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Last Updated: 02/19/2004
No Arms in Iceland
Telma Halldorsdottir

The author discusses whether Iceland should join the list of 19 countries with no armed forces that includes Grenada, Samoa, Lichtenstein, Mauritius and Costa Rica. The decision may depend with the the potential unemployment problems in Keflavik.

It can be funny coming from a small country like Iceland. Especially on occasions such as when a friend from Iceland visited me in Costa Rica this Christmas and was taken aside for 40 minutes at immigration at the airport in San Jose, while they checked that Iceland was indeed a country! That being said, one of the first things that people at UPEACE have commented on when I say where I am from is that Iceland, like Costa Rica does not have a military, which in my mind is something to be proud of. 


However even if Iceland does not have its own army and is a “country without weapons” there is a United States military base located in Iceland. Its presence is based on a Defence Agreement between the US and Iceland from 1951.

The reasons for the military base are historical. Iceland was occupied in the Second World War by the British who later handed it over to the US. Iceland, a former Danish colony, used the opportunity and declared independence in 1944. The new democracy then became a founding member of NATO in 1949 and the presence of the base was continued. Why it has continued for so long can be traced to the fact that its location was considered of great military importance in the cold war. Being mid way between Moscow and Washington proved to be a convenient location and allowed for the surveillance of ships, submarines and airplanes from the powerful Soviet Northern armies. However, after the thaw of the cold war Iceland’s military significance in NATO’s defence system has decreased. This has lead to a considerable decrease in the military base utility to a point which the Icelandic government now considers an absolute minimum.


The Defence Agreement was not supposed to be in force indefinitely and therefore contains an article allowing for a revision or a termination of the contract. The article stipulates that both countries can make a proposal to terminate the Agreement to NATO, which then assesses whether there is still need for the military base. Twice the Icelandic government has had plans to terminate the Defence Agreement in 1956 and 1973, but in both cases NATO estimated that there was indeed need for the presence of the US military force. Since 1973 there has, however been little discussion about the termination of the US army base by the Icelandic government.


The threat to international peace and security changed in an instant after September 11th. The world now faces new and unpredictable dangers and the threat of terrorism has become one of the biggest concerns of the international society. It has changed the debate on self-defence: more and more countries now insist on the lawfulness of pre-emptive self-defence.

This change inevitably lead to different emphasis on US defence strategy and last year the US Government made their plans known to further decrease the army base in Iceland. These plans include taking the remaining 4 helicopters. The Icelandic government took the position that the helicopters were the absolute minim defence and if they should leave there was no ground for the army base any more since it would only serve as a surveillance base for the US. The question therefore became very imminent on whether Iceland would be completely without a defence system. At the last minute, Lord George Robertson, NATO’s Secretary General at that time, intervened. This led to the withdrawal of the US government decision which decided that the matter of the base will be looked into when the US army force in Europe will be revised as a whole.


A country completely without weapons?

The question then arises: what will happen if the US goes ahead with its plans to decrease the force and Iceland insists on a total departure? According to its obligations as member state to NATO, Iceland would then be responsible for running the Keflavik airport base for its maintenance and security for NATO usage as well as to ensure flight safety in the North Atlantic and being responsible for the aerial surveillance of the country. Many feel that that role can be assumed by Iceland. There are however economic interests at state since the disappearance of the military base would leave many people of the town next to the base unemployed.




There seems to be a consensus among Icelandic politicians that Iceland has to show greater initiative on its own defence and security issues. At the NATO summit in Prague in 2002 the governments of the NATO countries agreed to expand their capacity to face the dangers of chemical, bio-chemical, and nuclear weapons and to take effective measures against terrorism, which is now considered an imminent threat to international peace and security. At the summit, Iceland gave an important promise for more funding to common projects and to increase Icelandic participation in peacekeeping. This shows its willingness to participate in the common security system.


But which way to go?


Some have maintained that the fact that Iceland is a part of NATO is enough of a defence system since according to article 5 of the NATO agreement, an armed attack against one or more of member state is considered an attack against them all.  If an armed attack occurs, each one of them shall assist in self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the UN to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

It has also been raised that Iceland’s initiative should not involve arms but means like increased funding for development projects, environmental protection, help to refugees within the UN system and other international organisations. Iceland has already been involved with such projects, such as taking over control at the Pristina airport in Kosovo and taking part in peacekeeping in the Balkans. In that way, Iceland has and should continue providing peacekeeping forces with valuable specialised personnel that work aside soldiers and civilian staff from other countries.


Whatever the next steps will be, it is clear that many feel that Iceland should take more responsibility for their own defence and safety matters. Top level politicians have been quoted saying that this does not mean that they are looking into building or buying weapons or that Iceland will take over the projects of the military base, but rather to look into how Iceland can be a more participatory in its own defences, thereby making defence a normal part of Icelandic society.


But why should an isolated country with a population of less than 300,000 thousand need its own military, or for that matter a military base? That is a question that I can’t answer.

A country whose only real conflicts have been the cod wars in the 70’s fought with the United Kingdom over the expansion of fisheries zone (where we did however take on and beat an empire), should be able to set a peaceful example as a country without weapons.


Telma Halldorsdottir is engaged in postgraduate work in Costa Rica.