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A mid-Atlantic island country, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. For much of the late twentieth century, Iceland’s status as prosperous, stable, democratic and largely politically neutral made it well positioned to become heavily integrated into both international diplomacy and finance - the latter of which was to have catastrophic consequences for the country's banking sector in 2008. While Iceland is generally seen as having very good human rights standards, some specific issues remain - including protection of children from sexual abuse and the imprisonment of children alongside adults.
Iceland, an island located between the Greenland Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, northwest of the United Kingdom, is famous for its hot springs, geysers and active volcanoes. Lava fields cover much of the land and hot water is pumped from underground to supply much of the country's heating. Its capital, Reykjavik, is the northernmost national capital in the world.
Population and language
The population of Iceland is 318, 452, of which about 60 per cent live in the greater Reykjavik area. For a country with a relatively low population, the average life expectancy is quite high at 82.1 years. Most Icelanders are descendants of Norwegian settlers and Celts from Ireland and Scotland. Because of its small size and relative homogeneity, Iceland holds all the characteristics of a very close-knit society. About 84 per cent of the population belong to the State church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, or other Lutheran Churches, although Icelanders enjoy freedom of religion under the constitution. The most notable new religious community in Iceland, and in 2003 the fastest-growing one, is the ‘Ásatrúarfélagið’, a legally recognised revival of the pre-Christian religion of Iceland.
Iceland's official written and spoken language is Icelandic, which is a North Germanic language descended from Old Norse. English is widely spoken as a secondary language. Danish is also widely understood and spoken. Studying both the Danish and English languages is a mandatory part of the compulsory school curriculum.
Iceland is a representative democracy and a parliamentary republic, consisting of a President, Prime minister and members of Parliament. The country boasts the world's oldest functioning legislative assembly, the Althingi, originally established in 930 and what now constitutes its modern parliament. The President, members of the Althingi and local authorities are elected in general elections held every four years. According to the Article 2 of Iceland’s constitution, the Althingi and the President of Iceland jointly exercise legislative power. In reality, it is the Althingi which holds the power of legislating while the President, largely seen as a ceremonial head, gives parliamentary bills formal consent. The President can, however, block a law voted by parliament and put it to a national referendum.
Iceland has a civil law legal system (influenced by the Danish model), and thus Icelandic law is characterised by written law. Major sources of law in Iceland include the constitution, statutory legislation, and regulatory statutes. Other legal resources are precedent and customary law.
Iceland became an independent republic in 1944 and went on to become one of the world's most prosperous economies, with high growth, low unemployment, and a fairly even distribution of income. However, the global financial crisis of 2008 exposed the Icelandic economy's dependence on the banking sector, leaving it particularly vulnerable to collapse. Its main exports are fish and fish products, and metals. The economy depends heavily on the fishing industry, which provides 40 per cent of export earnings, but with the gradual contraction of this sector the Icelandic economy has developed into new areas. Abundant geothermal and hydropower sources have attracted substantial foreign investment in the aluminium sector and boosted economic growth, although the financial crisis has put several investment projects on hold. Its main trading export partners are the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and Spain.
Media and civil society
Iceland came first in the 2011 Global Peace Index, an achievement highlighted by Civicus. Iceland’s constitution guarantees press freedom, and the country’s parliament further embedded this security by adopting a resolution in 2010 for the legal protection of journalists and free press, which the WikiLeaks website helped to draft. Reporters Without Borders hailed Iceland as a “pioneer” for this decision. Iceland came joint first in the Reporters Without Borders 2010 world press freedom index.
Human rights and children's rights
Iceland is generally seen to hold a good human rights record and has ratified most international treaties, although it has yet to sign the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by Iceland on 28 October 1992. The country also ratified the Optional Protocols on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography on 1 October 2001 and 9 July 2001 respectively.
- Reporters Without Borders, "New legislation to provide exemplary protection for freedom of information", 18 June 2010
- UNICEF: Iceland Country Page
- CIA World Factbook: Iceland Country Profile
- UNDP: Iceland Country Profile
- BBC: Iceland Country Profile
- Statistics Iceland
- Hauser Global Law School Program, Globalex Researching Icelandic Law
- UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: Iceland