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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers report of Iceland

Committee on Economic, Social  
  and Cultural Rights

21 November 2012

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today concluded its consideration of the fourth periodic report of Iceland on how that country implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Introducing the report of Iceland, Gudridur Thorsteinsdottir, Director General, Department of Coordination and Development, Ministry of Welfare, updated the Committee on developments in the country since the submission of the report in 2010 and said that the recovery measures undertaken by the Government following the collapse of the banking sector in 2008 had focused on protecting those with the lowest income and had been successful in protecting the healthcare and social security system.  Important steps had been taken to address the situation of persons with disabilities with the enactment of new legislation to protect their rights and the preparation of the Action Plan on issues concerning persons with disabilities.  Promoting gender equality and ensuring that men and women enjoyed equal status in all aspects of life was a key priority. 

Committee Experts noted the remarkable recovery of Iceland from the 2008 crisis and the measures undertaken to address the situation of the most vulnerable persons and welcomed other positive developments such as measures to combat trafficking in persons, the gender-neutral definition of marriage and the Gender Equality Act.  The persistent wage gap between women and men, which now stood at 16.3 per cent regardless of the women’s high levels of education and participation in the labour market, was regrettable.  Decentralization of services for persons with disabilities from the Government to municipalities could have both positive and negative consequences and the Committee hoped that the Government would continue to supervise all the municipalities and provide the necessary financial resources.

In concluding remarks, Ms. Thorsteinsdottir stressed the particularly hard impact of the crisis on Iceland and the response of the Government which was focused on redistribution and social protection.  Despite the challenges in safeguarding the social welfare system over the past several years, the country was now firmly on the road to recovery.

Ariranga Govindasamy Pillay, Committee Chairperson, said that the Committee now had a better understanding of the achievements of Iceland in the field of economic, social and cultural rights and the remaining challenges confronting the country.  Those achievements and challenges would be spelled out in the Committee’s concluding observations which would be ready on Friday, 30 November.

The delegation of Iceland included representatives of the Ministry of Welfare, Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Ministry of the Interior and the Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

The next public meeting of the Committee will be at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 23 November, when it will consider the situation in Equatorial Guinea in the absence of a report.

Report

The fourth periodic report of Iceland can be read here: (E/C.12/ISL/4).

Presentation of the Report of Iceland

GUDRIDUR THORSTEINSDOTTIR, Director General, Department of Coordination and Development, Ministry of Welfare of Iceland, said that the treaty bodies played a key role in ensuring the implementation of the United Nations instruments, and then went on to update the Committee on developments since the submission of the fourth periodic report of Iceland in 2010.  New education legislation had been enacted, while the new curriculum guide contained the frame for teaching and learning based on the existing laws, regulations and international conventions.  The human rights situation in Iceland was generally good by international standards, but still much remained to be done; that was why Iceland welcomed constructive criticism and support from international human rights bodies.  The collapse of the banking sector in 2008 resulted in the devaluation of the currency and a rise in unemployment which had practically been non-existent before the crisis.  In spite of the austerity measures, the Government had been successful in protecting the healthcare and social security system with an emphasis on protecting those with the lowest income.  As a result, there were considerably fewer families at risk of poverty now than before the crisis, however, the percentage of single parent families at risk of poverty was rather high.  The 2013 budget would emphasize improvement in conditions for families with children.  The unemployment which was still quite high compared to pre-crisis rates was of great concern; the Government was joining hands with municipalities to create new job opportunities.  Following the collapse in 2008 and the referendum of 2010, the Constitution had been subject to an extensive revision process to further incorporate economic, social and cultural rights.  The Government had undergone restructuring process to further strengthen the protection of human rights. 

Important steps had been taken to improve the rights of vulnerable groups in Iceland.  The rights of persons with disabilities came under spotlight with the preparation in the country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  A new Act on the Rights of People with Disabilities had been enacted and the Parliament had recently approved a resolution on an Action Plan on the affairs of persons with disabilities; also the recent transfer of services from the Government to municipalities brought them closer to persons with disabilities.  Iceland had adopted a gender-neutral definition of marriage which ensured the same legal status for heterosexual and same-sex couples.  Important steps had been taken to improve the legal status of transgender people with new legislation that had entered into force this summer.  Despite positive developments and the legislation in place, women still faced discrimination everywhere.  Promoting gender equality and ensuring that men and women enjoyed equal status in all aspects of life was a key priority.  The gender pay gap remained although women’s participation in the labour market was among the highest in the world and despite their high level of education. 
Gender-based violence throughout the world was of great concern, which together with domestic violence and rape should not be tolerated in any society.  The harsh reality of sexual and domestic violence was openly discussed in Iceland which was the first step towards dealing with the problem.  Recent legislative measures had further strengthened the political and social stance against gender-based violence.

Questions from Experts

EIBE RIEDEL, Committee Rapporteur for the Report of Iceland, noted that following the banking collapse Iceland seemed to be on the right track and it was hoped that soon it would reach the pre-2008 situation.  The Country Rapporteur welcomed the Gender Equality Act, measures to combat trafficking in persons and the gender-neutral definition of marriage.  Turning to the concluding observations of 2003, the Country Rapporteur asked what had been done with regard to the provisions of the International Covenant and about the percentage of Iceland’s gross domestic product allocated to official development assistance?  Why had the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities not yet been undertaken?  While the report gave excellent detail concerning maternity and paternity leave, the situation of single parent families had not been sufficiently addressed; what concrete steps had been taken in this regard?

Another Expert noted the dual legal system in Iceland and that the guarantee of economic, social and cultural rights was on a case-by-case basis, and asked how the incorporation of those rights in the Constitution had been done and about ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant.  Decentralization of services for persons with disabilities from the Government to municipalities had its good and bad aspects and the Expert hoped that the Government would continue to supervise all the municipalities and provide financial support.  In terms of gender equality, the situation in Iceland was commendable, but the 16.3 per cent wage gap between women and men was lamentable; how could this gap be explained? 
 
In its 2003 concluding observations, the Committee had recommended that Iceland disseminate information about the report among State officials and to continue to raise awareness about human rights; what had been done in this regard?  According to various sources, persons with disabilities experienced difficulties, especially in the education system; what had been done to address the issue and what measures were contained in the Action Plan on the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?  The exclusion from education of children of migrants differed from that of Icelandic children, particularly in the secondary level.

The Committee inquired about internal debates and the obstacles to ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant and how economic, social and cultural rights would be strengthened in the framework of the ongoing Constitutional reform.  The ombudsmen had been established in 1997, but the information about this institution, its scope, mandate and functioning was very limited.  Would this institution apply for accreditation according to the Paris Principles?  The recovery of Iceland from the 2008 crisis and the measures undertaken to address the situation of the most vulnerable were indeed impressive; could Iceland comment on its approach to recovery?

Response by the Delegation

The emphasis of the recovery measures taken after the 2008 crisis was on protecting those with lower income; measures included the increase in pensions and unemployment benefits, house loan interest benefits and debt relief measures for lower income persons.  All this resulted in a lower percentage of people at risk from poverty now than before the crisis.

The Action Plan on the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities took into account the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and other human rights instruments Iceland was a party to; emphasis was on the empowerment of persons with disabilities and their association and guarantee of human rights and conditions of life for persons with disabilities on an equal basis.  The plan aimed to enable persons with disabilities to lead independent lives, provided for personal assistance to persons with disabilities living alone, and guaranteed the right to choose a place of living.

The 2008 Act 121 further strengthened the framework for international development cooperation and the new Action Plan 2011-2014 aimed for an increase in official development assistance to 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product within the next 10 years, as it now stood at 0.09 per cent.  The 1995 Constitutional amendments had made the links with the provisions of the International Covenant unequivocal.  The Covenant was a part of the interpretation of the human rights provisions of the Constitution and there were several court cases that had referred to the Covenant.  The ongoing Constitutional reform process suggested enactment of the International Covenant as a whole into domestic legislation. 

The National Action Plan of Human Rights, which was being elaborated at the moment and would be presented to Parliament before the end of the year, presented a platform for human rights in which all ministries would participate and approached human rights as an issue that concerned all aspects of life.  The Plan also called for the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and recommended the establishment of a national human rights institution.  Concerning the recommendations received during its Universal Periodic Review, the delegation said that Iceland would consider the ratification of the Optional Protocol after completing the study on legal implications of this step. 

The only benefits that had been cut following the collapse in 2008 were maternity and paternity leave; this had been a temporary measure however and the new Bill would increase maximum ceiling of the parental leave pay.  The Government was aware of the financial situation of single parent families and the 2013 budget would see increased contribution to families with children and would raise the rental housing benefits.  The aim of transfer of services for persons with disabilities was to mainstream them with other services provided by the municipalities and to ensure that there was no discrimination and that persons with disabilities should enjoy services like any other people living in the country.

The gender pay gap had been an issue for a long time and its reasons were many; women still carried more responsibility in homes and childcare then men, although this was changing for younger generations and also as a result of paternity leave which enabled fathers to feel closer to their children.  Reducing the pay gap was a priority for the Government which was in the process of instituting the equality payment standards and guidelines and had developed a special Action Plan on Gender Equality which emphasized cooperation with social partners.

Since 2008 lots of work had been done on vocational training and rehabilitation; legislation to this effect had been adopted in June 2012 and aimed to ensure and facilitate the return to the market of people who lost their health.  The Ministry of Welfare was working on the new version of the Anti-Discrimination Law which would be presented to the Parliament by end of 2012 and would cover discrimination on multiple grounds, such as sex, race, origin, ability and others.

Questions from Experts

In a second round of questions and comments, a Committee Expert recognized the impact of the banking crisis on unemployment and asked about the current rate and disaggregated figures on unemployment, including on long term unemployment.  What were the plans to expand the possibility for foreigners to obtain work permits?  Minimum wage in Iceland was not defined by law but was a result of collective bargaining; did collective bargaining agreements cover all areas and all workers in the country?  What happened when a workplace accident occurred where the employer had not undertaken all the safety measures prescribed by the Government?  Could the delegation comment on any plans on reducing the legal working hours, which at the moment were set at 40 hours per week?

Another Expert asked how a foreign worker could change an employer and about companies’ compliance rate with the new law setting the quotas on participation of women in managing boards.

The Committee had previously expressed concern about access to employment by persons with disabilities; the lack of data about their participation in labour market was strange for a country as developed as Iceland.  A large group of persons with disabilities lived either in poverty or on a brink of poverty and the disability benefit was not sufficient to achieve minimum subsistence levels. 

The delegation was also asked about the continuation of debt relief measures for the lowest income groups; the increase in the number of people, especially the elderly, seeking assistance and how it was being addressed; and the percentage of single parent families at risk of poverty and how it had evolved over the past four to five years.

An Expert recommended a tougher legislation on the banking sector in order to avoid negative consequences on economic, social and cultural rights and asked Iceland to prepare a more detailed report next time.

Domestic violence was not criminalized in the Icelandic legislation, noted an Expert and inquired about policies to combat the scourge of trafficking in persons and about policies concerning drug and tobacco consumption.

Could the delegation provide information about the success of the law on mortgages and comment on the possibility of increasing health assistance to immigrants and children with disabilities, and the general increase for the health budget to three per cent of the gross domestic product as internationally recommended?  What were the suicide rates among the youth in comparison with other Scandinavian countries?

A Committee Expert inquired about the position of Iceland on prostitution and who was punished if it was punishable, the prostitute or the person using the service, and how Iceland addressed pornography on the Internet.  The delegation was also asked to provide information about the reproductive and sexual health system in the country.

Response by the Delegation

In response to these questions and comments, the delegation said that approximately 8,000 people were registered as unemployed with the Ministry of Labour in October 2012, which set the unemployment rate at 5.2 per cent; 4.7 per cent among men, 5.8 per cent for women and 14.5 per cent for youth 16 to 24 years of age.  Concerning long term unemployment, 55.8 per cent of those registered had been unemployed for longer than six months.  Special programmes for long-term unemployed persons would be announced in December and would target over 3,000 people who had been unemployed for longer than 36 months.

Foreign workers could easily file a complaint with a trade union, the so-called show stewards, without a risk for the current employment.  Change of employers was not difficult and was possible even before the expiry of a temporary work permit.  Labour inspectors investigated workplace accidents and if they found a breach, obliged employers to bring the workplace in conformity with the regulations; it was also possible to fine employers for serious breaches of workplace safety.  After 2008, the official working time had been reduced.

The article in the Gender Equality Act defined the obligation of employers to give the possibility to employees to have balanced private and professional lives.  Everyone who had an interest in an administrative decision that affected the person had access to the Parliamentary Ombudsmen.  It was very unlikely that the institution of ombudsmen would become a national human rights institution; Iceland was looking at different structures for this purpose.  Concerning the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, two aspects of the ratification process were taking place at the moment: translation of the text and legal amendments to allow persons with disabilities to freely choose who assisted them during the voting.  The ratification process was taking time because the Government wanted to ensure that it had a real impact on the lives of persons with disabilities.

In 2007, the Government had spent 7.5 per cent of the gross domestic product on health care, and this rose to 7.6 per cent in 2008 and to 7.9 in 2009.  In 2010 the health expenditure represented 7.5 per cent and in 2011 it was 7 per cent of the gross domestic product. 

Everyone was entitled to health services.  Obesity was decreasing in recent years, particularly among children; about five per cent of children aged 12 were obese and about 20 per cent of adults.  There were programmes in schools to promote healthy eating and physical activity, while the advertisement of junk food in children programmes was prohibited.  The consumption of drugs and alcohol by youth aged 15-16 had been steadily decreasing; 14 per cent of adults smoked.  The new Action Plan on Health would be submitted to Parliament in the next few weeks. 

On the whole, there were no signs of deterioration of the health status of the population and waiting lists were not longer than they had been before the crisis.  In some cases there was too much pressure on health workers, even though the ratio of doctors and nurses per thousand inhabitants was very satisfactory.  Medical equipment suffered from the crisis as renewal had not been carried out, but now the Government had allotted a certain budget for the necessary renewal of equipment.

The labour market in Iceland was covered by the collective agreement applicable to all employees.  The Unemployment Act encouraged people to remain active in the search for job, with some exceptions, such as the inability to take jobs anywhere in the country for family reasons.  Exceptions also applied to the elderly, people with a decreased ability to work or caretakers.

The disability pension in Iceland was 203,000 Krona, unemployment benefit was at 167,000 Krona and the minimum wage was set at 193,000 Krona as per the collective agreement.  There had been no budgetary cuts in social security, pensions and social pensions, but some private pension funds had cut their pensions, in which case social security had come in to support those living below the subsistence line.  In 2011, 7.7 per cent of the elderly were at risk of poverty, down from 31 per cent in 2009.  In 2011, some 28.4 per cent of single parents were at risk of poverty, down from 30.1 per cent in 2010 and up from 27 per cent in 2006.

The act on the quota for the participation of women in managing boards of companies applied to 321 companies in Iceland and until now 47 per cent had fulfilled the requirements.

The Government had launched programmes for people in financial difficulties and in 2010 had established debtor ombudsmen to provide assistance to individuals in very serious financial difficulties.  Debtor ombudsmen also had the mandate to apply the provisions of the Debt Mitigation Act to individuals and in 2011 had received 4,400 applications for debt mitigation.

There were non-governmental organizations in Iceland which were partially funded by the Government; the Government counted on cooperation with them in the setting up of the national human rights institution.

Various efforts had been invested in fighting trafficking in persons based on the clear link between trafficking in persons and prostitution.  Legal safeguards to prevent trafficking in persons therefore also included prostitution.  Iceland had ratified the United Nations Convention and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, as well as the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and had amended its Penal Code accordingly. 

The act of prostitution was not criminalized, facilitating and buying it was.  The national Action Plan on Trafficking in Human Beings included education of the police, active participation in international cooperation and the funding of projects implemented by non-governmental organizations specialized in providing assistance to women and children who were victims of abuse.  A shelter for women getting out of prostitution and victims of trafficking had been established with one of the non-governmental organizations and was mainly funded by the Government.  Child pornography was banned and the possession of it was punishable by law. 

Follow up Questions

Committee Experts commented on the unemployment rates which were rather low compared to other European countries and agreed with the delegation that unemployment benefits should not be abused.  They asked whether an informal employment sector existed in the country; about measures to support families living beyond the poverty line; and about the prison term for buying sex services and for buying sex overseas. 

Response by the Delegation

          Responding to those questions, the delegation said that the grey area in employment indeed existed and the Government was cooperating with social partners; inspectors from the social partners may carry out inspection visits to an employer‘s workplace to verify that the employer and his/her employees worked in accordance with the current acts, regulations and collective agreements.  After the collapse, special programmes had been instituted in cooperation with tax authorities called “Everybody Wins” to introduce the value-added tax reimbursement for the repairs or other works carried out in private homes. 

People in difficulties could always address themselves to the municipal social services where a social worker and a psychologist would work with them to find a solution.  In 2013, the Government would increase the contribution to families with children and to single parent families.  The Government was very concerned about the 3,700 persons who had been unemployed for over 36 months now and during the year 2013 and was starting a special programme in December to support their return to work, either through supporting a job in the municipalities, State organizations and the private market, or through vocational rehabilitation for people who could not work because of health reasons.  The prison term for prostitution was one year and the extraterritorial principle applied in cases of child prostitution; civil servants were banned from buying sex services and this was the best practice borrowed from Norway.

Questions by Experts

In a further series of questions, a Committee Expert expressed his satisfaction with the progress achieved in Iceland in the high level of compliance with provisions to ensure economic, social and cultural rights and asked for more information about salaries for artists and the explanation about measures to facilitate participation in the cultural life by children from low income families, children of migrants, the elderly and persons with disabilities.

Budgetary cuts following the 2008 crisis had struck the education sector and resulted in a reduction in the number of teachers and the merging of classes, an Expert said.  Why had Iceland not been able to avert this crisis and what measures were in place to mitigate its impact on school children?  The drop out rate was high and school enrolment was at 100 per cent; why was this drop out rate so high in a country rich in resources and able to take care of its population.  How many students were children of immigrants and what were the drop out rates for this group?

If there were still traces of indigenous peoples in the population of Iceland, how was the cultural identity of those people protected?  What was being done to ensure access to the Internet for the most disadvantaged population?

Response by the Delegation

In response to these questions and comments, the delegation said the education system in Iceland was very inclusive; in recent years huge progress had been made at the upper secondary level for ages 16 to 20.  There was a special department for children with disabilities, who were entitled by the law to four years of education at the upper secondary level.  This was the only group at this level which had a zero drop out rate.  Until recently Iceland had been a rather homogenous society, but immigration had been on the increase lately. 

Children of immigrants were enrolled in schools; the drop out rate in the lower levels was zero, but only some were enrolled in the upper secondary schools.  It was possibly due to lack of their preparation and this situation was of concern to the Government.  There were no indigenous or ethnic groups in Iceland, with the exception of immigrants.  The new legislation had accepted sign language as the first language for deaf pupils.  Less than one per cent of the population were second-generation immigrants.

There were six independent universities in the country which covered most studies especially at the BA or BS levels; master and doctoral degrees were on the rise.  A high proportion of students were using Erasmus or cooperation with Nordic countries and it was customary for students to study abroad for at least part of the time.

The revision of the education sector and the legislation on all levels of education had been completed just before the crisis in 2008; out of this revision a consensus arose on the new education system, especially on the upper secondary level, where schools were supposed to write their own curriculum with support from the Ministry, in order to increase the varieties of courses and lines of studies.

In the past, up to half the teachers had been without qualifications, especially in the rural areas; today that was not the case particularly in the compulsory and upper secondary education, but it was possible that there might be some in rural areas.  Many training and professional education programmes had been organized for teachers, and the new law had defined that a masters degree was necessary for a person to qualify as a teacher at all levels.  This was very difficult to implement, particularly at the kindergarten level.  Sexual education was increasingly a part of the curriculum and in the new curriculum was included in the health and welfare section.  Schools had independence in how to teach sexual education, but were obliged to follow the criteria of the curriculum and they had access to various material from the National Institution of Educational Material.  It was very common for pupils to visit libraries, museums or theatres in the country, and music was introduced in schools which all had orchestras.

The Government was very concerned about high drop out rates at the upper secondary level; before the crisis, the major reason for dropping out was finding work and usually well paid work.  After the crisis a new plan Iceland 2020 had been put in place to improve the economical situation and the labour market; one of the goals in this plan was to decrease the unqualified adult population from 30 to 10 per cent of the population in the year 2020. 

The translation budget was significant for the translation of Icelandic books and literature to other languages, as well as the translation of literature in other languages to Icelandic.  Parliament was now discussing the new cultural policy prepared two years ago at the conference on culture in the country in which many people contributed to how the policy should be built.  There were two types of salaries for artists: honorary salaries were attributed by the Parliament, while working artist salaries needed to be applied for; an artist’s salary was higher than the minimum wage for unskilled workers. 

With regard to access to the Internet, 94.6 per cent of homes in Iceland had access to a computer connected to the Internet, 79 per cent of the people in the lowest income group had access and 100 per cent of higher income individuals had access to the Internet at home.

The Polish group was the biggest minority in Iceland representing almost three per cent of the population.  The recent report of the United Nations Children Fund noted that bullying was among the principal concerns of immigrant children in Iceland.  An intergovernmental awareness raising project was being organized to decrease bullying in schools and at work places.

Concluding Remarks

GUDRIDUR THORSTEINSDOTTIR, Director General, Department of Coordination and Development, Ministry of Welfare of Iceland, thanked the Committee for their constructive questions and comments and expressed gratitude to those civil society organizations that had submitted their reports to the Committee regarding the implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant.  Iceland had been particularly hard hit by the crisis which had caused a 20 per cent devaluation of the national currency and high rates of unemployment.  The Government had dealt with the crisis with emphasis on redistribution and social protection.  It had been a challenge to safeguard the social welfare system over the past several years, but the Government had been successful and the country was now firmly on the road to recovery.

ARIRANGA GOVINDASAMY PILLAY, Committee Chairperson, said that the Committee appreciated the cooperation of the delegation and the information it had provided on pertinent issues.  The Committee now had a better understanding of the achievements of Iceland and the remaining challenges confronting the country in the field of economic, social and cultural rights, which would be spelled out in the concluding observations which would be ready on Friday, 30 November.

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