Our Responsibility - Iceland's Security and Defence

Address delivered to a meeting of the Icelandic Atlantic Treaty Association and Varðberg on 29 March 2007.






Sixteen years ago, (on 3 April 1991), when I first stood for election to the Althingi, I wrote these words in an article in Morgunblaðið:


“Icelanders must take an active part in the formulation and application of their security policy.  We should take over from the US Iceland Defence Force to the extent that this would be compatible with the aims of the Defence Agreement regarding the security of the country and its surrounding waters.  We should knock on the doors of nations in Europe and ask for closer collaboration with them in the field of security.”


My intention today is to give an account of the current status of Iceland’s defence and security arrangements. I will be the first to admit that it has taken us longer than I envisaged back in 1991 to take over from the Iceland Defence Force.  In fact we have still not done this, since our national defences are still in the hands of the Americans.


I do not believe it is beyond the capacity of the Government of Iceland to take on the security obligations of an independent state and to respond swiftly and effectively to threats so as to ensure and defend the security of its citizens. If we want to, we can be active and reliable participants, along with other nations well-disposed towards us, in ensuring security in our part of the world.  If we play our cards aright, we can tackle the challenge of a totally changed environment in a rational and effective manner.


Security and defence are now, even more than previously, internal rather than foreign-policy affairs.  Admittedly, the cornerstones of Iceland’s national defence policy remain the Defence Agreement with the USA and our participation in NATO.  On the other hand, when it comes to the security of our people, collaboration with institutions other than the military authorities on both sides of the Atlantic is more important than ever before in our history in order to evaluate the dangers that may threaten us.


These facts can be seen in the agreement concluded with the USA last autumn, outlining collaboration with the US Coast Guard, the FBI, customs and immigration officers.  Under international regulations on safety in aviation and shipping, security in these areas is now the responsibility of the civil authorities, both in Iceland and elsewhere. For example, the US Department of Homeland Security, and not the Department of Defence, now administers these fields.


The nature of collaboration on security between Iceland and the USA underwent a substantial change with the introduction of the new arrangement on the basis of the Defence Agreement.  The emphasis has shifted from national defence, in the traditional sense, to homeland security, in which civil institutions will be increasingly involved.


If we look at collaboration between the countries of Europe, we find the same pattern.  Under the Schengen scheme, the focus is increasingly on co-operation between police forces in order to achieve greater security.  It has been pointed out that the European Union co-operates with the US Department of Homeland Security and that as things are at present, civil co-operation of this type is of greater importance to the ordinary citizen than maintaining heavily armed military forces.


Iceland now has a greater security role to play than ever before, both in terms of our collaboration with the USA and in terms of the policy that the Government of Iceland adopted before the departure of the US Iceland Defence Force.


For nearly half a century, the Icelandic Atlantic Treaty Association and Varðberg have encouraged purposeful debate on Iceland’s security and the best means of ensuring it.  The work of these societies, and their policies, have supported the rational and fruitful policies pursued by the Icelandic government.  Now, as we stand once again at a crossroads on these issues, there is no better forum for examining the current state of affairs and looking ahead into the future.



An agreement on Iceland’s future defence arrangements, based on the Defence Agreement with the USA of 1951, was made in September 2006. When the Government of Iceland unveiled this agreement on 26 September 2006, it also made a declaration concerning Iceland’s new responsibilities following the departure of the US Iceland Defence Force.


Work has proceeded on the basis of this declaration, and progress has been made in the direction adopted.


Firstly, it was declared that a state-owned limited company was to be set up to manage the conversion and future development of the former defence area at Keflavík Airport. The company was to be entrusted with putting the area, and all the improvements on it, to profitable civilian use without disrupting the communities in the immediate vicinity of the airport.


The company was founded in October 2006, and has now advertised the properties at the Keflavík Base for sale.  Many parties have shown an interest in them; for example, ideas for siting an international university there were announced on 15 March 2007.


Part of the former agreed area will be a “security zone” with facilities for military aircraft to land, under the control of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.  In collaboration with the Iceland Defence Force, the ministry exercised domestic authority over the defence areas; now, as is only natural, it is reducing its presence and that of its agencies at Keflavík Airport.


Secondly, the government declared that as a general measure to increase security, the revision of the legislation on civil protection should include provisions for a centre to coordinate all bodies involved in domestic security measures, both as regards natural catastrophes and man-made threats. To ensure maximum cohesion within the centre, it was decided that its governing board should include the Prime Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs, the Minister of Transport, Telecommunications and Tourism, the Minister of Health and Social Security and the Minister for the Environment.  It was decided that day-to-day operations of the centre should be the responsibility of the Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs, who was entrusted with preparing a new Civil Protection Act.


Work has gone ahead over the past few months on the drafting of the new act, and the draft has been completed as far as I am concerned.  I presented it to the Cabinet in the first week of March 2007 and then sent it to parliamentary groups of the government.  I was fully aware that a bill of this magnitude was too large to be passed during the lifetime of the current parliament; on the other hand, I consider that the natural course is to have its contents discussed in public.


Under the draft bill, the aim of civil protection is to prepare, plan and implement measures designed to prevent or limit, as far as possible, injury to the public and damage to property resulting from natural catastrophes, epidemics, military action, terrorism and other causes, and to provide emergency relief and assistance in connection with damage, actual or potential.


In other words, civil protection is intended to cover measures against both natural and man-made catastrophes.  Response strategies designed on the basis of the act should take account of this broad definition, and the draft text of the act emphasises the preventive and response aspects of civil protection.  Civil protection on a nationwide basis, in the air, at sea and on land, is the responsibility of central government, while responsibility at the local level rests with the local authorities, acting in collaboration with central government.


The Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs is the highest authority in the field of civil protection in Iceland, and is responsible for issuing rules on alert levels after receiving the proposals of the National Police Commissioner, who is responsible for administering civil protection and taking decisions on alert levels at any given time, and reporting these decisions to the minister.


A coordination and control centre, under a special committee, will be set up at National Police Commissioner’s office to supervise civil protection measures in accordance with the alert level and the response strategy applying to each individual situation.  It will also be possible to use the centre in rescue and salvage operations of all types.


These plans are based on the experience gained at the search and rescue operation control centre in Skógarhlíð, which has been employed more and more often by the parties responsible for responding to emergency calls due to the high quality of coordination achieved and the good results produced by the work it has done.


My idea is that the coordination and control centre should be under a nine-person committee.  The chairman should be appointed by the Minister, without nomination; the other members should be nominated by the National Police Commissioner, the Coast Guard, the Director-General of Public Health, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, the emergency telephone service and the search and rescue association ICE-SAR (Landsbjörg), in addition to which the Minister of Transport, Telecommunications and Tourism and the Union of Local Authorities should each nominate a representative.  The committee would be responsible for examining the internal structure and operations of the parties involved, and for their coordination, while the control of response measures would be determined by the response strategies.


What I have described here is, in fact, the structure that has been developed over the past few years through increasingly close collaboration between the parties involved; the intention now is to define it in a legal framework.


It is this legal framework that is the completely new element in my draft legislation. According to it, the Civil Protection Council would be abolished, being replaced by a new Civil Protection and Security Council, which would be chaired by the Prime Minister; this takes account of the declaration made by the government on the departure of the Iceland Defence Force.


The role of the Civil Protection and Security Council would be as follows: to formulate policy on civil protection and security, taking account of the current situation and future trends; to define priorities in civil protection and security, including preventive measures; to ensure the necessary coordination in response strategies by public bodies; to ensure sufficient levels of supplies and equipment to secure national survival in times of emergency and reconstruction following catastrophes, and to take other measures that the council considers necessary in order to achieve the highest possible level of security.  Administration of the council, and preparations for its meetings, would be in the hands of the Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs.


The ministers I mentioned before would also sit on the Civil Protection and Security Council, and in addition, the Prime Minister would be able to co-opt one or two ministers on an ad hoc basis to deal with particular issues.  The ministers would be joined on the council by their permanent under-secretaries and the directors of agencies under their control, and the council would also include representatives of ICE-SAR, the Red Cross, co-ordinated emergency telephone services and the local authorities.


By having submitted and introduced this draft Civil Protection Act, I consider that I have discharged the duties that were assigned to me in this area in the government’s declaration of 26 September 2006.


Other responsibilities are also assigned to the Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs under the government’s declaration.


The third item in the government’s declaration states that as work on the new structure of policing proceeds, collaboration between the police, the Coast Guard, the fire brigades and the search and rescue teams is to be made even closer so as to guarantee the participation of a reserve force at any place in the country where it is needed.


Together with the draft legislation on civil protection, I have submitted a proposal for an amendment to the Police Act, under which the National Police Commissioner would be enabled, with the approval of the Minister of Justice, to add police reservists to the force in order to increase security.


There used to be a provision of this type in the Police Act from 1940 to 1996, when it was deleted – for what reason, I do not know.


Search and rescue teams have proved invaluable as auxiliary and reserve forces when it comes to search and rescue operations, civil protection operations and other general supervisory tasks.  But the police may need reinforcements of another type, and the National Police Commissioner’s office has submitted proposals to me on the establishment of a salaried 240-man reserve force for deployment in special policing and civil protection operations. These reservists, who would be recruited from among members of the search and rescue teams, the fire brigades, auxiliary nurses, security guards, peacekeeping forces and ex-policemen, would be available for call-up following special training provided by the National Police Commissioner’s office.


Under the proposed amendment, the National Police Commissioner’s office would be in charge of maintaining this force and its equipment.  It would be intended to meet needs arising in order to guard important installations or sites, carry out border patrol, security tasks, crowd control, general policing duties, traffic control and special tasks.


It has been estimated that the cost of establishing the reserve force would be about ISK 224 million, and annual operating costs would amount to about ISK 222 million.


The addition of this reserve force would enable the police to call out a trained force of about 1,000 men, with additional support available from the search and rescue teams, fire brigades and other parties, as appropriate.


I should mention that a special agreement has been made with the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on response to hazards posed by chemical, biological or radioactive weapons.  Capacity in this field needs to be expanded further.


The fourth item in the government’s declaration states that the government is to be guaranteed the necessary authorisation in law to enable it to cooperate closely with governments and international bodies involving the exchange of confidential information.


Under a clear legal provision passed by the Althingi in 2006, a National Security Unit was set up at the beginning of this year at the National Police Commissioner’s office; this was an important step towards putting this part of the declaration into practice.  This unit has proved its worth in the few months during which it has been in operation; one of its roles is to identify threats in collaboration with comparable bodies in other countries.


It was also decided that an Icelandic liasion officer should be based in the Europol headquarters in the Hague, and he has already begun the task of working on information with Icelandic interests in mind.


Last summer I had an examination made by anti-terrorist specialists from the European Union of the standing of the Icelandic police with regard to defences against terrorism.  They suggested the establishment of a special national security department, which I have since referred to as a Security and Intelligence Service, which would be able to launch investigations without there being grounds to suspect that an offence had already been committed.  In addition, the Althingi would elect a monitoring committee to supervise the functions of the service.


The recent report by the Committee on Europe on contacts between Iceland and the European Union stated that it was only under the Schengen scheme that we could take part in the EU’s anti-terrorist operations.  Setting up a special Security and Intelligence Service as part of the police force here, on the other hand, would enable us to play a larger part in this field, including working with the EU’s Situation Centre (SITCEN) in Brussels and also becoming members of the national security organisations of the EU countries, Norway and Switzerland. This would also enable us to take part in the Club of Berne, which is an informal forum for the directors of intelligence services in Europe where, amongst other things, anti-terrorist defences are discussed.  The Club of Berne is not one of the EU’s agencies, and Norway and Switzerland are represented in it.


In collaboration with my advisory Committee on Procedural Law, and in consultation with representatives of the parties represented in the Althingi, I have looked into the question of what form the legal framework of this type of collaboration should take. On this point we can easily draw on the experience of our neighbouring countries, e.g. Denmark and Norway.


While it was under the control of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, the office of the Keflavík Airport District Commissioner handled confidential contacts with the NATO agencies.  Though the US Iceland Defence Force has now been withdrawn, and the functions of the Keflavík Airport Commissioner are now handled by the Suðurnes District Commissioner, the ministry is still responsible for these contacts.  In the interests of harmonising the gathering and processing of all security-related information, whether it originates from NATO or elsewhere, it would be natural to make this responsibility of the new National Security Unit and the Coast Guard, as these bodies have the legally-prescribed functions of maintaining security on land and at sea. This arrangement would be the best way of guaranteeing national security.


The fifth item in the government’s declaration states that work is to proceed on the development of a sophisticated telecommunications system (Tetra), covering the whole of Iceland.


On 20 October 2006, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Transport, Telecommunications and Tourism and I signed an agreement with 112 Ltd (the Emergency Telephone Line) on the establishment of a new telecommunications company, Öryggisfjarskipti ehf., which is to develop and operate a Tetra system covering the whole country.


Work on developing this system is scheduled to be completed in May this year.  An agreement has been made with ICE–SAR on the use of the system; all the main security response bodies in Iceland, as well as other parties, have expressed an interest in using it.


With this greatly upgraded Tetra system, Iceland will have the most sophisticated telecommunications system available for security and emergency purposes, covering the whole country and playing a key role in all search and rescue operations.


The Tetra system has a great number of advantages.  It covers a wide geographical range, and combines multi-voice channel functions and a telephone system; thus, all those involved in a particular rescue operation, for example, can share a channel without it being open to non-authorised persons.  This makes for quick exchange of information and the efficient direction and control of search and rescue operations. The movements of all vehicles and individuals involved can be monitored, which makes it easier to supervise and direct operations with greater precision, and can also shorten response time significantly.


The sixth item in the government’s declaration covers the steps to be taken to upgrade the Coast Guard’s helicopter team and the purchase of a new coastguard aircraft and patrol vessel.


Before the US authorities announced, on 15 March 2006, that they would be withdrawing all their forces from Iceland by 30 September the same year, the government had already decided to expand the Coast Guard’s helicopter team.


On 18 April 2006 it was announced that the government had approved my proposal to hire two helicopters of the same type as were already in use by the Coast Guard and that the staff of the Coast Guard be expanded so as to make it possible to operate more helicopters and to maintain two 24-hour helicopter shifts throughout the year. It was also agreed to install equipment for refuelling helicopters in the Coast Guard’s vessels.


All this has been done, and the Coast Guard now has four helicopters and one aircraft in its air fleet.


Two main things remain to be done: to invite tenders for new large helicopters  and to bridge the gap until these helicopters arrive in the country.


On 20 March this year, the cabinet approved my proposals on a long-term solution for the Coast Guard’s helicopter operations, which were in three parts, as follows.


1. That negotiations be continued with the Norwegian government on a joint Norwegian-Icelandic tender for the purchase by both countries of specially-designed long-range search and rescue helicopters in accordance with the specifications that have been publicised in Norway, with a view to tenders being invited later this year.  Furthermore, close collaboration between the two countries should be planned on the future operation of these helicopters.


2. It should be aimed that at least one smaller helicopter should continue to form part of the Coast Guard’s helicopter team, to be employed on suitable projects.


3.  That until the time when the new, long-range search and rescue helicopters are delivered (which will probably be in the period 2011-14), the Coast Guard should continue to hire well-equipped Eurocopter Super Puma and/or Dauphin helicopters similar to those that it has used for the past 20 years and more for use in search and rescue operations.


There has been some discussion of the siting of the Coast Guard’s new helicopters when they arrive. Attention is now being given to this aspect of the helicopter team’s operations.


On 1 December 2006, the cabinet authorised the Minister of Finance and me to conclude a contract with the ASMAR shipyard in Chile on the building of a new patrol vessel for the Coast Guard.  This was signed on 20 December 2006, and the vessel is scheduled to be completed in the middle of 2009.


The patrol vessel will be 93 m long and 16 m wide, with a traction of about 100 t, which means that it will be able to tow large cargo vessels.  It will be much larger, more powerful and better equipped than the Coast Guard’s present vessels, the Ægir and the Týr, which have a length of 71 m, a width of 10 m, a capacity of about 1,300 GRT and a traction of 56 t.  The crew of the new vessel will be of a similar size to those of the present Coast Guard vessels.


Processing of tenders for a new aircraft for the Coast Guard is now in its final phases.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


These are the tasks covered in the government’s declaration that come directly under my field of responsibility as Minister of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs.  Work has gone ahead on them all.


There remain three items in the declaration.


The seventh is that a collaborative forum be set up for representatives of the political parties to discuss the security of Iceland in a broad context.


A Committee on Security, consisting of representatives of the political parties, was in operation throughout the 1980s, and compiled reports; this was generally felt to be a good arrangement, and I drew on the experience of our work in the committee in summer 2004, when I became Chairman of the Committee on Europe and set about organising its work.  In the Committee on Europe, however, we decided not to have reports prepared for us, but to complete our task with the committee’s own report, which was prepared by our secretary, Hreinn Hrafnkelsson, and based on the committee’s own investigations and meetings with a large number of experts.


In general I believe it is useful to have committees including representatives of the various political parties in order to prepare reports on important issues in the field of foreign relations and security.


Item number eight in the government’s declaration concerns changes within the structure of the government ministries with the transfer of responsibilities from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs to other ministries.


We are used to thinking of security and defence issues as being foreign policy issues, for the simple reason that Iceland’s foreign service saw to all dealings with the US forces and the implementation of all decisions in connection with the Defence Agreement.  We have decades of experience of discussing with other parties what they may wish to do in order to ensure Iceland’s security and that of the waters around our country.


Now that the Iceland Defence Force has left the country, and with no areas still qualifying as ‘agreed areas’ in the sense of the Defence Agreement since the US military authorities made them over to the Government of Iceland, the roles of the individual ministries change accordingly.  Naturally, the Ministry of Transport, Telecommunications and Tourism will handle the administration of Keflavík Airport, just as it does in the case of other airports in the country and, as I have described, agencies under the Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs have taken on increased responsibilities in the fields of security and defence.


The final item in the government’s declaration of 26 September 2006 concerns measures to interpret signals from the Radar Agency which are of significance for air traffic control in Icelandic air space.


I believe that the monitoring of these signals should, on the one hand, be the responsibility of the air traffic controllers, and on the other hand that of the staff of the search and rescue monitoring centre in Skógarhlíð, in addition to which they should be fed into the NATO monitoring system. It is completely unnecessary to maintain a special monitoring centre to handle the signals gathered with the Radar Agency’s equipment.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


The Government of Iceland has no mandate to engage in military actions.  Proposals for Iceland to play a greater role in that area have not met with support.  Furthermore, national defence is being replaced by security measures of another type, in which greater reliance is placed on the police than on military forces.


To put it simply, Iceland is a recipient when it comes to collaboration with others in the military field.  We can provide facilities for military aircraft and warships, and we can provide other countries with civilian support for military exercises. But we are not active participants in mutual collaboration on security with other states, except in those fields where we are involved as members of civilian institutions.


Civilian involvement in security and defence is aimed at ensuring security in telecommunications, informatics, transport and trade, maintaining security on external borders, preventing the development of chaotic situations as a result of organised crime, terrorism and illegal immigration and making sure that no country becomes a safe haven for money laundering, financial irregularities or other types of crime.


We must give the institutions involved in these security functions the necessary support so that they are able to deal with the challenging tasks both in Iceland and abroad in collaboration with their counterparts in other countries.  Representatives of the Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs and its agencies are active participants in negotiations with other nations on collaboration in the future in these fields.


I have now given you an account of the changes in emphasis that have taken place in our cooperation with the United States following the agreement made last year, and with the other nations of Europe under the Schengen scheme.


The Icelandic Coast Guard enjoys close cooperation with the authorities in Denmark and Norway, and also with other nations concerned with security in the North Atlantic.  On 11 January, the Danish Minister of Defence, Sören Gade, and I signed an agreement on closer collaboration between the Icelandic Coast Guard and the Danish Navy on search and rescue work in the North Atlantic.   And the Norwegians have declared their willingness to enter into formal collaboration with the Icelandic Coast Guard in more areas than the purchase of new search and rescue helicopters.


Work is also in progress to involve Iceland in a programme of collaboration between Britain, Canada and the USA on search and rescue operations in the North Atlantic.


The Special Task Force, which is part of the National Police Commissioner’s office, has been expanded, and there is a general desire that it should be trained and equipped so as to deal with the most difficult types of challenge.  Such an aim can only be achieved through collaboration and joint exercises with forces of this type in other countries.


Ladies and Gentlemen,


Iceland’s strategic importance grew during the Cold War in direct proportion to the rise in tension in East-West relations.  In the years ahead, the importance of the shipping routes around Iceland will increase greatly due to the transport of oil and gas from the Barents Sea to North America.


Nowhere is security a more urgent matter than on these shipping routes – and here I use the word ‘security’ in the broadest sense, covering both the threat of terrorist attacks and the danger of accidents at sea.  The pollution resulting from disruption of oil or gas cargoes is one of the most serious environmental threats of our times.


The new structure of the Icelandic Coast Guard must take these changes in emphasis into account.  It must also take account of the fact that each year sees more and more pleasure cruisers, with thousands of people on board, calling in Icelandic ports or passing through our waters.


No state can deal alone with the consequences of a major disaster at sea, and all coastal states must have the equipment needed to cover initial response measures and minimize the immediate hazards until help on a larger scale arrives.  This places no small demands on Iceland, given the present outlook for the growth in large-scale shipping traffic in the years ahead.


In the light of the importance that the US government and Congress attach to securing the shipping routes for these oil and gas cargoes, it seems extraordinarily short-sighted, and in fact unrealistic, of the United States to have withdrawn its entire security presence from Iceland.


The current US administration has its hands full with so many international problems that it seems neither to have the capacity nor the time to deal with them all – and more’s the pity if some of these problems are home-made.


It would not surprise me if, as time goes on, US defence specialists come to the conclusion that US interests in the North Atlantic region would again be better served by having their own forces in Iceland.  This would then show whether their departure in 2006 had closed the doors in Iceland in the long term.




The twentieth century was a harsh one for the human race as a whole, but it was kind to Iceland, the kindest in the history of our nation.


Iceland made more progress than most other countries in the second half of the last century, and more than in any previous period, and we are still enjoying a time of great economic prosperity.  The fortunes of our country are in our hands, and it is up to us to tend to them properly.


We must have the courage to tackle the problems that face us.  We will not get rid of them by sweeping them under the carpet and telling ourselves that the world has become such a good place as to make precautions – both military and those of other types – unnecessary.


Defence and security and are not prominent issues in the current election campaign.  It has been said that no one will win an election by playing the defence and security card in times of peace and prosperity; on the other hand, it is easy to lose elections when things start going wrong and the ordinary citizen feels his safety threatened.


If people do not give a thought to party policies on defence and security when they cast their votes, they might easily wake up after the elections to a situation in which the government is prepared to sacrifice an arrangement that has given good results and to rely on wishful thinking rather than realistic assessment.


We should remember that policy by itself does not tell the whole story either; experience is the most reliable guide and can teach us the most about who can best be trusted to handle our defence interests with the necessary firmness.


Certainly, Icelandic history contains examples of sudden changes of policy on defence and security.  It was precisely in order to promote the cause of peace and security that the Icelandic Atlantic Treaty Association was founded nearly 50 years ago, when the outlook seemed dark due to the position adopted by the government towards cooperation with other western nations.


It has always been dangerous for an Icelandic government to adopt a maverick attitude on defence and security.  This danger does not diminish as we ourselves shoulder more of the responsibility for these important issues.  And precisely for this reason, the work of the Icelandic Atlantic Treaty Association and Varðberg is still important.   This is the forum where people have met to discuss these matters in a pragmatic way, dedicated to seeking the best solutions for our nation.


I hope that my address here today has shown that the Government of Iceland has been acting in full sincerity in the measures it has taken on security and defence over the past few months.  I am confident that if we keep to the same course, we will continue, in partnership with the neighbouring countries that are well-disposed towards us, to guarantee security for ourselves and for the North Atlantic region.