17 March 2005
Changes to Icelands Penal Code Aimed at Combating Terrorism Focus of Debate in Human Rights Committee
NEW YORK, 16 March (UN Headquarters) -- Changes to Icelands general penal code, especially those aimed at combating terrorism, dominated the Human Rights Committees consideration today of that countrys report, with experts highlighting some troubling aspects of the legislation, and suggesting that it was too vague and might infringe on human rights.
The 18-member Human Rights Committee is meeting in New York through 1 April to examine compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The panel of independent experts, which also monitors implementation of the Covenants two Optional Protocols -- the first allows individuals to submit complaints to the Geneva-based Committee, and the second seeks to abolish the death penalty -- continued its eighty-third session today with a review of Icelands efforts to promote and guarantee a respect for fundamental rights.
Concerning amendments to Icelands general penal code, intended to comply with obligations under a wide-ranging anti-terrorism resolution 1373 adopted by the Security Council in 2001, the expert from Mauritius said that terrorism was like sin, which was very difficult to define and to legislate. That was why it was very important to consider a persons human rights and then decide in what manner those rights could be adversely affected by the legislation. Under the amended general penal code, terrorism was criminalized and subjected to life in prison, but the scope of the acts constituting terrorism were unclear and risked jeopardizing peoples exercise of normal rights in a democratic society, he said.
A member of the Icelandic delegation took the floor to explain the new sections in the code on terrorism, explaining that an act must have as its purpose one or more of the following intents: to cause considerable fear among the public; to illegally force Icelandic authorities, foreign authorities or international organizations to take action or to remain passive; or to weaken or cause harm to constitutional, political, economic or social foundations of any State or international organization. She assured the experts that peaceful demonstrations would not fall under any of those categories. When asked, she said there had not been broad public debate on the changes made to the general penal code.
Noting that issues of terrorism had been raised by several members, Committee Chairperson and expert from France, Christine Chanet, said that Icelands legislation, in that regard, was extremely vague, as was the case in many countries. But the definition supplied by Iceland, particularly with regard to traffic and the consequences of road blockages, could apply to the type of road blockages created by farmers on the highways in France. That could also result in deadly accidents and property damage, but it would be difficult to view such blockages as terrorism. Members had pointed to the difficulty in definitions of that type, and feared that Icelands legislation might be erroneous or unclear.
Ms. Chanet also drew attention, in her closing remarks, to the situation of women in Iceland. Apart from discrimination in the workplace and a persistent wage gap between men and women, attention had also been drawn today to the situation of violence against women, particularly rapes. Although the countrys legislation was not really lax, the reluctance to pursue such cases, owing to insufficient or questionable proof at the outset, was worrying. There had always been the problem of proof, and of the aggressors claiming that the victims had consented. Yet, very serious progress had been made on the rape question. She urged the delegation to look at that question again, with a view to making all persons involved in the process much more aware, including through the training of police and judges, and by using psychologists to get to the truth.
The head of the delegation was Hjálmar W. Hannesson, Icelands Permanent Representative to the United Nations, who was joined by: Ragna Arnadottir, Director of Legal Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs; Asgerdur Ragnarsdottir, Legal Expert, Legal Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Ecclesiastical Affairs; and Helga Hauksdóttir, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Iceland to the United Nations.
The Committee on Human Rights will meet again at 3 p.m. tomorrow to consider the fourth periodic report of Mauritius.
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