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Iceland Discussing Stronger Anti-Discrimination Laws

The anti-discrimination laws and victims’ opportunities for redress vary among the Nordic countries. Iceland offers the weakest protection against discrimination. ‘We are 15 years behind,’ says Hugrún R. Hjaltadóttir from Iceland’s Centre for Gender Equality, Jafnréttisstofa.

Iceland’s lack of anti-discrimination laws that protect minorities sets the country apart from its Nordic neighbours. The possible introduction of anti-discrimination legislation in line with the other Nordic countries has been discussed many times, and a dialogue on the topic is currently underway at the government level.

‘This issue has been on the agenda for over a decade, but it still has not resulted in new legislation,’ says Hjaltadóttir.

All Nordic countries have some form of anti-discrimination laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender in place, yet their exact design varies. Most countries have also outlawed discrimination on grounds such as ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation, but again, some important differences between the countries can be noted.

Lacking a Discrimination Ombudsperson
The lack of discrimination legislation in Iceland makes it difficult for victims to take action. The Icelandic constitution offers some protection by providing that all people have the same human rights. There is also a law prohibiting agitation against ethnic or national groups, and another giving individuals with disabilities the right to be able to access public buildings.

‘There are a whole bunch of gaps in the legislation and many forms of discrimination remain unregulated. Theoretically, you can take a discrimination case to court, but it’s going to cost you a lot of money. Nobody ever does it,’ says Hjaltadóttir.

In contrast to the other Nordic countries, Iceland does not have a state discrimination ombudsperson who helps victims take discrimination cases to court. The country’s Centre for Gender Equality only deals with gender-related discrimination, and victims of workplace discrimination may in a best-case scenario count on the support of their trade unions. Special-interest organisations for example within the LGBTQ movement have also occasionally addressed the issue, but generally lack the resources necessary to take cases to court.

‘We know there are victims who have nowhere to go. They call us, hoping we will be able to help them, but all we can do is tell them who to contact next. So, we know there’s a need for legislation,’ says Hjaltadóttir.

Norwegian Legislative Change Met Resistance
The Norwegian discrimination laws were recently changed, and since January this year, all discrimination grounds are covered under the same act. As a result of the change, the gender equality act no longer exists, and this has stirred up a storm of protests in the women’s movement. The first Norwegian gender equality act was adopted in 1978 – one year before the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination was established in 1979 and two years before Norway’s ratification of it.

‘Many women’s organisations wanted to keep the gender equality act because it was the fruit of many years of hard work, was very well known and signalled that women are not a minority group in society,’ says Anne Hellum, professor at the Department of Public and International Law, University of Oslo.

Supporters of the new law say it is more user friendly and makes it easier to deal with cases involving multiple grounds of discrimination. Some also point to the benefit of not treating minorities separately and instead placing all types of discrimination under the same umbrella. Hellum stresses that compound discrimination was prohibited also under the old legislation. She thinks that overall, the new law is more difficult to interpret.

‘All discrimination grounds are unique in some ways, and it’s obvious in the work that led up to the new law that they had problems concretely defining them. Instead, they had to settle for an abstract level, which makes it difficult for those who are actually going to use the law in practice,’ she says.

She also points out that the new legislation has changed the way discrimination cases are handled. Overall, it has become more difficult to get one’s case reviewed, she says.

‘The Norwegian Gender Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud can no longer process individual cases, and the resources needed to give people advice have been reduced.’

In addition, the new discrimination board, which handles all discrimination cases since the turn of the year, only accepts written reports of discrimination. In the past, people could report discrimination verbally, Hellum continues.

‘Overall, we are seeing a neoliberal liberalisation reform where the handling of individual rights and the responsibilities of private and public actors have been dramatically weakened,’ she says.

Gender Discrimination in Denmark and Finland
While Norway and also Sweden are now handling all grounds of discrimination under one and the same law, Finland and Denmark have separate laws against discrimination based on gender.

Although gender is handled separately in Danish law, the same discrimination board deals with all complaints regardless of type of discrimination. The board can, in theory, handle several types of discrimination at the same time, although this has turned out to be difficult in practice, says Rebekka Mahler from Danish KVINFO.

‘If you for example are a woman with immigration background, it is not easy to pursue a case that combines both discrimination grounds,’ she says.

The Danish anti-discrimination protection is generally not as extensive as the laws in Finland, Norway and Sweden. For example, Danish law does not require employers to actively prevent discrimination, nor does it explicitly prohibit discrimination of trans persons, in contrast to Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish law.

‘Reporting a Violation Really Doesn’t Make You a Whiner’
The Icelandic government is currently discussing how a national anti-discrimination act could be designed. It has for example been suggested that the law should only apply to the labour market and the workplace, while others have proposed that it should also cover other parts of society. The other Nordic countries have chosen somewhat different paths in this respect. In Finland, Norway and Sweden, the anti-discrimination laws apply in many different domains, including in school, in the housing market, at restaurants and in shops. In Denmark, only discrimination based on gender and ethnicity is prohibited in all areas of society. For the other discrimination grounds, the laws only apply in the labour market and the workplace.

‘What’s most important right now is that we finalise this law so that Iceland, too, will have an anti-discrimination act in place,’ says Hjaltadóttir.

Besides legislation, she also sees a need for efforts to change the prevailing views of discrimination in both Iceland and the other Nordic countries.

‘There is a culture that encourages victims to bite the bullet and just keep going, but reporting a violation really doesn’t make you a whiner,’ she says.

Updated 20 November 2019