What Matters to Us (BJ)

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Benedikt Jóhannesson's picture

Sometimes Icelanders all think about the same thing; sometimes they don’t think about much at all. Now is such a time. A little bit of this and even less of that, but nothing big is happening in the country right now. Let’s take a look at some of the things that have been making the news.

Let’s Go to Court

After the crash of 2008 lawyers have had a ball. It seems that every single piece of paper issued by a bank or other financial institution is in dispute. After the Supreme Court declared in 2010 that loans in foreign currency were illegal according to Icelandic law, it later reversed this decision and said that only some of the loans were illegal, whereas others were not.

If this sounds confusing to you, you are not alone. Naturally, the bankers all want the loans to be legal, since after the Icelandic króna tumbled these loans went through the roof. There seems to be no end to the variety of contracts the lenders were offered, so now hardly a week goes by that a court did not reach a verdict on one of those. The banks seem to lose most, but not all, of the cases. The only people sure to benefit are the solicitors.

These cases are hardly the only ones being argued in court these days. Many of the managers, officers and board members of the banks and other big companies are being tried on various charges. Former officials of the now defunct Kaupþing are now being tried for systematic market fixing. This is the second case of this type against Kaupþing top officials. Only a few weeks ago the highest ranked management team, including the chairman and the CEO, received prison terms of up to 5 and a half years in a market fixing case. That case is now headed to the Supreme Court.

There are so many court cases that people are not following them as keenly as before, but it seems that the Special Prosecutor will keep the courts busy for years. We even had to temporarily add judges to the Supreme Court to handle the work load.

Higher, Faster, Stronger, More Numerous

The Winter Olympics in Sochi is attracting the attention of sports enthusiasts, not only in the international press (and to a lesser extent, the Icelandic media). Only five Icelanders will compete. However, they are unlikely to be homesick because they are being escorted by quite a few members of the Icelandic government as well as the Icelandic Olympic Federation. All in all 15 officials are traveling with the five athletes. The President of Iceland is attending with his wife. The President, who is a figurehead, was  away from Iceland for 93 days last year. His wife Dorrit Moussaieff doesn’t even ‘live’ in Iceland anymore, having moved her residence to England for tax purposes. Two ministers of the Icelandic government, the Minster of Health and the Minister of Welfare, will also attend the Games.

Many think this big entourage is extravagant in times of austerity. Others point to the Russian government’s human rights abuses, especially against the gay and lesbian community. Many people in Iceland think the group should have stayed at home.

Icelandic writer Sjón is among a group or artists who wrote an open letter in the Guardian on February 6 stating: “Three of these laws specifically put writers at risk: the so-called gay ‘propaganda’ and ‘blasphemy’ laws, prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and ‘religious insult’ respectively, and the decriminalization of defamation. A healthy democracy must hear the independent voices of all its citizens; the global community needs to hear, and be enriched by, the diversity of Russian opinion. We therefore urge the Russian authorities to repeal these laws that strangle free speech.” Sjón said on Icelandic TV that the Icelandic delegation should officially protest those abuses. So far, there is no indication that it will.

Fighting, Fighting, Fighting

Few countries have as much at stake to preserve their marine environment as Iceland. Iceland has been hailed as a leader in responsible fishing for years. Still, it is at odds on two fronts regarding fishing and hunting in the ocean.

Firstly, mackerel, a fish hardly ever seen in Icelandic waters before, started showing up a few years ago. Icelandic fishermen started catching this fish, a small creature that swims in schools. The inhabitants of the Faroe Islands did so as well. Since these fish had never been seen before, neither nation had any quota. Hence disagreements with Norway and the European Union started. Negotiations are underway at the time of writing, the EU offering each of the two nations 12 percent of the international quota, while the Norwegians stubbornly fight against this solution. They want a much larger quota than scientists think is sustainable.

Then the bad news: The Department of the Interior, in a decision it is required to take under U.S. law, found that Iceland’s whaling violated the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The certification was sent to President Barack Obama, who has 60 days to determine whether to impose economic sanctions on its NATO ally. After a similar decision in 2011, Obama declined to do so but ordered diplomatic measures to raise concern. 

The sad thing is that decades of research show that the whales being hunted around Iceland are not endangered. Hence, the threatened reprimand goes against responsible harvesting of natural resources. Unfortunately, Icelanders come out as the bad guys, when they really are not.

Benedikt Jóhannesson – benedikt@icelandreview.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.