From Iceland — ICELAND AT WAR


Published August 8, 2003


The facts

In August 1990, the Security Council of the United Nations imposed on Iraq – as a response to Iraq’s military invasion and occupation of Kuwait – the most stringent economic sanctions ever imposed by the United Nations on any nation. The sanctions against Iraq and its population were only lifted after the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom in 2003. As a result of a combination of factors, including the severe shortages caused by the sanctions, over half a million children in Iraq died, in excess of previous child mortality rates. A detailed review of the sanctions is provided at

Iceland became a formal participant in the sanctions against the people of Iraq through the publication of an official prohibition of trade with Iraq published in Iceland’s official journal and signed by former Foreign Minister, Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson. Iceland’s participation in the sanctions continued unabated after Mr. Halldór Ásgrímsson took charge of foreign affairs. As he took office, the author of these lines brought home to the new minister the devastating effects of the sanctions through a sit-in in the Foreign Ministry and a personal meeting with the Minister.

Early on 23 April 1999, NATO forces perpetrated an air attack on the Belgrade TV station resulting in the death of 16 civilian employees of the station. On the same day, a meeting of NATO leaders was held in Washington D.C. Where the decision was taken, by consensus, to permit attacks on media in Serbia, effectively giving legal blessing to the attack committed a few hours earlier. The meeting was attended by Iceland’s Prime Minister, David Oddsson, and Iceland’s Foreign Minister, Halldór Ásgrímsson. No public announcement was made at the time by these individuals regarding this decision, nor did they in any way object to the attack on a civilian installation in Belgrade. A detailed review of this particular event (in Icelandic) is available on

The applicable legal norms

The sanctions against Iraq were imposed by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. They thus created obligations of compliance by UN member states, including Iceland. However, should the Security Council exceed its commission, for example, by deciding to exterminate a national group or impose inhumane conditions of existence on human beings, its decisions would have to be considered as null and void and may not be carried out. States acting in furtherance of invalid Council decisions would do so at their own risk and peril and could not shield themselves behind the authority of the Council. At Nurnberg in 1945, Nazi leaders invoked the Fuehrer Principle as a defence (“we just obeyed orders”) but to no avail. By imposing on the people of Iraq inhumane conditions of life that have caused the deaths of over half a million children, the Security Council effectively asked states to commit crimes against humanity, although the measures were, of course, dressed in sanitized terms. It was and remains the responsibility of sovereign states (and individual leaders) to consider the legality, validity and effects of measures they are asked to implement. To the extent that individual leaders are put at notice regarding the adverse effects of measures they impose or support, they are deemed to have intended the consequences of their acts. By giving legal force to measures known to cause the deaths of thousands of children every month, a public leader would be guilty of participation in crimes against humanity under customary international law. This guilt attaches both to principals and accessories of crime.

The author of these lines has formally asked Iceland’s Public Prosecutor to initiate legal action against both Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson and Halldór Ásgrímsson for their participation in the above crime. The Public Prosecutor chose to dismiss the case on the ground that complying with Security Council decisions was a legal obligation. Iceland’s Public Prosecutor chose to disregard entirely the reported fact of massive deaths resulting from the sanctions. By doing so, he implicitly endorsed the rule according to which Icelandic individuals can with impunity participate in mass killing of children as long as killings are dressed in the appropriate sanitized language, are committed indirectly and are imposed by the Security Council. A detailed review of the legal aspects of the Iraq sanctions is found on .

The attack by NATO forces on the Belgrade TV station in 1999 was made in the knowledge that this station was not a legitimate military target. Attacks on civilian targets are prohibited under international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and their Additional Protocols, to which Iceland is a party. Wilfully attacking a civilian installation with the knowledge of causing civilian deaths amounts to a war crime. NATO leaders who attended a meeting which gave the authorization for the commission of war crimes are personally liable under international criminal law for having endorsed the commission of such a crime. The two Icelandic leaders, David Oddsson and Halldór Ásgrímsson, are thus personally charged with complicity in the commission of a war crime against sixteen civilian persons in Belgrade, causing their death. No legal action has yet been taken against these Icelandic leaders, in spite of attempts by groups of international legal experts and families of the victims to obtain the indictment of all NATO leaders responsible for this war crime and other war crimes allegedly committed in the NATO air campaign against former Yugoslavia.

While the author of these lines has spearheaded the efforts to secure the indictment of Icelandic political leaders, numerous Icelandic citizens have endorsed such efforts, inter alia, by signing a public appeal. In doing so, those who press for an indictment are merely upholding recognized norms of international law and the rule of law within Iceland. Grave breaches of international humanitarian law, let alone for participating in the killing of thousands of children, cannot be condoned. We all owe it to the victims and their surviving families to seek justice, including the disclosure of the full truth on the circumstances that led to their deaths.

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