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Iceland needs comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and an equality body

Reykjavik, 10/02/12 – "Iceland should adopt comprehensive equal treatment legislation and set up an effective and independent national equality body to promote its implementation" said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, at the end of a two-day visit to Iceland.

The current non-discrimination provisions in Icelandic law do not protect all vulnerable groups of people to the same extent. People with disabilities, older persons, members of ethnic and religious minorities and transgender persons would benefit from stronger guarantees against discrimination. "Equal treatment legislation should cover all the relevant grounds of discrimination in all walks of life", stressed the Commissioner.

Violence against women remains an enduring problem in Iceland. "The police, the prosecution service and the courts all have a central role to play in enforcing the current legislation against gender-based violence and bringing perpetrators to justice." After visiting the women's shelter and the centre for victims of sexual violence in Reykjavik, the Commissioner noted the steady progress achieved in providing support services to victims of violence. "Unfortunately, there are indications that violence is now taking even more serious forms and further efforts are needed to combat trafficking in human beings and to identify victims of trafficking" the Commissioner pointed out.

The financial crisis in Iceland has resulted in rising levels of unemployment, reductions in the pension system and serious difficulties in servicing individual housing and other loans. In addition, budget cuts following the recession have had an impact on the welfare system, especially health care, social services and education, which affects the enjoyment of social and economic rights. Rising youth unemployment, school drop-outs and the worsening outlook of immigrant families are major concerns. "The authorities should take focused measures to prevent poverty which may be increasing among persons with disabilities, single-parent families, older persons and immigrants", said Mr Hammarberg.

"Children with disabilities and mental health problems are a particularly vulnerable group – specific services meant for them should not be subjected to budgetary savings." The Commissioner also called on Iceland to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which it has already signed.

There are signs of xenophobia in Iceland. Xenophobic and Islamophobic discourse can be found on the internet and other media. Immigrants, who currently number about 7 percent of the population, find it difficult to integrate into Icelandic society and are disproportionately represented among the unemployed. Mr Hammarberg stated that "xenophobia should be addressed through awareness-raising measures in education and the media, and existing legislation against hate speech must be applied effectively."

Iceland has made significant progress in improving the independence of the judiciary. The reform of the appointments procedure has strengthened the powers and composition of the committee evaluating candidates for judges' positions. "However, the resources made available to the prosecution service do not match the considerable increase in the case load, and this could delay judicial proceedings in the future", said the Commissioner.