President of Iceland

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 28 September 1993

Mr President of the Parliamentary Assembly, Madam Secretary General, members of the Assembly, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure for me to be here today as the first Icelandic head of state to be given the privilege of addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of this renowned European Organisation. On behalf of the people of Iceland I should also like to repeat my thanks to you, Mr President, for your recent visit to Iceland, which served to increase still further the already deep respect felt there towards the Council of Europe and the ideals that it represents.

Iceland has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1951. It is geographically the continent’s westernmost outpost in the north Atlantic and has always been an integral part of Europe – although I have recently seen some maps that fall into the temptation of printing a rubric of information over Iceland about how to read the so-called new Europe, as if Iceland no longer belonged to the continent. But Europe is as old as it has ever been; it is only the times that are new.

Our island was settled in the ninth century by Viking explorers, who left tyranny in search of freedom and a new home. Most stayed in Iceland, but others journeyed even further to reach Greenland and the shores of America and – perhaps even more remarkable – they had the knowledge to find their way back. We might say that even though our forefathers moved away from the Europe of their day, they never left it behind but, rather, they extended it. Physical distance means little in today’s world of jet travel and satellite TV, but in those days the often perilous sea crossing to Iceland did serve as a barrier. Iceland has avoided the continual redrawing of borders which characterises Europe even today because as an island nation we have had the ocean to do the job for us. At the same time, of course, the ocean was for centuries the Icelanders’ only bridge back to where their origins lay. Perhaps this co-existent sense of distance and closeness helped create a cultural climate in early Iceland that would allow important elements of the European heritage to be preserved there while they were rapidly being forgotten elsewhere. It has been Iceland’s privilege and good fortune throughout the centuries to remember, so to speak, so much about Europe, keeping it in trust for our fellow Europeans while their thoughts were occupied with carving out their own identities, with becoming nations and with pursuing the progress from which we too have benefited.

In the sagas, written in the ancient Viking language which has hardly changed up to the present day, we can read incredibly detailed histories of the kings and other major figures in Norway and much farther afield in Europe, during many of the centuries that are mistakenly called the Dark Ages. And the Althing, the unique republican parliament set up by the first Icelanders in AD 930, which happens to be the oldest extant national assembly in the world, preserved through its laws our only source of information about the ancient Germanic social order, whose principles are the roots of much of our legislation today. Moreover, Iceland’s ancient poetry and prose are the only substantial source of knowledge about the cosmology and world order of the Germanic peoples whose descendants account for more than one-third of the population of Europe today.

Indeed, for us Icelanders, the Council of Europe has a similar place in the world order to the distinguished mythological god Heimdall in the ancient pantheon of our forefathers, as described in the classic Prose Edda by Iceland’s greatest medieval historian Snorri Sturluson: “Heimdall is called the white god, and he is great and holy. Nine maidens gave birth to him, and they are all sisters.” The Council of Europe is similar, given birth to by its thirty-one member states, who are all sisters too. Snorri continues: “He lives in a place called Himinbjörg, ‘Cliff of Heaven’, by the rainbow Bifrost. He is the warden of the gods, and sits there at the end of heaven to guard the bridge from the cliff giants. He needs less sleep than a bird, and can see a hundred leagues in front of him as well by night as by day. He can hear the grass growing on the earth and the wool on sheep, and everything that makes more noise. He has the trumpet known as the horn Gjdll, and its blast can be heard all over the world.”

This is probably not the way most of you would think of describing the Council of Europe, but it is one example of the diversity that gives European culture such exceptional depth and strength. Below the level of being Europeans, we are distinct nations, and below that, we are individuals. Respect for the individual, which underlies all European values, is based on tolerance towards, and encouragement of, cultural diversity. We share the fact that we are all different, if you like, and Icelanders take a pride in refusing to become a suburb in uniformity.

The Council of Europe’s wide field of activities, embracing culture, education, human rights and social justice and welfare, are all compatible parts of the European heritage, but I would like to make special mention of its constructive work regarding minorities. Although minorities are an important reflection of the cultural diversity which is Europe’s hallmark, they are also one of the most volatile unresolved issues since the establishment of the new European order. Earlier this year the Norwegian Prime Minister, Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland, addressed this Assembly and gave special priority to the need to fight against racism, xenophobia and intolerance. We are all aware of the problems that these negative sentiments have been causing in many European countries recently. I applaud the Parliamentary Assembly’s guidance for seeking solutions to these problems and thereby promoting both political stability in the continent and the establishment of respect for all individuals regardless of their ethnic background, culture, religion or colour.

There is a negative side to cultural awareness which has been reappearing in certain parts of Europe where old hostilities and rivalries from a different age have been revived with tragic consequences. Everyone in Europe is shocked at the fighting and bloodshed taking place in our own continent, which is the result above all of mistrust and intolerance. Bodies such as the Council of Europe have done precious work in furthering understanding and instilling respect for the only values on which peaceful co-existence can be based, namely, the rights and dignity of others. It is also a handsome tribute to the reputation of the Council that eight central and east European states have become members of the Council of Europe. The Council’s standards for admission are admired all over the world and seen as a sort of stamp of quality, a noble and dignifying aim to achieve. Membership itself, furthermore, does not exempt a state from constant vigilance. I am happy to say that Iceland has of course agreed to make changes to its legislation following recommendations from the Council of Europe. The Althing, the Icelandic Parliament, will now consider a bill in its forthcoming session to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into the Icelandic legal code.

It is obvious that general prosperity and well-being have been the key to the very close co-operation which the European nations have managed to achieve, as well as being the guiding force for the future. The fact that east European states are now looking westwards for economic improvement is a gesture of friendship and I would like to urge the Council of Europe, its Parliamentary Assembly and all of you present today to give still more attention to the field of European culture, for I believe that a strong cultural awareness will make it easier for the nations of east Europe to re-establish themselves and gain the necessary self-confidence for tackling the problems that they face. After all, even during times of conflict in Europe, our continent has never lost its cultural dignity.

Iceland has been fortunate to guarantee a very high standard of living for its citizens on an individual basis, even though the national economy carries little weight in the world, which is not surprising for a nation of only 265 000 people. But everyday life in Iceland differs in a number of important respects from that in most other countries of Europe, because of our close relationship with the forces of nature and above all because of our reliance on the sea.

Nature is generous in Iceland, even though the land itself is not fertile in the way that undoubtedly played a great part in making the Mediterranean area the cradle of civilisation. In fact, Iceland is a harsh country where man has been doing battle with nature through the centuries simply in order to survive. Volcanoes, glaciers and a relatively unproductive soil made the land man’s enemy rather than his friend up until very recent times. We know that everywhere man has been nature’s enemy too. Man fought back against nature in Iceland by overgrazing the land with his sheep, and cutting down the woodland, until the country faced one of the most serious problems of erosion in the world. This century, the Icelanders have been working on restoring their land by pioneering work in land reclamation, including reforestation and protection, with outstanding results. Today, man and nature are friends again in Iceland. In a world that is losing so much cultivable land, Iceland foresees possibly being able to share its knowledge with other nations in reclaiming eroded areas in the future.

The greater part of Iceland’s energy requirements are met by harnessing pollution-free hydro and geothermal energy resources, so man has tamed the mighty forces of nature which once threatened his existence. The problem in much of Europe, of course, is quite different, in that man has not only taken unfair advantage of nature’s generosity but, probably more seriously, treated it as a dumping ground for waste from the industries on which he largely lives.

The ocean is more than a cultural bridge for Iceland, because it is economically vital to us, in the literal sense of vital which means giving life. The ocean is our green and fertile fields, and without the harvests from it Iceland would never have managed to establish a modem economy with a high standard of living. Because of Iceland’s heavy dependence on fish products – which account for almost 80% of export earnings – the physical and biological state of the ocean is far more significant for us than for most other nations. At present Iceland is experiencing a prolonged economic depression which is partly because of the need to conserve the stock of our most valuable commercial fish species, cod, to ensure that we will be able to continue to live from fishing it in the future. Other countries have had to do the same, but the impact of such measures has normally not been felt at a national level, only locally. In fact, sovereignty and jurisdiction over the fishing grounds which are Iceland’s most valuable resource are the main reason why Icelandic governments have deliberately not entertained the possibility of applying for membership of the European Union. In the past, Icelandic governments have not been opposed in principle to the so-called four freedoms and have already adapted business legislation to that of the rest of Europe, as a member of EFTA taking part in the European Economic Area process.

As a nation which lives by harvesting marine resources, Iceland has always advocated and practised not only keeping the ocean pure and preventing man from destroying or overexploiting it, but maintaining its inherent natural balance. I note that there is a motion on your agenda for this afternoon’s session concerning marine mammals. We Icelanders are proud of the success that has been achieved in building up and strengthening the whale stocks in our waters. As early as 1916, Iceland imposed a 30-year ban on all whaling in order to protect whale stocks from the threat posed by the world whaling industry. Today, Iceland abides by the International Whaling Commission’s zero quota on commercial whaling but Icelandic governments and specialists openly state that the marine ecology balance would be seriously disrupted if a permanent ban were imposed on all whaling, even if such whaling were to be kept within very cautious limits and controlled on strictly scientific principles. From this point of view, it is important for the notion of sustainable management to be applied to whaling just like any other harvesting of living marine resources, as was in fact recognised by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro last year.

I know that a number of significant resolutions have been adopted by the Council of Europe to promote a more harmonious relationship between man and nature, to reduce the threats to the environment and enhance the quality of life. The Council’s present agenda also includes a question on what special measures have to be taken to help protect fresh water sources in Europe. Being able to drink nature’s own water is seen almost as a basic human right in Iceland and we welcome and support efforts everywhere else to restore natural resources. Recognising a problem goes halfway to rectifying it.

I hope that all this goes to show that Iceland does take an active and responsible concern in environmental issues, and also that, despite our small population, we have a voice to make heard and an example to set at a global level.

Environmental concern is a relatively new subject for global co-operation but Iceland has been active internationally in other areas ever since it gained independence at the end of the second world war. It joined the United Nations in 1946 and became a founder member of Nato in 1949, a member without an army. Iceland also takes part in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe and has accepted an offer of associate membership of Western European Union. On the economic front, it is active in EFTA and will soon be so in the EEA when it takes effect. It goes without saying that Iceland also takes an active part in Nordic cooperation through the Nordic Council, government cooperation and elsewhere, which is of great value for all the Nordic countries.

Small nations – which I prefer to call smaller nations, since nationhood is something which can never be inherently small – can often contribute something that can never be measured in money terms alone. One of the models of mature international co-operation has been the close links established in all fields of life among the five Nordic countries: Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, through the Nordic Council. Each has a strong democratic tradition and a highly developed society and as a group the Nordic countries have earned global respect for their efforts in certain fields of enhancing the quality of life of all mankind, particularly in supporting human rights and environmental improvement.

Through bodies such as those mentioned above and the Council of Europe, Iceland is involved in concerted European efforts in many directions whose purpose and results need to be under constant review. We must never let our attention stray, not only regarding smaller cultures or minorities but in areas which actually concern the greater part of the population. I would like to make special mention of your great initiative to improve women’s human rights and their social, economic and cultural participation.

Although we in Europe may rightly congratulate ourselves on what we have achieved in terms of general welfare so far, the fact remains that 50 % of the population is still at a relative disadvantage, albeit a much slighter one than before. Legislative obstacles to women’s rights have largely been removed but a great deal remains to be done on instilling awareness and motivation for taking advantage of the opportunities.

It saddens me to think of all the potential which remains unrealised for as long as women play a less than fully active part in our societies. Motivation to change this situation must be inspired in men and women alike. I have often discussed this question with men in many countries and have never heard any of them who do not agree entirely. Men know best of all of women’s intelligence, capacity and skills, and know that women are true friends to them.

Another area for improvement is youth, a subject to which we can probably never devote enough time and effort. I welcome the pending youth summit, not only for the progress which I am sure it will make but also for the recognition implied in the decision to hold it at the same time as the summit of heads of state and government in Vienna in October. It is in the nature of youth to have hope, and it is hope that we have to give youth. A better society for the future cannot be built without motivating and mobilising youth, and I applaud the fact that the delegates to the youth summit will be dealing in particular with the fight against racism, xenophobia and intolerance, since these are problems that will not be eradicated overnight and can surely not be in better hands than with the citizens of tomorrow. We all look forward to the summit meeting of heads of state and government on the future role of the Council of Europe in the new Europe, which was initiated by the President of the French Republic, Mr François Mitterrand. Such a meeting is of great importance now that the Council of Europe is finally reaching its main aim of bringing all European states into closer co-operation.

It is posterity, the future, which will look back to our words and deeds, whether we have been constructive or destructive. As Europeans, we all have a keen sense of history and know that a lesson will be learnt, for better or for worse, from the way we tackle the problems facing us today. Diversity is the great strength of the European heritage and we must foster this quality, and never allow it to divide us. The fight against prejudice is a movement towards peace. I can only express my admiration for a body like the Council of Europe with its noble aims of respect for basic, universal human rights and dignity, and I thank you deeply for the opportunity to address you from the perspective of Iceland which, as the westernmost member of the European family, has a different viewpoint on many aspects of life but still feels a strong sense of common purpose with everything you stand for.

Almost two thousand years ago, the great historian Tacitus meditated on democracy and freedom and said: Kara temporum felicitate ubi sentire quae veils et quae sentias dicere licet. “It is a rare fortune of these days that a man may think what he likes and say what he thinks.” We, too, have the rare fortune to live these days, and may this great democratic institution, the Council of Europe, continue to think what it likes and say what it thinks for at least another two thousand years.