Iceland and the Civil Dimension of Maritime Security.

NATO Parliamentary Assembly 53rd Annual Session Reykjavik, Iceland, 6 October 2007 Committee on the Civil Dimension of Security

It is both an honour and a pleasure to be with you on this occasion. For half a century now, this Assembly has provided a link between parliamentarians of the NATO nations. 

Indeed, as we are challenged with security threats instigated by terrorism and organized crime, the parliamentary and civil dimensions of security have perhaps never been as important as they are today.

Careful attention by parliamentarians is above all needed in the field of security matters, where increasingly we rely on contributions by civilian law enforcement institutions and their close co-ordination with the military services, primarily in the fight against terrorism


For the better part of sixty years, the NATO Allies worked to defeat common threats. Military deployments and politics evolved to meet those threats.

Permanent stationing of military forces in Iceland is a thing of the past. The year 2006 was an eventful year for Iceland, as the United States announced in March that it would no longer be keeping its forces stationed in Iceland, and withdrew them in September.

American forces originally arrived in Iceland in 1941 to replace the British who occupied Iceland in 1940. Iceland became a founding member of  NATO in 1949 and made a bilalateral defence agreement with the United States in 1951 – an agreement which is still in force.

The US argument for its military departure from Iceland was its conviction that Iceland no longer faced a credible conventional military threat, since the Cold War was truly over. The Russians had at least stopped all military air deployment in the North Atlantic. Added to this was another consideration - a world of new threats, including terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which called for a new security approach.

The days of a forceful Cold War adversary are behind us, but instead, we now face a host of threats that are difficult to identify and address. In this context, the civil dimension of security plays a more important role today than it did during the Cold War.

Let me add a geographical dimension: There is no doubt that the Arctic region is undergoing a transition which is having, and will increasingly have, an effect on the present political and economical stability in our region, the North Atlantic. 


During the Cold War, this region was one of the areas in which NATO-Warsaw Pact encounters were played out. Since the Arctic waters still provide Russia´s Northern Fleet with its only access to the Atlantic Ocean, the Arctic and the North Atlantic remain in the focus of military strategic thinking.  Also, because the Arctic is the new energy powerhouse for Europe, its current and future role as an energy deposit for Europe and North America brings energy security into military strategic thinking. Energy can be used as a political tool, - and there are clear signs that the Russian energy sector is no exception to this.

The Arctic and the Circumpolar Region, which up to now have been considered largely as a stable and peaceful area, may become an area of confusion unless the issues of sovereignty and security are addressed in a realistic and responsible manner.


For many years I have maintained that Iceland should take an active part in the formulation and application of its security policy. When I first stood for election to the Icelandic Parliament in 1991, I stated that we should take over tasks 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. I also said we should knock on the doors of nations in Europe and ask for closer collaboration with them in the field of security.

I will be the first to admit that it has taken us longer than I thought back in 1991 to take over from the US Iceland Defence Force. In fact we have still not done this, as we have no military force of our own and our national defences are still in the hands of the Americans.


The two most vital cornerstones of Iceland’s national defence policy remain the bilateral Defence Agreement with the USA and our participation in NATO, but new pillars will be added. 

As Minister of Justice, responsible for Iceland’s police, Coast Guard, immigration and border control, I have defined three main priorities in introducing reform and modernization and addressing the need to ensure an active Icelandic contribution towards coordinated security efforts in the North Atlantic. These are:

·        Increased capacity of key security institutions.

·        Coordination of national  security operations.

·        An international dimension, in particular involving collaboration between key national security institutions and their counterparts in our neighbouring countries.




The nature of collaboration on security between Iceland and the United States underwent a substantial change last year.  The emphasis has shifted from national defence, in the traditional sense, to homeland security, in which civil institutions will be increasingly involved, i. e. collaboration with the US Coast Guard, the FBI and customs and immigration authorities.  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.

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.  Civil co-operation of this type is of greater importance to the ordinary citizen than maintaining heavily armed military forces.

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.

I regard the whole question of human or civil security in Iceland as based on fundamental principles of shared responsibilities and partnership between our law enforcement agencies.




Due to its geographical position, Iceland has great interest in regard to activities in the Arctic. Climate changes will lead to further exploitation of natural resources in this area and consequently to increased Arctic shipping , not to mention the impact of the potential opening of the North East passage to the Pacific Ocean. All of this will have a great effect on Iceland’s geopolitical importance.

The westernmost gate from the Arctic into the North Atlantic is the Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland.  It is about 340 km wide. The Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland is 286 km wide. The third and widest gate is the one between Iceland and Norway, about 800 km wide. This gate is divided into two main sea lanes by the Faroe Isles – the one on the east leading to the European Continent and the UK, the other one to North America. Collectively, this area, stretching from Greenland across Iceland, to the UK, is known as the GIUK gap

During World War II, US convoys sailed north of the conflict area in the Atlantic, through the Denmark Strait, making stopovers in Iceland on their way to Murmansk. During the Cold War, tension between east and west escalated in the North Atlantic, and the GIUK gap turned into NATO’s front line as regards the expansion of the Soviet fleet. A sophisticated radar system was set up in Iceland in the eighties to monitor movements of Soviet bombers into the North Atlantic. The number of these movements reached a peak in 1985.

Taking note of the oil and gas exploitation in the Barents Sea and the increased transport of oil by sea from Western Siberia, it is estimated that in 2015 a total of 500 tankers of 100,000 tons each will pass Iceland in each direction every year.

At the time of the Cold War, the military importance of Iceland increased in direct proportion to the tension between east and west in the North Atlantic and culminated around the middle of the eighties.  The Icelandic authorities treated the requests by the United States and NATO regarding military preparedness at the Keflavík Naval Air Station with great consideration. Both submarine and air surveillance were conducted from Keflavík, using the most advanced technology available at the time.

Under the new defence arrangement regular military exercises are to be conducted in Iceland. The first one took place last August, when the US authorities deployed fighter planes, and also AWACS planes. The exercise also included the participation of the Norwegian Air Force. The Special Operations Unit of the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police was involved alongside special military task forces from Norway, Denmark and Latvia. Danish warships and the Iceland Coast Guard also took part in the exercise.

It was a strange coincidence, that about 24 hours after the military exercise ended in Iceland, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, declared that Russian bombers would resume their flights over the North Atlantic, and in the early hours of 17 August, Russian military aircraft flew from the Kola Peninsula and headed south across the Atlantic, for example along the Denmark Strait and north by the east coast of Iceland.


I consider it of great importance to strengthen cooperation between the countries situated in the west part of the GIUK gap, i.e. the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland, to ensure, to the extent possible, the safety of shipping in that area. Iceland and Denmark have made an agreement on close cooperation in these fields.  This was signed by myself on behalf of Iceland and by Sören Gade, Minister of Defence, on behalf of Denmark, and covers fishing observation and reporting, pollution surveillance and the exchange of personnel.

Last April, Iceland signed political declarations on cooperation on security matters in the North Atlantic  with Denmark,on the one hand, and with Norway on the other. Our civil institutions are key players in fulfilling the political intentions contained in these declarations.  Discussions with Great Britain, Canada and Germany are in progress

In the near future, Iceland will, furthermore, accede to the convention between Britain, the United States and Canada on search and rescue in the North Atlantic.

In fact, I think it would be of great advantage to establish a multilateral North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum, a new maritime security and safety organization in the North Atlantic and the Arctic. Such a a forum would provide a framework for North Atlantic coast guards to interact and cooperate.

This might lead to all kinds of innovations in regional context, such as a standing coast-guard force in the North Atlantic and the Arctic, with member nations providing vessels and crews.

The Arctic and the Barents Sea are bound to become one of the most dynamic economic development areas covered by NATO, and an area of crucial importance to the European Union, the United States and Canada.

The interests of this region, both locally and globally, are a transatlantic issue that can only be dealt with as part of a strong and realistic security policy on the part of NATO. As has been said, NATO should not forget the ‘A’ in its own name.

Nowhere is maritime security a more urgent matter than on energy 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.  Pollution resulting from disruption of oil or gas cargoes is one of the most serious environmental threats of our times. Taking care of these security concerns is the role of civil authorities – mainly the Coast Guards of our invidual nations.


It has been my task, as Minister of Justice, to restructure the Icelandic Coast Guard in order to take on new responsibilities. Decisions have been taken to purchase a new fixed-wing coast-guard aircraft and to build a new 4,000-ton patrol vessel.  Both are scheduled to be operational in 2009. A collaboration agreement between the governments of Iceland and Norway provides for a joint Norwegian-Icelandic tender of specially-designed long-range search and rescue helicopters –  two to three of them for the Icelandic Coast Guard.

The new structure of the Icelandic Coast Guard takes the changes in Arctic shipping into account.  We not only take note of oil and gas cargoes but also 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 the waters between Iceland and Greenland and even up to the coast of Greenland.

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.  A multilateral North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum would become a framework for common planning and excercises.

I hope that what I have said here today has given you an idea of how I assess the situation from an Icelandic point of view.  I should be pleased to try to answer any questions you may have and to explain any points that I have not managed to make clear.