Despite Exploding Volcanoes, Iceland World’s Most Peaceful Nation

EUROPE, 12 Sep 2011

Thalif Deen – TerraViva Europe

When Johanna Sigurdardottir was sworn in as Iceland’s head of government back in February 2009, she was described as the world’s first openly gay prime minister.

But in a country with progressive political views and liberal social mores, her sexual orientation was never considered a liability.

She took power following a riveting financial crisis when Iceland was on the verge of becoming the world’s first country to go bankrupt. But it defied the economic onslaught.

The dramatic collapse of three key commercial banks in Iceland was described as the “largest suffered by any country in economic history”.

The national currency, the krona, declined by more than 35 percent against the euro.

But the 68-year-old prime minister not only survived the bank failures – which took place before she assumed power – but also an April 2010 sensational volcanic eruption that shut down airports all across Europe.

The volcanic ash from the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull volcano in south east Iceland also threatened to bring Iceland’s economy to a standstill.

The two European neighbours most affected by the devastating plumes were Britain and the Netherlands, where thousands of travellers were stranded for weeks, with the closure of airports costing airlines a collective 250 million dollars in losses per day.

And coincidentally, it was mostly investors and bankers from these two countries that lost much of the money in the collapsed financial institutions.

As they vociferously demanded their monies back – even threatening Iceland with dire consequences – one London newspaper said good- humouredly: “They asked for cash, but all they got was ash.”

A country with a minuscule population about 320,000 (of which 118,000 live in the capital of Reykjavik), Iceland was declared the world’s most peaceful nation in a survey of 153 countries last year.

Currently, it also has one of the world’s highest life expectancies: 78.8 for men and 82.6 for women compared with 75.6 and 80.8, respectively, for the United States.

The tourist brochures proudly boast that Iceland is a country with an incredibly diverse geographical landscape, featuring geysers, glaciers, waterfalls, lava fields and volcanoes.

The country’s pristine beauty is matched only by the dozens of geothermal spas and hot springs, both in the heart of Reykjavik and the outskirts of the city.

According to the 2011 Global Peace Index (GPI) released by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), Iceland ranked ahead of New Zealand, Japan, Denmark and the Czech Republic as the world’s most peaceful nation.

The least peaceful nations were Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and North Korea.

The GPI has been endorsed – as “a ground breaking piece of research that will form the basis for more rigorous research into peace” – by several Nobel Laureates, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the human rights organisation Amnesty International, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the Dalai Lama, according to IEP, an international research institute based in New York and Sydney.

Michelle Breslauer, U.S. programme manager at IEP, told IPS Iceland was first included in the GPI in 2008 and has been ranked consistently in the top five most peaceful countries from 2008 -2011.

She said Iceland’s fall in rank in 2009 was primarily due to an increase in political instability and likelihood of violent demonstrations as a result of the collapse in Iceland’s financial system and the demise of the government.

In the 2011 GPI, however, the improvement in Iceland’s score reflects a drop in the likelihood of violent demonstrations, returning to the lowest possible level under the stable centre-left coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the Left-Green Movement (LGM).

“The upturn in this qualitative indicator is also linked to a tentative economic recovery during 2010 and an improvement in the unemployment situation compared with 2009,” Breslauer noted.

She said Icelandic society remains essentially harmonious, with measures of safety and security, including violent crime, internal conflict and the number of homicides, all accorded very low scores.

The proportion of citizens who are in jail remains one of the lowest in the world, at 55 per 100,000, and it was unchanged in 2010.

In terms of militarisation, Iceland has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) since its inception in 1949. But it has no standing army and military expenditure as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) is the lowest of any European nation.

“The GPI score for military capability and sophistication was reduced this year to account for swinging budget cuts made by the government,” Breslauer pointed out.

The Icelandic Defence Agency (IDA), which was launched in 2008 with a budget of 20 million dollars, was disbanded in January 2011 and its responsibilities transferred to the small Icelandic Coastguard.

The Iceland Crisis Response Unit (ICRU) has participated in peacekeeping missions in cooperation with the United Nations, NATO, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union (EU), as well as projects in partnership with other Nordic countries.

As of November 2010, ICRU personnel were serving with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Last August, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Reykjavik, “a City of Literature” in recognition of its efforts to preserve, disseminate and promote its rich literary heritage.

As the world’s fifth City of Literature, Reykjavik joins the ranks of Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City and Dublin enriching UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network with its best literary practices.

UNESCO says that Reykjavik boasts “an outstanding literary history with its invaluable heritage of ancient mediaeval literature.”

The Paris-based U.N. agency also said that Reykjavik “is especially appreciated for demonstrating the central role literature plays within the modern urban landscape, the contemporary society and the daily life of the citizens”.

Asked what role natural disasters like volcanic eruptions play in the GPI, Breslauer told IPS the GPI measures the existence or absence of peace through 23 indicators that reflect ongoing conflict, societal safety and security; and militarization, using a definition of peace as the absence of violence.

While natural disasters are not directly measured in the GPI, she said, “our research has shown that more peaceful societies are also more resilient and better able to withstand external and internal shocks, including environmental shocks”.

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