Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for the ‘Icelandic politics’ Category

Coronavirus, foreigners and Air BnB

Last week, an Australian tourist died at a hospital in north Iceland. He was admitted when seriously ill, and it turned out that he had the COVID-19 virus but didn’t how typical signs of it. Initially, hospital staff said it was unlikely that he died of the virus but they have now changed their mind, saying that he DID in fact have a severe case of pneumonia, which virus victims may get if badly affected.

The tourist had been travelling around Iceland for a week with his partner. Was he aware of where to go for help? Has anyone has looked into the proportion of “foreigners” and tourists globally who may not know what to do/ where to go in crisis situations, let alone have constant access to hand sanitisers or soap. (Rough sleepers also are unlikely to have access to hand sanitisers or soap, let alone being able to self-isolate away from others, but that’s another story.)

If staying in hotels or guesthouses, the staff should be able to help tourists in trouble, telling them where to find help, etc. But in the case of flats such as Air BnB, there is no guarantee that any such information would be available for guests.

And migrants who do not speak the language of their host country – for instance, many Polish people in Iceland do not speak either Icelandic or English – may also have trouble finding out about latest developments such as bans on gatherings over a certain number, or whether or not to send their children to school. The Icelandic website that gives up-to-date information on the virus, covid.is, is in Icelandic, English and Polish, but is not much use for speakers of other languages.

Although this blog was sparked by COVID-19, it is actually applicable to any health crisis. Crucial information is often not available for everyone, and in some cases elderly family members come to join their family but do not go to school or work and have limited social opportunities and may only speak their heritage language – in which vital information may not be available.

Update 23 March: The Icelandic media reported today that in Sweden,  out of the 27 fatalities due to COVD-19, 6 occurred in people with a Somalian background. The Swedish association of Somalian doctors said that lack of information in Somalian had undoubtedly been partly responsible for the high number of fatalities.

 

Is the U.S. military on its way back to Iceland?

The U.S. military left their military base in Iceland in September 2006. With that, the last vestiges of a military presence in Iceland disappeared, as Iceland does not have an army of its own.

But since 2016 (if not before) the American military has surreptitiously been carrying out various activities in the security zone of the former base, including submarine surveillance. And that same year, the U.S. military asked the State Treasury for more finance for submarine monitoring and other projects.

More details have emerged from time to time about this funding, and I wrote about it in an article and a blog. At the same time, there has been daily military presence at the former base.

Now it has emerged (Icelanders can read about it here) that the U.S. military want to set up basic facilities for about 1000 military personnel in the security zone, along with a zone with appropriate facilities where planes carrying “dangerous goods”, such as bombs and fuel, could land.

Why? It sounds very suspicious to me.

A friend in the U.S. warned me last year that Iceland would have to be careful that the U.S. did not start using the situation for “quiet back-room deals”

In 2016 I published an article that indicated, amongst other things, renewed military presence in Iceland.

Here is part of what I wrote:

… earlier this year (2016), the U.S. requested the use of a hangar for submarine monitoring, so they could fly over the sea and detect submarines using sonar.

Then in June the U.S. Department of Defense met with the Icelandic Foreign Affairs Minister, Lilja Alfredsdottir, about wanting to strengthen cooperation with the U.S. military once more, because the security situation had changed since 2006.

Then in July 2016, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) published a report in which they openly suggest: “NATO can optimize its ASW [anti-submarine warfare] posture to ensure that the right capabilities are in the right places at the right time by reopening Keflavik Naval Air Station in Iceland and encouraging Norway to reclaim and reopen its submarine support facility at Olavsvern.”

The same article also details various activities related to the NATO agreement which are permitted.

Note that the CSIS link no longer works, and that Lilja Alfredsdottir is now Education Minister; Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson is now the Foreign Affairs Minister. I don’t know anything about Olavsvern, though I just found this article which again is based on the CSIS report.

Katrin Jakobsdottir, Iceland’s Left-Green Prime Minister whose party is opposed to NATO and military operations in general, says that the decisions were made before she became PM and she cannot do anything about it.

Nevertheless, many people are unhappy about the situation.

 

 

 

Iceland’s fisheries minister allows whaling again

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It’s unbelievable. Iceland’s fisheries minister, Kristjan Thor Juliusson, has just signed a regulation authorizing the killing of fin whales and minke whales for the next five years. In part, the decision was based on the report on the economic, social and environmental consequences of whaling that the government commissioned the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economics to carry out. And, like the report they wrote in 2010, this one was heavily criticized. He also based his decision on advice (in Icelandic) from the whale experts from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute, which says in part that more research using tissue samples is necessary to investigate the food they eat. Their statement mentions new research on the benefits of whales in transporting nutrients between layers, and says it has been discussed at meetings of NAMMCO and the IWC scientific committee, but is generally not considered to be as important when compared to other factors that may influence marine productivity.

They admit that the minke stock appears to be diminishing, although they think that the whales have moved north in search of food. Last season, the minke whalers stopped almost as soon as they started, after killing 10 whales as it was not economical to do so (but the Institute of Economics report did not mention that). So, even though they are permitted to kill more minke whales, it’s not at all likely that they will do so.

Apparently the Icelandic Institute of Natural History recently compiled a list of endangered wildlife in and around Iceland; neither fin whales nor minke whales are considered endangered around Iceland (they are “Least Concern”, in IUCN terms).

The Prime Minister’s party, the Left-Greens, are against whaling and the PM has said she considers that whaling is not sustainable. Julíusson holds the opposite view. He says that the matter is certainly controversial – “there are different opinions on the matter. “But this is one of the tasks that comes under my ministry and it’s up to me to take a decision, which I’ve now done,” he told the national broadcasting station. Juliusson is from the conservative Independent Party.

As yet, there has been little reaction to the decision, maybe because it was announced early evening when few people are still at work. But I’m sure there will be reactions. I’ll update as necessary.

Update: The Left-Green environment minister, Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, said that Júlíusson did not tell him about his plan to allow whaling on scientific grounds. Gudbrandsson is against whaling and is not happy with the decision.

Promised report on Iceland’s whaling activities full of holes

Last summer, Iceland’s PM Katrin Jakobsdottir promised that a review would be done of the economic, social and environmental ramifications of whaling before any decision would be made about whether to grant Kristjan Loftsson and his whaling company Hvalur permission to hunt fin whales for the next five years or so.

The University of Iceland’s Institute of Economics has now produced what presumably is the report (in Icelandic) that Jakobsdottir had promised last year. It doesn’t sound promising for those hoping that 2018 would be the last year that Iceland kills whales. It even says that it might be worthwhile to hunt other species of whales! Ye gods!

It also has a dig at whale-watching companies and says they need to be regulated to ensure that they don’t affect the behaviour of whales and deter them from feeding and such like. They also say that whaling doesn’t seem to have deterred tourists from visiting Iceland, which seems to be one of their main concerns.

Like the first report the Institute composed, there is substantial information about the effect of whales on fishing stocks, based on papers that I have already written about – but nothing on how whale faeces can lead to increased fish stocks.

They also mention minke whaling, but put the low number of minke whales killed in 2017 and 2018 (17 and 6 respectively) to bad weather conditions. That’s not true – well, not for 2018 anyway, as minke whaling stopped soon after they started, as the whalers said they weren’t sure whether it would be economically worthwhile to hunt minke whales. The extension of the protected area near Reykjavik was making life difficult for the minke whalers. In theory, they can hunt over 250 minkes per year.

Granted, the authors say that fin whaling wasn’t profitable between and including 2014 and 2017, much of the proceeds going on wages and transport to Japan.

One would presume that whaling would be inadvisable, but apparently not – according to them.

I suspect there will be ramifications from this – watch this space.

Update: It appears that no one likes this report apart from Kristjan Loftsson and (perhaps) the Fisheries Minister, Kristjan Thor Juliusson. It has been torn to pieces left, right and centre. I think a new report should be done by the environmental consultancy Environice – clearly these economists know nothing about ecology.

Update: Kristjan Thor Juliusson is being cautious, see here. He says that Iceland’s leading scientists say it’s too hard to say for sure what the ecological effect of killing whales will be on fish populations.

Sexist political comments create rage amongst Icelanders

Last month, six Icelandic politicians from two political parties, the Middle Party and the People’s Party, were drinking together at a bar opposite the parliament building (where their fellow politicians were still meeting). They were there for over three hours and were making loud, derogatory, misogynist remarks about a number of their fellow women colleagues (and former colleagues) as well as boasting about corruption incidents that some of them had been involved in.

Unknown to them, another guest was so disgusted by their behaviour that he recorded the conversations on his phone and later sent them to three of the more radical media outlets, two of which – DV and Stundin – worked with the recordings.

The politicians also made fun of Freyja Haraldsdottir, a disabled activist who was an alternate politician in the Althingi a few years ago. The comments about her have enraged the disabled rights’ movement.

Two of the politicians were Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson and Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson (remember him?). While he was Foreign Affairs Minister, Gunnar Bragi had set up the Barbershop “He for She” event in New York in 2015 to support non-sexist male attitudes and behaviour between men. Rather ironic really. The national committee of UN Women has said that GBS has damaged the reputation of He for She.

The two PP politicians, who made derogatory remarks about their leader, Inga Sæland, have been expelled from their party but will still be in the Althingi because they were elected as individuals. The PP now has only two members in the Althing.

The expelled members might well eventually join the Middle Party, as that was part of the conversation recorded in the bar. They have denied this, however – or at least have said that the time is not opportune to join another party. As many people have suspected, the Middle Party say that their policies are actually very similar to those of the PP party.

Meanwhile, GBS and a fellow Middle Party politician have decided to talk a break from the Althingi for an unspecified amount of time. They were “uninvited” to the traditional celebration held by Iceland’s president to celebrate Iceland’s sovereignty over Denmark, which took place on Thursday night.  The female MP politician, Anna Kolbrun Arnadottir (AKA) has said she is considering her situation (she and SDG were at the party).

In some countries, such as Sweden, politicians resign over mild scandals. But that rarely happens in Iceland.

Icelanders are enraged at the situation and a demonstration was called at short notice for today. It was expected to be attended by over 3,000 people, but was probably attended by more. The organizers are demanding that all six resign from the Althingi and get replaced by their alternates. One person said that an election should be called, as that’s the only way to get rid of them. Stay tuned.

Anyone want an article on this?

Update, December 5: There is such a tense, uncomfortable atmosphere now in the Althingi because 4 of the 6 are still present (and AKA and SDG have now both said they won’t resign) that I predict another election because the current atmosphere is unworkable.

 

NATO in Reykjavik

Iceland has recently been the centre of various military activities, despite it not having a military of its own.

Unfortunately, it is a member of NATO, and it was for that reason that military vessels landed in Reykjavik with almost 6,000 marines and the like, who took part in military exercises under the umbrella of “Trident Juncture”. Some attended a planning meeting for the main Trident Juncture exercises that have been based in Norway. I wrote about it here.

The ideas was to allow the marines to practise under winter conditions. Ironically, the first exercise they were supposed to do, which involved landing at a cove south of Keflavik airport and gallivanting around fields, was called off because the ships were too far from land – due to bad weather conditions!

But they did manage to get to the fragile Thjorsardalur nature reserve area, where thousands of birch trees have been planted over the last 15 years or so. There, they practised setting up and dismantling tents in windy weather, as well as running in groups from A to B and back again – naturally without looking to see where they were going (trees grow slowly there).

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Activists from the Campaign Against Militarism also went to Thjorsardalur, ostensibly to study the nature and history of the area though banners happened to be put on the bus as well.

A week after the military left, NATO met for two days in Reykjavik to discuss weapons of mass destruction and disarmament. I was allowed to be present at the start of the meeting, as press, and attempted to get William Alberque from NATO to answer some rather pointing questions, such as “Given that this was a conference on weapons of mass destruction, and given increasing tension between the USA and Russia – and indeed between the USA and other countries – is it not appropriate for NATO member states to sign and ratify the Treaty for Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons?”, but although he was very welcoming at the meetings, he never replied despite frequent reminders.

Not to be forgotten, the Campaign Against Militarism also organized a historical display with snippets about NATO in front of the Harpa concert hall and conference centre in the centre of town (NATO were meeting at a hotel a few km from the city centre).

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On the second day of the NATO meeting there was also a side event that consisted of a disarmament seminar entitled ‘Practical Approaches to Disarmament in Uncertain Times”. A number of NATO personnel took part in this too, but so did Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm from ICAN and Tytti Eräsö from SIPRI. I wrote about this too, here.

 

 

 

Fin whaling definitely finished for the season off Iceland

I was hoping that fin whaling would end this weekend and it looks like it has. When I was at the Reykjavik Whale Save vigil on Friday night outside the whaling station, Hvalur 8 was still there, after arriving at 8 a.m. that morning – usually the boats go out again soon after bringing back their whales.IMG_0709

The other boat, Hvalur 9, returned yesterday with whales no. 135 and 136. Sea Shepherd UK have been monitoring the site constantly over the last few months, and late this afternoon they reported that the two whaling boats were docked at the whaling station, the staff had been reduced to a minimum, many have been seen carrying bags of whale meat over the last few days, and the whole area was being cleaned thoroughly. Hvalur 9 has now left the whaling station and is probably on its way back to Reykjavik.

Avaaz sent out a petition this morning, urging the Icelandic PM and Fisheries Minister not to renew the licence for next year, and a UK campaign group is also about to put out a petition with similar demands. In fact, the Foreign Ministry (Utanríkisráðuneyti) should be targeted as well, as the media turn to them when wanting to find out how much opposition there is abroad to Iceland’s whaling. Email postur@utn.stjr.is to pressurize them to stop whaling permanently.

A number of pregnant whales have been caught, and two hybrid whales. The quota was 191 whales, including 30 left over from last year’s quota when whaling didn’t take place. Recently, each boat has been bringing back two whales at a time.

Update, 18 September: Hvalur 9 has returned with two more whales. So it’s still happening.

Update, 24 September: I wrote the first part of this blog on 16 September, a bit prematurely.

The harpoons have now been removed from both boats, one today from Hvalur 9 and the other yesterday, from Hvalur 8. The final total is 146 whales, 21 of which were pregnant.