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Iceland: ratify the Disabilities Convention and strengthen the human rights protection system

Visit to Iceland
Strasbourg 13/06/2016
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Iceland's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and the Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks

Iceland's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir, and the Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks

“Iceland should ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and align its legislation and practice with international standards and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. Abolishing full deprivation of legal capacity and plenary guardianship of persons with disabilities, including persons with psycho-social and intellectual disabilities, should be a priority,” said Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, concluding a visit to Iceland from 8 to 10 June 2016.

There are some positive signs that a ‘paradigm shift’ in disability policy will also be accepted in Iceland. The Action Plan on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted by the government for 2012–2014 and extended until 2016 reflects the notion that disability amounts to a failure of the environment to accommodate the needs of the individual, and aims to promote independent living, combat prejudice and social exclusion, and involve persons with disabilities in decision-making processes. “This progressive understanding of disability and the current preparation of a follow-up action plan are encouraging steps. However, I am concerned that nine years after signing the CRPD, Iceland has yet to ratify this key international human rights instrument which would give a strong impetus to the protection of the human rights of all persons with disabilities in the country,” said Commissioner Muižnieks.  

With regard to the related issue of involuntary hospitalisation and the use of coercion in mental health care, the Commissioner calls for reforms that envisage objective criteria which do not discriminate against persons with psycho-social disabilities. The authorities should prioritise medical treatment which is based on free and fully informed consent, with the exception of life-threatening situations, when there is no disagreement about the absence of decision-making capacity of the person.  Furthermore, there is a need for data collection in this area. In addition, the Commissioner recommends ratifying the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture - another key human rights instrument awaiting ratification since 2003 - and establishing an adequately resourced National Preventive Mechanism to strengthen institutional safeguards against ill-treatment.

During the visit Commissioner Muižnieks paid particular attention to the institutional framework for the protection of human rights currently ensured through the work of several structures, including the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, the Centre for Gender Equality and the Data Protection Authority. Iceland does not have an institution that has accreditation as a national human rights institution (NHRI) under the Paris Principles. Establishing such an institution with a broad mandate to promote human rights including through carrying out research and awareness-raising would enhance the country’s system for human rights protection.

In this respect, the Commissioner welcomes the fact that a draft law on establishing a National Human Rights Institution has been prepared by the Ministry of the Interior. He encourages the authorities, in cooperation with civil society organisations, to set as a short-term priority the establishment of an internationally accredited national human rights institution as a focal point for promoting human rights in the country. Moreover, it would be important to address previous recommendations on legislative and institutional reforms made by the Commissioner’s predecessor during his visit in February 2012, especially in relation to adopting comprehensive equal treatment legislation and creating adequate institutional mechanisms to promote its implementation in all spheres of life.

Commissioner Muižnieks is of the opinion that the above-mentioned human rights and anti-discrimination policies can be dealt with in a comprehensive and systematic manner through the preparation and implementation of a national human rights action plan. While there is a practice in Iceland to adopt sector-specific action plans, the Commissioner considers that in the interest of coherence and sustainability of the policies concerned, there is a need for a comprehensive national human rights action plan that would serve as an umbrella framework and provide a collaborative space for all human rights actors. In his meetings with national interlocutors, the Commissioner was informed about a report identifying the main human rights problems in the country to be submitted to parliament later in the year. This can serve as a good basis to re-launch discussions on a comprehensive national action plan that enjoys broad public support and parliamentary endorsement.

Lastly, the Commissioner commends the long-standing practice of the Icelandic authorities to receive refugees through UNHCR’s resettlement programme, as well as the decision to increase refugee reception in response to Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis. In this respect, Commissioner Muižnieks would like to emphasise the importance of proper integration of refugees and migrants and implementation of effective and human rights compliant policies to this end. He invites the authorities to draw on the recommendations of his recent issue paper Time for Europe to get migrant integration right, in particular with respect to the need to uphold the right to family reunification, and to implement equality policies to facilitate migrant integration.

The Commissioner intends to continue his dialogue on these issues with the Icelandic authorities.