Following Iceland’s financial meltdown, a Special Investigative Committee was commissioned to dig around for evidence of foul play. Nearly two years later, on April 12 of this year, the diligent committee handed over a heavyduty 2.000-page report containing their findings.
A Parliamentary Review Committee chaired by Left Green Atli Gíslason immediately went to work on evaluating those findings with the goal of coming up with lessons learned from the government’s participation in the financial collapse, suggesting legal changes to prevent another economic collapse, and determining whether any ministers failed to fulfill their ministerial duties, a legally punishable crime.
After reviewing the evidence, expert opinion and feedback from the ministers themselves, the majority of the committee recommended that four former ministers, whose names appear prominently in the investigative report, should be charged with failing to meet their responsibilities, specifically between February 2008 and the crash.
The implicated ministers are former Prime Minister Geir Haarde, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, former Minister of Finance Árni Mathiesen, and former Minister of Business Affairs Björgvin G. Sigurðsson. However, a minority of the committee disagrees with charging Sigurðsson and has put forward a separate recommendation to press charges against only the three ministers.
Ministerial responsibility examined
According to Article 14 of Iceland’s Constitution, ministers are accountable for all executive acts established by law. Alþingi may impeach ministers on account of their official acts and the Court of Impeachment (Landsdómur) has competence in such cases.
The law referred to is No. 3/1963, also known as “the law about ministerial responsibility” (Lög um ráðherraábyrgð). The law essentially states that ministers can be held responsible not only for taking actions that put the country in foreseeable danger, but also for not taking appropriate actions to prevent the country from such danger. In their proposals to Alþingi, the committee details how the three or four aforementioned ministers respectively broke this law. For instance, the committee says they are all guilty of dropping the ball on the Icesave issue by failing to ensure that Landsbanki’s Icesave branch be transferred to a subsidiary whereby its depositors would have been insured by Britain.
Furthermore, the committee says they are all guilty of neglecting to hold meetings to discuss the dangerous size of the banks, and the ramifications of this, despite the Central Bank Board of Governors briefing them about it on February 7, 2008. Even if the crash was inevitable by 2008, the allegation is that the ministers failed to take any action to minimize its damage.
Trial by Court of Impeachment
If Alþingi agrees to formally press charges against the three or four ministers, they will be tried by a special Court of Impeachment, which has never been called upon since it was written into the Constitution in 1905.
Given that there’s no precedence for this in Iceland, it’s not surprising that the whole affair is generating a lot of controversy. Some argue the laws are simply too antiquated and violate the former ministers’ human rights, such as the right to appeal, which is not possible in this court. Others point out that the ministers, whose job description entails reviewing existing laws, never had any qualms about them until now.
Nonetheless, if called upon, the court will convene as a fifteen-person body, including five Supreme Court justices, the Reykjavík district judge, a University of Iceland professor in constitutional law, and eight MPs who are selected by their peers in Alþingi every six years. The current MPs were selected in 2005, incidentally during Geir Haarde’s heyday.
The court will then decide whether any number of the accused minister’s is guilty, in which case the ministers could face fines or serve up to two years behind bars. For the time being, however, the issue is stalled in Alþingi. Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir has expressed doubts about the process and others are having a difficult time taking on the responsibility of pressing charges against their colleagues. What’s going to happen next is unclear.
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