Thorvald Stoltenberg's Report and Icelandic Security Issues.

SVS and Varðberg, 17 February 2009.

In spring 2008, two pieces of legislation were passed by the Althingi that have a bearing on Iceland’s security. These were the Defence Act and the Civil Defence Act.  The bill for the Defence Act was presented by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Civil Defence Act by the Minister of Justice. 

These two acts bear out the views I expressed last time I had the opportunity to address the Association for Western Co-Operation (SVS) and Varðberg in March 2007.  At that time, I said that security and defence were, even more than previously, domestic rather than foreign-policy issues.  I said that collaboration with other nations in this area was becoming focussed more than before on civil issues and that we should focus more closely on the civil aspects of security, both domestically and when looking outside our borders.  There has been a shift in the centre of gravity from national defence in the traditional sense to domestic defence, in which civilian institutions are involved to an ever-increasing extent.

The aim of the Defence Act was to ensure that responsibility for strategic security issues in Iceland passed to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs following the departure of the US Iceland Defence Force.  Under the act, strategic issues were transferred from the ministry to the Defence Agency, which is responsible for the operation of the radar system that was built by NATO using American funding.  The Defence Agency is also responsible for the operation of the installations in the Security Area at Keflavík Airport, organising military exercises and air-space monitoring, and also for liaison with the NATO High Command; this is an area in which there is a certain lack of transparency.

The Civil Defence Act covers a far wider scope; in fact, it covers almost all spheres of life in Iceland.  It provides for the establishment of a Civil Defence and Security Council consisting of many government ministers and officials in addition to representatives of local authorities and non-governmental organisations.

In a recent study of Iceland’s self-image in security matters, Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir, an adjunct lecturer at the Political Science Department of the University of Iceland, says that in these two acts passed in spring 2008 “we find the clearest expression of the tension prevailing as to whether the security of the country should be approached from a civil or a military point of view.”  Consequently, she writes, she chooses to use these two pieces of legislation as the basis of her attempt to define “the self-image of those in authority in the field of security as it appears in public debate”.

I took part in drafting both of these acts, and I discussed them both in the Althingi.  My involvement in the Defence Act was far smaller than in the Civil Defence Act.  In a speech I made on the Defence Act, I considered it natural to mention strategic security interests.  

Silja Bára says in her study that what I said introduced a new note in some respects because, as she saw things, both the draft of the Defence Act itself and the speech made by the Minister for Foreign Affairs when she put it before the Althingi deliberately avoided all mention of military interests and military-related issues of any type whatsoever.  Instead, she said, the foreign minister spoke in veiled terms and discussed “defence-related tasks” and issues, even though it should have been clear that in fact, the subject of the discussion was military-related issues which come under the NATO Military Committee.

Not in code.

For the implementation of the Defence Act, a new institutional title (not prescribed in law) has been made up; this is the Iceland Defence Agency, and to the outside observer there can be no doubt that it is in fact intended to play a military role.  In an interview with Morgunblaðið recently, the director of the agency said it was not possible to carry out “supervision within civilian institutions without making civilian activities into defence-related activities; the alternative would be to stop operating things as defence activities and make them all civilian,” as she put it. But if this were done, then Iceland would no longer receive radar signals through the radar system that is operated here.  Iceland has no army, yet the parties with which the Defence Agency works are military authorities.  The Defence Agency was, she said, a civilian institution with a defence-related role – in other words, a military role. 

I question whether we in Iceland, as a country in NATO, would not be allowed to receive radar images from the radar system that we ourselves operate, even though parties other than the employees of the Defence Agency were actually involved in receiving them.  I do not see what reason NATO has for demanding that the Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs establish military operations under a code name in order to carry out its tasks in the service of NATO in Iceland.

If Iceland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs is going to discuss the substance of the Stoltenberg report in the same code-language that was employed about the Defence Act, then there is a danger that the content of the report will never be properly brought to people’s attention in this country.  I have already become aware that the attitude is that the part of the report dealing with military or strategic collaboration is more or less irrelevant for Iceland – that we can simply take the liberty of ignoring it.

If we do this, then we are turning our backs on the main purpose of the work that Thorvald Stoltenberg was asked to undertake in the middle of June 2008.  In the introduction to his proposals, Mr Stoltenberg said the following.  (I am quoting from the translation by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs).

“In general, the geopolitical and strategic importance of the Nordic region is seen as becoming ever greater. This is because of the importance that Nordic waters have as a production and transport area for oil and gas for the European markets and for development in the High North.

There is growing interest in the EU and NATO in regional cooperation between their member states and other non-member states.”

The aim of Mr Stoltenberg’s proposals is to enable the Nordic countries to respond jointly to changes in geopolitical and strategic conditions in their own region.

Two of the five Nordic countries, Finland and Sweden, are not NATO members and two, Iceland and Norway, are not members of the EU.  Only Denmark is a member of both the EU and NATO; this does not apply to the Faroes and Greenland, which come under Denmark in security matters and are of great significance for security in the North Atlantic.  NATO has had facilities in the Faroes and Greenland, and the USA maintains a base in Thule in Greenland; this is part of the US nuclear defence shield.  Greenland left the European Union following a referendum in 1985.

In his report, Mr Stoltenberg refers to the change that took place on the withdrawal of the US Iceland Defence Force from Iceland.  Since then, he says, the Icelandic government (the Defence Agency) has been responsible for operating the facilities at Keflavík Airport and the radar system used for air-space monitoring.  He goes on to say: “Iceland has enjoyed practical assistance from Denmark and Norway in training the Icelandic personnel who are engaged on this work.”

There is reason to pause over these words and recall the fact that the Defence Agency was set up on the understanding that Iceland was only to attend to civilian tasks, as it had done while the US forces were stationed here.  If new training has taken place in collaboration with the Danes and the Norwegians, then there is reason to ask whether it was “defence- related”, to use the Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ term for military matters.

Defence in the air.

I read Mr Stoltenberg’s proposal for Nordic responsibility for air-space monitoring and security in the skies above Iceland as meaning that he would like to create new bonds between Finland, Sweden and NATO, since NATO will not abandon its strategic defences of the North Atlantic, in addition to which he expects that Iceland will play a direct part in the military aspect of its own security.

As you know, the NATO military authorities and the individual NATO states have granted the Icelandic government’s request to send squadrons of aircraft to Iceland regularly to monitor our air-space.  I believe that this monitoring serves, primarily, a political purpose.  By doing this, NATO draws attention to the fact that this is part of the air-space of NATO states, and Mr Stoltenberg now wants the Nordic countries that are not NATO members to be participants in administering this region.

If it were a matter of Iceland’s direct territorial defences, or those of its immediate surroundings, then some means other than that of calling in squadrons of aircraft from other states would need to be employed.  Defences of this type would be best covered by medium-range air defence missiles on the south-western corner of Iceland, as was pointed out immediately when the US forces were withdrawn.

On the other hand, for NATO and the Nordic countries to be able to maintain firm monitoring of the North Atlantic air-space, they need good facilities at an airport or airports in Iceland, and also facilities for radar and other equipment that is necessary for aircraft engaged on such monitoring.  For this, it is necessary to train personnel and ensure stocks of fuel and ammunition for the aircraft.

Russian bombers resumed their regular flights over the Arctic and down into the North Atlantic in summer 2007.  Then, and in 2008, these flights were reported in the news, but this year they have made movements off Northern Norway without them being deemed newsworthy.  Air-space monitoring by NATO and the Nordic countries is aimed at avoiding the ocean to the north of Iceland being regarded as part of the home ground of Russian bombers.

Defence at sea.

Mr Stoltenberg’s proposal for a Nordic civilian monitoring system at sea is in line with the policy behind the decision to commission a new coastguard vessel and a new aircraft for the Icelandic Coast Guard.  All aspects of resource maintenance, security, monitoring, search and rescue operations and law-enforcement at sea come under the functions of the Coast Guard and its collaboration with other nations.  

In May 2008, a projection was published covering coastguard operations in Iceland up to the year 2010.  No one who reads it can fail to realise that the Icelandic Coast Guard has set itself ambitious targets.  It is vital that it continue to work in terms of this vision even though state finances are now in a poorer position.  The projection allows for a great expansion in shipping in the Northeast Atlantic in the years ahead.

The Coast Guard’s assessment of this situation is as follows:


“In view of changes in the global structure, the threat of terrorist acts, drug smuggling and greater volumes of marine transport of oil, gas and other pollutant substances, there is a need for closer monitoring and firmer security measures at sea.  The North Atlantic is rich in natural resources, and it is therefore important, for both economic and environmental reasons, to ensure safety at sea.”


The Coast Guard points out that if large vessels sustain damage or lose their engine power close to the coast, the economic and environmental consequences for Iceland could be catastrophic.  There is also a danger that those who transport toxic wastes could be tempted to release them in areas where there is little monitoring.  Therefore, it is necessary for the Coast Guard to know of all movements of vessels carrying dangerous cargoes inside Iceland’s economic zone.  And it is no less important that the Coast Guard should have the capacity to monitor these vessels and that it should have the equipment, skills and personnel to be able to respond in a timely manner if they run into difficulties or if pollutants are detected emanating from them.


We in Iceland welcome Mr Stoltenberg’s proposals for joint Nordic monitoring of the sea from satellites, ships, land-based stations and acoustic detectors.  From our point of view, it is important to extend this surveillance system westwards to the USA and Canada and southwards to the British Isles.  Work has been done to have Iceland join a collaborative agreement with these nations on safety at sea, in addition to which a special bilateral partnership agreement has been concluded between the Icelandic Coast Guard and the US Coast Guard.  Our Coast Guard collaborates with its sister institutions in 19 states on both sides of the Atlantic in the North Atlantic Coast Guard Forum, which this year is under the chairmanship of Georg Lárusson, the Director of the Icelandic Coast Guard.



The role of the Icelandic Coast Guard.


I am firmly of the opinion that the Icelandic government should make collaboration on security, under the emblem of the Icelandic Coast Guard, the main part of all such collaboration with other states here in the North Atlantic region, whether this takes the form of work with groupings of states, such as the Nordic countries, the EU and NATO, or individual states.  In these matters, we have both equipment and personnel of the highest calibre and we are able to cope with all tasks of a civilian nature.  As Mr Stoltenberg, sees it, tasks of this type can only proliferate and become more important.


It would be both questionable and unfortunate if the Defence Agency were to become a sort of go-between in dealings between the Coast Guard and other states.  In fact, such a role is opposed to the legislation on the agency, which is not intended to prevent international collaboration between Icelandic institutions and foreign entities.  Furthermore, diplomats are expected to approach security and defence issues from a different angle.  To ensure efficient structuring and quick response, civilian security organisations must work closely together closely on a day-to-day basis, without having to operate through intermediaries.


In his report, Mr Stoltenberg stresses the importance of exploiting the latest satellite and computer technology to develop what he calls an integrated marine surveillance system which would bring together individual countries’ systems and those of multinational institutions.  A system of this type would not deliver its full potential without the capacity and equipment to respond if action is called for.  The Coast Guard is the only institution in Iceland with this capacity and equipment. Only it can play a part in the joint command system for Nordic coastguard and rescue teams which Mr Stoltenberg wants to establish.

In Iceland, however, the situation is that the Defence Agency does not automatically relay information from NATO’s strategic system to the Coast Guard. This is quite simply an indication of how it is attempting to strengthen its position in the administrative system in a spirit of concealment instead of trusting those who should be trusted.  This is particularly strange, since it affects the body, the Coast Guard that is called in if anything goes wrong.  If Mr Stoltenberg’s report opens people’s eyes to the need for collaboration between institutions in the individual countries, then proposals to this end could be put into practice immediately.  

A strategic extra.

The Icelandic government must adopt a position on those proposals in Mr Stoltenberg’s report that concern military matters.  The first of these mentioned in that section of the report concerns transport, nursing teams, training, equipment and military exercise areas.  Additional collaboration on these matters would make for greater efficiency, as well as enabling the Nordic countries to play an effective role in peacekeeping operations all over the world.  

In the report, it is proposed that a force be established; it is called the Terrestrial and Marine Response Force in the Icelandic translation; a more apt name could be the Nordic Marines. It is described as follows: “A force specialised to act in coastal regions and in narrow shipping channels; this is an example of a specialist area in which the Nordic countries have expertise which is in demand abroad.”

It is assumed that this force would be trained to operate in the High North with the backing of supply ships equipped for use in the Arctic Ocean.  There is a danger that the immediate neighbours of the Nordic countries could view exercises by the Marines as a threat to their territorial integrity, and therefore Iceland could be a choice location for such exercises.

We have good facilities for training and exercises of this type in Iceland.  Suffice it to mention the buildings at the base at Keflavík Airport, which could be used to provide teaching premises involving little expense.  They include a hospital and cinema which are not being used.  Facilities for military exercises in Iceland would both be a symbolic contribution towards Nordic cooperation and also give recruits to the force an opportunity to undergo training in highly unfamiliar circumstances.  The training college could be linked with the existing training camp for rescue teams at Hellissandur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

So far I have focussed on only a few of the main points in Mr Stoltenberg’s report.  I have not mentioned his proposals in the section on Social Responsibility.  These I regard as sensible, like the ones I have been examining.  The final proposal, No. 13, is that the Nordic governments should make a declaration of mutual solidarity in the field of security, involving a binding statement on how they would respond if any of the Nordic countries were to be subjected to an invasion or abnormal external pressure.

Mr Stoltenberg considers that a declaration in this area would facilitate all decision-making regarding strategic collaboration. This collaboration would be an extra; it would not replace the commitments that the individual Nordic countries have already undertaken in the fields of foreign relations and defence.  This final sentence in his report is important, as it recognises that the aim is not to change anything that is already in existence but to supplement it by further collaboration on a new, Nordic, basis.

At this time it is not possible to say anything about how this report will be followed up in the political arena.  My view is that it is extremely important for the Nordic countries to set themselves a clear common policy on these matters, and such a policy would in fact also constitute their common Arctic policy.  In doing so, they would reiterate their unanimity on the protection of important interests in their part of the world, where great changes are about to take place and other parties have been drawing up new policies to defend their interests, as I shall now describe.

Policy on the Arctic.

On 9 January this year, the departing US President, George W. Bush, signed the new US policy on the Arctic.  This covers seven main topics. 1) Security.  2) International law. 3) Rights to the seabed outside national economic zones and disputes over boundary lines. 4) The importance of international cooperation on research.  5) Marine transport.  6) Economic aspects, including energy resources. 7) Environmental protection and the preservation of natural resources.  

The Canadian government drew up its new Arctic policy in 2007. On 10 August that year, it announced that two new Canadian military bases were to be established in the Canadian Arctic.

In his connection, Mr Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, said that Canada had two choices regarding their sovereignty in the Arctic: “We either use it or lose it,” he said, “and make no mistake; this government intends to use it.”  His government decided to spend USD 7 billion on the building of eight Canadian patrol vessels for use in the Arctic region.

On 20 November 2008, the European Commission published its policy on the Arctic, declaring its interest in energy reserves in the High North, fish stocks, shipping routes, security and environmental threats.  The European Union is also seeking access to the Arctic Council as an observer.

The European Parliament has passed a resolution calling for the EU to work for the production of a special international legal framework or convention on the Arctic.  US policy rejects this idea, urging instead that the USA ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and that it should be used as the basis for the resolution of issues in the Arctic region.

Five countries have coasts on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and are able to claim controlling rights there under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea: the USA, Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Norway and Russia – and another three states are members of the Arctic Council by virtue of their geographical location: Finland, Iceland and Sweden.

In my opinion, the European Union has no right to be involved in collaboration in this area, and its wishes in this connection only reflect its attempts to gain influence and control in the High North, including the North Atlantic.

Work is now being done in the Russian parliament on legislation covering shipping on the north-east shipping route, linking the Pacific and the Atlantic across the north of Russia.  The proposed legislation would define the boundaries of the shipping route and set conditions regarding vessel design and equipment and environmental protection.  The Arctic region and the exploitation of energy resources there form an important part of Russia’s new national security policy, which is approaching finalisation and is intended to be in place until 2020.

The Danish government published its detailed policy on the Arctic in a 44-page document in May 2008, taking account of Greenland’s interests and position within the Danish kingdom.  The Danish military command in Greenland and our Icelandic Coast Guard work closely together on security issues, this collaboration being based partly on an agreement with the Danish Ministry of Defence dating from January 2007.  Denmark is due to take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Norway in May this year.

Generally speaking, Norway features prominently, not only among the Nordic countries but also in Western Europe as a whole, in discussions of the use of resources and of security in the Arctic region.  And there are clear signs that the Norwegian government is becoming more concerned about Russian military activities in the region.

Norway’s Minister of Defence, Anne-Grete Ström-Erichsen, spoke at length about the strategic situation in the Arctic and Russia in her policy statement at the beginning of this year.  She said that Norway was aware of the presence of a Russia that was wealthier than hitherto, a Russia that went its own way to a greater extent and expressed its position with a stronger nationalistic tone and a one-way direction.  She said the message was very clear, with Russian aircraft flying near Norway’s coast almost every week, or with the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov in the area: Russia is no longer a weak nation.

The minister went on to say that this message was not directed towards Norway specifically, but to NATO and the West in general.  If tension rises between Russia and the West, it will have an effect in the Arctic. Russia has an economic interest in having stability in the Arctic; on the other hand, there is no ignoring the fact that the Arctic is of great strategic importance.  While Russia’s military activities in the Arctic are at a lower level than during the Cold War, they are now at a higher level than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Norway, she said, will have to prepare for this situation to continue in future.

Norway’s Minister of Defence was speaking about real issues in foreign policy and security that are relevant to Iceland no less than to Norway. This can be said to have been demonstrated at a conference held here in Reykjavik in collaboration with NATO on January 29-30, 2009, where these matters were under examination.  Unfortunately, NATO has not shown the Arctic region the attention it deserves.  NATO, no less than other parties, should develop a policy on the Arctic.

A watershed in security and defence.

Here is work to be done in which Iceland must play its part in order to draw attention to these evident changes and to defend its own interests.  This will not be achieved either by talking in code about measures to ensure Iceland’s security, or by maintaining costly government institutions simply to keep the past alive.

As Minister of Justice, I made it a priority that when new legislation was drawn up on the Icelandic Coast Guard, its budget plans, international collaboration and the renewal of its equipment, consideration should be given to the completely transformed circumstances and the new attitudes coming into play in the northern oceans.  This was done.  With a new aircraft and patrol vessel, the Coast Guard will be more capable than ever before to participate in collaboration with our neighbours in this part of the world; collaboration that is unavoidable and that is being called for, for example in Mr Stoltenberg’s report.

It is important both from the point of view of independence and security to support the Coast Guard and the work it does, even though state finances are going through a difficult time.  My view is that the Coast Guard should be given priority when it comes to thinking about Iceland’s defence and security interests.

We should strive to have an international regional marine monitoring station established in Iceland, headed by the Coast Guard.  Funding for security should be spent on this rather than on running the Defence Agency, the functions of which can be taken over by civilian bodies.  NATO should not determine how finances are spent on Iceland’s security issues, providing that there is no reduction in the level of activity in Iceland in the service of NATO.

Mr Stoltenberg’s report fits in well with our policy: we have pressed for recognition of the need to ensure civilian security at sea here in the High North.  This report could enable Iceland to become an active participant in a new field of Nordic cooperation. 

At the beginning of this talk I mentioned the study by Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir of our Defence Act and Civil Defence Act.  I should like to quote from the conclusion of her study:

“Therefore,” she says, “the Civil Defence Act is far closer to what security theory would regard as a contemporary definition of security, that is, security based on the environment and society, and not solely on war and politics.”

I am of the opinion that the viewpoints behind the Civil Defence Act and the Icelandic Coast Guard Act should be the ones to guide the Icelandic government in formulating and applying a contemporary policy on security.  The Defence Agency merely cultivates the remnants of the past.

We have now reached a watershed in Iceland’s security issues.  Mr Stoltenberg’s report will make it possible for us to make a new departure in close collaboration with the other Nordic countries.