundations of any State or international organization. She assured the experts that peaceful demonstrations would not fall under any of those categories. When asked, she said there had not been broad public debate on the changes made to the general penal code.
Noting that issues of terrorism had been raised by several members, Committee Chairperson and expert from France, Christine Chanet, said that Iceland’s legislation, in that regard, was extremely vague, as was the case in many countries. But the definition supplied by Iceland, particularly with regard to traffic and the consequences of road blockages, could apply to the type of road blockages created by farmers on the highways in France. That could also result in deadly accidents and property damage, but it would be difficult to view such blockages as terrorism. Members had pointed to the difficulty in definitions of that type, and feared that Iceland’s legislation might be erroneous or unclear.
Ms. Chanet also drew attention, in her closing remarks, to the situation of women in Iceland. Apart from discrimination in the workplace and a persistent wage gap between men and women, attention had also been drawn today to the situation of violence against women, particularly rapes. Although the country’s legislation was not really lax, the reluctance to pursue such cases, owing to insufficient or questionable proof at the outset, was worrying. There had always been the problem of proof, and of the aggressors claiming that the victims had consented. Yet, very serious progress had been made on the rape question. She urged the delegation to look at that question again, with a view to making all persons involved in the process much more aware, including through the training of police and judges, and by using psychologists to get to the truth.
The head of the delegation was Hjálmar W. Hannesson, Iceland’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, who was joined by: Ragna Arnadottir, Director of Legal Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs; Asgerdur Ragnarsdottir, Legal Expert, Legal Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs; and Helga Hauksdóttir, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations.
The Committee on Human Rights will meet again at 3 p.m. tomorrow to consider the fourth periodic report of Mauritius.
The Committee on Human Rights met today to consider Iceland’s fourth periodic report (document CCPR/C/ISL/2004/4).
Presentation of Report
HJÁLMAR W. HANNESSON (Iceland) said the report had been prepared under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice in consultation with several parties concerned with the matters at hand. In the report and his delegation’s presentation, attention had been given to a description of the changes that had occurred in Iceland since the submission of its last report, as well as to the Committee’s recommendations in connection with that report. He hoped that both the report and the ensuing dialogue would effectively demonstrate his Government’s full commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Introducing the report, RAGNA ARNADOTTIR, Director of Legal Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs of Iceland, recalling that the third periodic report had been considered in 1998, said that by that time, changes to the Constitution, by which several human rights provisions had been added, had already begun to take effect. Those trends had continued to increase, as public awareness was greatly “awakened”. Accordingly, the Icelandic people were better informed of their rights and their enforceability through the legal system and international monitoring bodies. There was also a tendency for the courts to interpret the Constitution in light of the human rights obligation; that also applied to the Covenant. In its concluding remarks on 8 November 1998, the Committee had raised several areas of concern, which had led to, among other changes, a decision to withdraw Iceland’s reservation to article 13 of the Covenant, concerning the expulsion of lawful aliens. Now, foreigners in Iceland had the right to appeal decisions leading to their expulsion. The citizenship law also changed to allow a child born out of wedlock to become a citizen.
She recalled the Committee’s request for more information about plans to combat violence against women. Several measures had been taken in that regard, and the Icelandic authorities were continuously seeking ways to eliminate that phenomenon. That had also been prominent in the debates of recent months, and various proposals were being put forward now. Whichever ones were deemed worthy of exploration, the authorities were indeed paying attention to the problem and seeking ways to deal with it. Furthermore, her country had acceded to various human rights-related international instruments.
Delegation’s Response to Written Questions
Along with Mr. Hannesson and Ms. Arnadottir, Iceland’s delegation included: Ms. Asgerdur Ragnarsdottir, Legal Expert in the Justice Ministry, and Ms. Helga Hauksdóttir, Counsellor in Iceland’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
Ms. ARNADOTTIR opened the discussion with the experts, beginning the article-by-article description of Iceland’s efforts to implement the Covenant. She detailed a series of cases that had come before the country’s Supreme Court in which decisions had been based on -- or referenced -- various provisions of the Covenant, stressing that it was especially common that judges made particular reference to the treaty, and that though there were not many cases based on it, the Court always kept the Covenant’s provisions in mind when it made its decisions.
She went on to highlight Icelandic legislation which had integrated the Covenant’s tenets, such as amendments to the country’s penal code dealing with terrorism, which defined terrorist acts, and criminalized a range of related actions, including the financing of terrorism or terrorist groups. Persons found guilty of participating is such activities were subject to life imprisonment.
Turning next to equality between men and women, she said that major changes had been made to ensure gender equality -- particularly in the workplace -- since Iceland’s last report. The country had enacted legislation that aimed to wipe out gender discrimination on the job, and disparities in wages. Under the Gender Equality Act, a Gender Complaints Committee had been established. Between 2000 and 2003, that Committee had heard 40 complaints.
Another member of the delegation addressed Iceland’s efforts to combat domestic violence and provide care and counselling for battered women. The numbers of cases were dropping, but it was important to note that statistics often did not reflect the realities of domestic violence because women were often reluctant to come forward. Nevertheless, police, law enforcement and judicial officials recognized and understood the seriousness of domestic violence and its resultant effects on women and their communities.
Addressing the Committee’s concern that there were incidences of rape -- or rape charges -- she acknowledged the situation and admitted that the relatively high number of acquittals in rape cases was largely due to the decision of prosecutors that the evidence was insufficient. At the same time, the Government was satisfied that the police investigative and reporting work in this area had been sound.
She went on to say that the Government was aware fully aware that Iceland may have become a country of destination or transit for human trafficking. And while authorities were satisfied with border control procedures, it had proved difficult to charge suspects, chiefly because women and children were unwilling to talk openly with authorities, and because suspected traffickers most often said that the victims were travelling under their own will.
She said that the Ministry of Justice had joined the Nordic-Baltic Campaign against Human Trafficking, which had been launched in 2003 and marked the first time that the countries of the regions had held major open debate about that important issue. Leaders in the regions had made combating human trafficking as a top priority and had created a Nordic-Baltic Task Force to coordinate activities between the countries.
Concerning whether information that was obtained through torture, cruel or inhuman and degrading treatment could be admitted in court, a delegate said that a judge’s free evaluation of the evidence was the general rule. Judges in criminal cases, however, were bound by the constitutional rule that everyone charged with criminal conduct was innocent until proven guilty. A person could not be convicted on the basis of a confession obtained by torture. If a person confessed to a crime during police interrogation, and later withdrew his confession in court, the judge would evaluate whether there were reasonable grounds to assume that his confession was false. If a defendant maintained that his confession was obtained by torture, and other evidence supported that assertion, the matter would immediately be investigated. If that allegation was confirmed, the police in question would be subjected to the criminal provisions of Icelandic law. A defendant’s confession obtained in that way would not be used as a basis for imposition of criminal sanctions, as the judge was likely to conclude that that was false. If evidence other than the unlawfully obtained confession was introduced and deemed conclusive, then the defendant would be found guilty.
She cited cases in which the convicted persons’ confessions to police had been obtained unlawfully, and those had led to specific investigations of alleged brutal treatment of the defendant during imprisonment. In the past 20 years, important and radical changes and amendments had been introduced to the new criminal code, which had significantly improved the legal status of the accused. In addition, detailed rules had been issued on police interrogation and treatment of remanded persons. Solitary confinement had been used in the past 10 years a total of 29 times, and the maximum length of time in solitary confinement in those years had been 12 days. Before a prisoners was so confined, the opinions of both the prison psychologist and physician were sought, specifically whether either had any knowledge of reasons why the prisoner should not be confined. So, such decisions were bound, in part, by the doctor/psychologist opinion. Other health care professionals checked regularly on the prisoner’s status.
The age at which a child could be tried and sentenced for a crime in Iceland was 15. All juvenile offenders, those between the age of 15 and under the age of 18, had the right to serve their sentence at a facility fun by the government agency for child protection (Barnarverndarstofa), though they were not obliged to do so. In the past five years, there had been, on average, one juvenile offender in the prison system per year. In all of those instances, the juveniles had knowingly been kept away from the main prison and, thus, kept away from the main population of adult offenders. Because of the scarce numbers of juvenile offenders who served their sentences in prison, the prison staff was very aware of them and kept a vigilant eye on them. Staff members were especially mindful of a juvenile’s mental health status and the risk factors associated with being detained with other, and in some cases, more experienced, offenders. Staff members tried to keep the influence of those factors to a minimum.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
RAJSOOMER LALLAH, expert from Mauritius, noting that Iceland had decided to give effect to the Covenant in its legal structure, said he had been impressed by the extent to which it and other international instruments were guiding the thinking of the judiciary. That had been true in a number of cases, and the resort to the Covenant would hopefully increase in the future.
He asked whether any non-governmental organization (NGO) had been involved in assisting the plaintiffs in human rights-related cases. He was aware that the Human Rights Centre in Iceland had done tremendously good work in the past. He was also aware, however, that its work had been subsidized by parliament itself, without any executive control over who got the funds. But it had come to his attention that in this year’s budget, the allocation to the centre was being removed and the power to give assistance to non-governmental organizations had been transferred from Parliament to the executive Ministry of Justice and Foreign Affairs, to which the NGOs now had to apply. That really put that organization in a rather delicate situation, especially given the possible emergence of so-called conflict of interest cases. For example, if the Ministry was to present a bill to Parliament and the Centre wanted to do some work on it because if affected human rights, then what did the Centre do in that case -- give up such activities? he asked, adding that that seemed to cut significantly into its independence.
The aspect of independence was particularly important to the NGOs in the Nordic countries, which had developed a network and worked in concert with their partner organizations in each of the countries. So, his information was a matter for concern, in that the new funding procedure seemed to threaten an NGO’s very existence. Non-governmental organizations were not commercial organizations, but received funding from those most interested and active in the human rights field. If it was the State’s policy to encourage NGOs in that field, then he was at a loss as to the reasons behind removing control from the Parliament to the executive. He also asked about public announcements, whose process sounded more like a presidential decree in a dictatorial State. He was sure it was not like that in Iceland, but he wished to know who made the public announcements and on the basis of which law.
Turning to anti-terrorism, he stressed the importance of being very careful to ensure that the various rights enshrined in the Covenant were taken into account when crafting any such laws. Following the Security Council’s adoption of its wide-ranging anti-terrorism text, resolution 1373 (2001), he understood that many countries had been pressed to take early measures since they had only three months to report on implementation to the Council. Nevertheless, he wanted to know to what extent there had been public debate on the subsequent amendments to the general penal code as a result of those requirements.
Terrorism was like sin; it was difficult to define, he said. Legislating against it was like making a law against anti-social behaviour, against sin, against terror. That was why it was always very important to be sure that an individual was not deprived his liberty under a suspicion only. It was very important to look at a person’s human rights and then decide in what manner those could be adversely affected. He also asked for cases in which persons had been extradited, for example, when a death penalty could be applied.
Reading from the delegation’s written response to prior questions posed by the Committee, he noted that terrorism was criminalized under the amended general penal code, and subjected to a maximum penalty of life in prison, when acts fell under the scope of causing considerable fear among the public or “illegally” forcing Icelandic authorities or others to take action or remain passive. How could one “illegally force” the authorities? he asked. And, what kind of activity was meant in the reference to “causing considerable fear” among the public?
He said he was also concerned about the possible scope of the acts, which came into play, such as threatening traffic safety and causing disorder to public transport, or causing considerable property damage, as there was a lot of subjectivity in all of that. Could the amendment be used to restrict normal exercise in a normal situation? After all, States were required to protect people who expressed opinions, especially in demonstrations. The whole concept of public demonstration might be seriously jeopardized in such a situation. Did the law -- the general penal code as it now stood -- seriously threaten people who might fear exercising their normal rights in a democratic society? he asked.
NIGEL RODLEY, expert from the United Kingdom, said he had not heard a better argument for not having a better system for juveniles than that there had only been an average of one juvenile in the prison system in the past year. It was difficult, therefore, to recommend to that State party that it review its reservation to article 10, which, among other things, concerned the treatment of the accused juvenile.
On the question of the inadmissibility of information obtained through torture, he said it had been the Committee’s long-held practice to interpret the Covenant’s article 7, banning torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, as requiring the inadmissibility during judicial proceedings of statements extracted in that manner. It had been clear from the delegation’s reply that, whatever the nuances, the bottom line was that that was not presently the case in Iceland. As the respondent had said, it was also possible to ensure that nobody was convicted solely on the basis of a confession wrongfully extracted, but that that was rarely the case. That had not meant, however, that that could not be an important part of a case, especially if corroborative information had been elicited. Also, the delegation’s response that someone could recant a confession and say in court that that had been unlawfully obtained, indicated that the burden of proof was on persons seeking to recant, rather than the other way around. That burden should be on the prosecution to show that the confession had not been obtained by improper means, but was a statement given freely. Had there been any cases during the reporting period that could illustrate that point? he asked.
ROMAN WIERUSZEWSKI, the expert from Poland, expressed concern at the lack of interest of involvement of NGOs in the work of Iceland’s human rights organs. He was also concerned about the situation of women in the country. And while he acknowledged that women were better off in Iceland than in many other countries, he was concerned about obvious gaps in employment and wages between men and women. He wondered if there was a “glass ceiling” hindering women’s participation in the labour market or academia? On domestic violence, he noted that the Government might not be doing enough to ensure that restraining orders were abided by. Was there any effort under way to make procedures aimed at protecting battered women more efficient and effective?
Argentina’s expert, HIPOLITO SOLARI-YRIGOYEN, told Iceland’s delegation that he had praise, as well as criticism. The depth of the report and its article-by-article references to the Covenant was to be commended. But the fact that it had arrived only a few days ago -- too late to be translated into the Committee’s three working languages -- had been problematic. Further, and in light of that, the delegation’s oral responses could have perhaps been more detailed.
On Iceland’s efforts to implement the Covenant, he joined others in expressing concern about the lack of representation of high-ranking women in business and academia. He was also concerned about various articles in the county’s penal code, including what appeared to be the lack of a right of appeal to a higher court for minors in some cases. If a person lost a case did they lose the right to appeal to a higher court? In addition, he felt it was necessary for the delegation to clarify Iceland’s procedures and rules on taking confessions. Even in a country as respectful of human rights as Iceland, “We are not living in heaven and violations can occur”, he said. In an imperfect world, it was good to have preventive measures in place. Finally, he was also concerned about reports of ill-treatment of prisoners or detainees and asked for more information on that.
WALTER KÄLIN, expert from Switzerland, expressed concern about Iceland’s terrorism legislation, as well as its legislation in general. He was also concerned that there were so few prosecutions in rape cases. With only three such convictions in the face of a rather large number of complaints, what message was being sent out? Were all the women lying or did authorities just not care? Was the message that women should just not report the cases because they would only get into trouble?
ABDELFATTAH AMOR, expert from Tunisia, praised Iceland’s responses to the Committee’s questions. Nevertheless, he felt that further clarification was needed on a few issues, particularly the country’s terrorism legislation. Also of concern was the role of international human rights treaties in the country’s domestic law. He had the feeling that Iceland’s Constitution did not cover the provisions of the Covenant. If the two were not complementary, which prevailed -- domestic order or international law? Noting that Iceland had maintained reservations to various articles of the Convention, he was particularly concerned about its reservation to Article 20, dealing with war-related or hate propaganda, and asked for more clarification.
India’s expert PRAFULLACHANDRA BHAGWATI said he was particularly troubled about laws regarding the admissibility of confessions. He stressed that there were many ways today to force confessions, and he wondered if Iceland could consider such admissions only in the presence of a magistrate, rather than law enforcement officials. He also asked for further clarification about Iceland’s new Child Protection Act; procedures for appointing Supreme Court judges; security of tenure for those officials and how could they be removed from the bench.
Concerning the funding of the NGO, the Human Rights Centre, a delegate confirmed this afternoon that a change had indeed occurred. The decision to grant the funds had been transferred from the Parliament to the Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs, with the prerequisite that a certain amount would be devoted to the Human Rights Institute. The Centre, last year, had decided not to pay any funds to the Institute, so the latter had complained to the Government. Thus, it was decided that the funding to the Centre would contain allocations specifically earmarked for human rights issues. The Human Rights Centre had been founded and was funded by several NGOs. The Human Rights Institute was also funded by NGOs, but it was working in connection with the University. Following the Institute’s complaint, a decision was made that the funding would not be earmarked solely to the Human Rights Centre but to the Human Rights Institute as well.
Responding to the several points raised about the terrorism legislation, another member of the delegation said that according to a law passed in 1965, the Government could issue a resolution of the United Nations Security Council by issuing a public announcement through the Foreign Affairs Ministry. So, public announcements had a legal basis. Another measure taken to implement Security Council resolution 1373 (2001) concerning anti-terrorism measures, had been the amendment of the general penal code. As with enacting all other legislation, human rights provisions, including those of the Covenant, were kept in mind.
Explaining the sections on terrorism, she said that several acts had been defined as constituting terrorism. First, an act must have as its purpose one or more of the following intents: to cause considerable fear among the public; to illegally force Icelandic authorities, foreign authorities or international organizations to take action or to remain passive; or to weaken or cause harm to constitutional, political, economical or social foundations of any State or international organization. She assured the experts that peaceful demonstrations would not fall under any of those categories.
Moreover, she explained, the acts in question must involve at least one of the following crimes: manslaughter; assault; deprivation of liberties; threat to traffic safety; hijacking of aircraft or causing threat to people staying in international airports; arson; causing explosions; circulation of dangerous gases; causing flooding, shipwreck, accident or failure of trains, cars or aircraft, or causing shortage of drinking water, or contaminating water sources or water pipes or poisoning or placing dangerous substances in merchandise or objects for public use. She added that those measures had never been invoked, and the Supreme Court would not punish anyone under those provisions unless it was completely clear that the alleged acts fell under them.
To a question about whether there had been broad public debate on the public announcement of the changes made to the general penal code, she said there had not been a lot of debate. Regarding extradition, the Government was not allowed to extradite a person who would be subjected to the death penalty, or torture or inhuman treatment.
There was still a 15 per cent wage gap between men and women, she said, adding that her Government was “very worried” about that persistent disparity. It was hoped that the act on marital and parental leave would reduce that difference, but it was still too early to know for sure. So far, however, some 80 to 90 per cent of men were taking their parental leaves of three months, and she hoped that would increase the number of women in business. Women continued to form the majority of students at the university level, so maybe in the future, women would form a larger part of business administration.
Meanwhile, she explained, the Government had taken several steps to reduce the wage difference, including initiating four-year action programmes to implement gender equality. That had had considerable effect, including a significant increase in the number of women in the national police force. Women’s participation in politics was also on the rise, with women now comprising 35 per cent of Parliament. An investigation was under way by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce on whether women needed special support in business. The results were awaited. Another special two-year project, from 2000 to 2002, had sought to increase women’s participation in enterprise creation. In that short period, 217 new jobs had been created, and more than 1,000 women and young girls had taken part in the project. Although there was still a long way to go, the Government was well aware of the problem and it was doing what it could to reduce the wage gap.
On domestic violence and restraining orders, she acknowledged that there had been some criticism that the police were not requesting such orders often enough, but she felt the police were doing everything possible and could only request restraining orders under certain circumstances. That was only part of the broader discussion under way in Icelandic society.
She said, in response to another question, that there was no national action plan against trafficking yet in place, but the Ministries of Justice and Social Affair was working on that.
Another member of the delegation, turning to questions about the prosecution and investigation of rape cases, said a prosecutor would decide whether or not to prosecute. If he or she considered that the facts were not adequate, the case would not be prosecuted. It was true that there was a heavy burden of proof on the prosecutor, which accounted for the low number of prosecutions of rape. Her Government, however, had not intended to send Icelandic women the message that they should not press charges against the perpetrator; not at all, she stressed.
In addition, she said, measures had been adopted to improve the status of victims of rape countrywide. Rape crisis centres had been opened in hospitals and larger clinics throughout the country, and those were in close cooperation with the police. Moreover, victims of sexual crimes were always allowed a lawyer, who was paid by the Government treasury, and a spokesperson had to be present in all interviews with the victim and the police. Those were the main aspects, but she said she must admit that “quite a number of such cases were not prosecuted”.
On the admissibility of evidence gained through torture, another delegate acknowledged that the burden of proof remained on the person bringing the charge. But it would be unthinkable that a person could be convicted on the basis of a confession obtained in that manner. Still, judges could freely evaluate evidence, so perhaps, in theory, problems could occur. There was a need to look at the matter more closely. There had been cases of violence in prisons -- both mental cruelty and physical violence -- and those cases were being investigated by the police. There were very few cases of juveniles serving prison sentences -- usually just one every year or so -- so, the Government did not feel that it was necessary to have a dedicated facility for such detainees.
She went on to say that there were no plans to remove Iceland’s reservation to Article 20 at this time. On the role of international instruments and the role of international law in the country, she said that there had been a “remarkable” evolution in Iceland’s domestic system. The amended Constitution referred to the Covenant, and judges were often guided by international norms when they handed down their decisions. To another question, she confirmed that decisions, whether handed down in cases involving minors or anyone else, could be appealed to a higher court.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
NISUKE ANDO, expert from Japan, wondered about prosecutors’ apparently frequent decisions not to prosecute certain cases. Did Iceland have an independent body that could review those decisions and perhaps pass them on to a high body that might advise the court to reconsider?
Mr. KÄLIN, expert from Switzerland, asked for further clarification on the country’s legislation concerning juvenile detention.
Mr. SOLARI-YRIGOYEN, expert from Argentina, asked if the delegation felt that sentences for sexual crimes, including rape, were overly mild or low.
On the prosecution of specific cases, a delegate said the Administer of Justice, holding a higher position than the General Prosecutor, could refer decisions to the Ministry of Justice for review. She went on to say that juveniles had the right to serve their sentences at a facility run by the government agency for child protection -- Barnarverndarstofa -- though they were not obliged to do so. Juveniles were kept out of the main prison system, and while serving their sentences, penal staff was especially mindful of their mental health status and other risks of being detained with older offenders.
Another delegate acknowledged that there had been some discussion of the country’s sex crimes sentencing procedures. But the general penal code provided no less than one year and up to 16 years imprisonment for forced sexual intimacy. The Government did not consider that to be necessarily “mild.”
Continuing with the answers to written questions, a delegate said that Icelandic school system was dedicated to diversity and tolerance, and individual pupils could, because of cultural specificities, exempt themselves from certain religious studies. No student was discriminated against for not attending religious classes.
On freedom of expression, and to the Committee’s specific concerns about the compatibility with the Covenant of measures taken by the Government to prevent a Falun Gong demonstration, she recalled that the protest had been scheduled in response to a country visit by Chinese authorities. Some members of the movement said that they would not cooperate with rules or Icelandic authorities and stay within prescribed boundaries but would try to get as close to the visiting Chinese officials as possible.
After calls to other European countries confirmed that while Falun Gong demonstrations were largely peaceful, members often were known to rush police barricades, the Government deemed it necessary to limit the number of participants allowed into the country in order to preserve public order and safety. This was not an attempt to deter freedom of expression or prevent peaceful protest, she stressed, adding that the Government’s decision was specific to this case. The police had indeed made a list of the proposed participants and airlines were informed only, so they could warn those persons that they would be denied entry into Iceland and that there was no need to book a flight. All copies of the list were destroyed after the visit, save one, for filing purposes.
Another delegate went on to highlight voting rights, judicial appointment procedures and treatment of foreigners. Specifically, she said that persons found guilty of discrimination or public attacks based on colour, race or religion, were punishable by fines or imprisonment. She added that Iceland had created a “Special Police” unit to serve as a link between law enforcement officials and people of foreign origin. That unit, operating out of Reykjavik since 2001, provided foreigners with information and referred them to proper authorities or agencies when they had specific questions or concerns.
Experts’ Questions and Comments
Mr. AMOR, expert from Tunisia, asked about the registration of religious communities, specifically whether they had to have ties to traditional or ancient religions. The law did not seem to leave much possibility for the introduction of more recent religious communities to have the opportunity to be treated like the others.
On the question of the Falun Gong, he said that concerns about public order should not be the cause of discrimination against certain groups with different beliefs. Of course, the Falum Gong could not do whatever it wanted; it must follow the law upon arriving in a country, but it should not be assumed that its members would necessarily violate the public order. He was concerned that they were being judged on the basis of their beliefs, and not just on their right to demonstrate. Thus, it was the freedom of beliefs that was being challenged. He had not wanted to defend any particular group, only to say that article 18 of the Covenant, concerning freedom of thought, conscience and religion, must be observed. That incident with the Falum Gong had set an upsetting precedent.
Mr. WIERUSZEWSKI, expert from Poland, expressed concern about compliance with article 26, on equality before the law without any discrimination to thorough protection under the law, specifically with respect to the equal treatment of citizens of another country in Iceland. Differentiation based on citizenship was forbidden, and he asked to what extent the country was considering removing those differences in treatment.
Argentina’s expert, Mr. SOLARI-YRIGOYEN asked about an incident between the police and an association of Irish nationals. What had been the penalty for all of that? He also wondered what had happened with that Irish organization, which had apparently incited racial hatred. Had any measures been taken against it?
A member of the delegation said there was freedom of religion in Iceland, and everyone was entitled to be in their own religious societies without interference from the authorities, but when those societies requested funds from the State, certain conditions were set. That was the reason for the rule on registration, in which religious societies had to be linked to recognized religions, in order to “get a piece of the cake”, she said.
She stressed that the Falum Gong case had had nothing whatsoever to do with their religious beliefs. There was prior knowledge that they would not protest peacefully, so the Government had not wanted to disturb the public order. There was only a small police force in Iceland, and no national army or reserve group to help the police, as required. So, based on prior knowledge, a decision had been made to deny those members passage on Iceland Air, which was domiciled in Iceland, thereby denying them entry into the country. It had been thought that denying them entry at the airport would minimize the harmful consequences of denying them entry upon arrival in the country. To do that, a list of names had been sent to the aviation company. The group’s religion had not been an issue. The only issue had been the risk of disturbance in the sense that the Icelandic authorities would not be able to protect the Head of State, which they were obliged to do.
Chairman’s Concluding Remarks
Committee Chairperson and expert from France, CHRISTINE CHANET, said the Committee had greatly appreciated the quality of the report and the seriousness of the replies, as well as the interest of the country in terms of guaranteeing the Covenant’s rights. Two particularly positive elements since the last reports had been the elimination of discrimination against children born out of wedlock and the newly adopted legislation to end inequality. In terms of discrimination against women in the labour force, the delegation realized there were still quite a few disparities, but the legislation had been developed along with a system aimed at equal wage, among other things, and the burden was now on the employer to show why such a disparity existed.
She said that another aspect underscored by Committee members had dated back to the reporting in 1998 and concerned the position between the Covenant, the Constitution, and the European Human Rights Convention. Perhaps there had been a great deal of progress, but the Covenant still did not enjoy the same recognition as the Convention in certain cases, and the Constitution did not cover the same rights as the Covenant in the same way. That meant, for example, that under article 2 of the Covenant, on implementation of Covenant rights, State party must guarantee that all the Covenant’s rights were respected, and not necessarily only those derived from the European Convention. She recognized that the legislation on national justice had taken the Covenant into account, but it would be even better if that was an autonomous act. She also requested that the delegation clarify some of its “curious” reservations, and include in its fifth periodic report a priority list of reservations.
Regarding torture, she said she could go along with the position on confessions obtained through torture, and Committee members had been reproached for expressing concern that judges might need to rely on intuition to determine whether confessions were obtained through torture. So, that discussion had been somewhat biased, owing to Iceland’s legal system, but the delegation had assured members on that point. Perhaps the law on that was awkwardly written, but in the delegation’s replies, she had had the impression that a judge could take into account confessions obtained through torture, but she had not thought that that was the intent.
Issues of terrorism had been raised by several members, and Iceland’s legislation was extremely vague on that, she said, adding that that was the case in many countries. But the definition supplied by Iceland, particularly with regard to traffic and the consequences of road blockages could apply to the type of road blockages created by farmers on the highways in France. That could also result in deadly accidents and property damage, but it would be difficult to view such blockages as terrorism. Members had pointed to the difficulty in definitions of that type, and feared that Iceland’s legislation might be erroneous or unclear.
Apart from women’s discrimination in the workplace, she said attention had been drawn to the situation of violence against women, particularly rapes. The legislation on that was not really lax, but it was the question of proof and the absence of pursuit that was worrying. Very serious progress had been made on the rape question, and there had always been the problem of proof and of the aggressors saying that the victims had consented. But ways had been found, by training police and judges and using psychologists to get to the truth. She feared, in Iceland, that the prosecutors, because of an absence of proof, might wrongly classify the facts. She urged the delegation to look at that question once again, with a view to making all persons involved in that procedure much more aware of such situations, so they would not simply say that proof was lacking to classify such offences. Doubts should not be part of the condemning processes themselves, but at the stage of pursuit or investigation, there would possibly be some doubts.
Mr. HANNESSON, head of Iceland’s delegation thanked the Committee for the constructive exchange and pledged that his Government would continue to uphold the tenets of the Covenant. He said that Icelanders were really a small, homogeneous society, today undergoing great, even “startling” change, where topics unimaginable a few years ago were being actively and positively discussed, including foreign immigration, cultural exchange, and tolerance of a growing number of religions.
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