From Iceland — UN Expert Suggests Debt Relief For Renters

UN Expert Suggests Debt Relief For Renters

Published December 17, 2014

Urges founding Independent National Human Rights Institution -- Highlights Renters, Foreigners And Children As Vulnerable Groups

Haukur Már Helgason
Photo by
RÚV screenshot

Urges founding Independent National Human Rights Institution -- Highlights Renters, Foreigners And Children As Vulnerable Groups

Correction: This story’s headline was corrected after its publication. See note at the end of this post for further information.


On Monday, UN Independent Expert Juan Pablo Bohoslavksy ended his week-long fact-finding mission to Iceland on the effects of the 2008 economic crash on the enjoyment of human rights. He introduced his preliminary findings at a press conference held that day. A detailed report is to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2015.

“More attention is required to address difficulties that immigrants face reintegrating into the labour market.”

Bohoslavksy praised “not only conscious decisions by competent Government officials” but also “the behaviour of social partners, a vibrant civil society, and many individuals … engaged in their communities working towards the common good”. Summarizing his message “to the people of Iceland” as: “You have managed the crisis much better than other countries – but do not leave anybody behind”, Bohoslavsky made note of key issues that await resolution.

Key recommendations summarized

The expert’s suggestions for improvements include implementing a debt relief package for renters, that the “long report of the Special Investigative Commission should be summarized in a more accessible form and discussed in schools”, and that other steps must be taken to make citizen participation and social and economic rights “more visible in the existing curriculum on democracy and human rights”.

Iceland also remains “one of the few European countries lacking an independent National Human Rights Institution,” as repeatedly noted for a decade. “The time has come to fill this gap.”

The report notes that in 2012 Iceland had “one of the highest rates of early school leavers in Europe”, that must be addressed. Meanwhile, child poverty remains at higher levels than poverty among the adult population.

“Targeted debt relief is still needed and possible for poor and highly indebted households.”

The findings further state that implementing recently passed European legislation on bank supervision is required to avoid another privatisation scheme without “proper supervision”. The expert notes that the Office of the Special Prosecutor, established in 2008 to investigate alleged financial and economic criminal conduct, needs adequate resources “to ensure a timely and rule of law based exercise of his mandate”. The report also notes that there appear to have been hardly any cases “dealing with non-criminal aspects of negligent behaviour of officials,” usually, it says, dealt with by the national administrative law.

According to the findings, Iceland needs a “more sophisticated legal framework establishing the duties of public officials to protect public interest and outlining the consequences of their breaches,” as well as a strengthened system of appointment of judges “to ensure absolute independence of the judiciary branch from executive influence,” which would be important to, among other things, “minimize the possibility that a financial crisis may reoccur.”

Iceland’s strengths

As noted above, Bohoslavksy praised authorities for certain measures during and after the 2008 bank crash: securing savings for Icelandic customers and giving them preference to claims by international institutional investors; sheltering core social expenditures against cuts; and the reintroduction of a progressive income tax system, which “also helped stabilising internal demand”; having prevented even greater levels of unemployment through “active labour market programmes, training and opening secondary schools and universities for learning”, subsidising salaries and more. He also noted that “the Government should be commended for having gradually introduced a scheme providing free dental health care for children.”

He cites the “Welfare Watch”, an independent consultative body formed in 2009, which “managed to spread the message that during the crisis the weakest in society should be protected”. Bohoslavsky also says “the efforts to hold bankers accountable is something remarkable in the light of the modern financial history”.

Bohoslavsky says that he did “not receive reports about excessive use of force by police officials” in the 2008-2009 demonstrations, which would indicate that “the demonstrations were largely peaceful”.

Debt Relief for renters*

Of particular concern, Bohoslavsky says, is “access to affordable and appropriate housing for the less affluent with secure legal tenure”. As repeatedly reported (here, here, here and here), the capital area’s rental market is highly volatile. “Apartments for long-term renting are missing and there is a need to improve the legal protection of rent payers and expand social housing programmes,” he says.

Take better care of low income households struggling to find a home.

While the Government has “reacted with several debt relief schemes” which mainly affect homeowners, he notes, since 2014 “more than half of all applicants for debt mitigation are now living in rented homes.” This, he says, “shows a worrying trend of a smaller group of people, heavily trapped in debt, that can neither afford paying their daily living expenditures, including housing, nor pay back their debt”. A targeted debt relief program for this group, he says, would not provide risks to commercial banks, “which have largely written off these liabilities in their balance sheets.”

Furthermore, Bohoslavsky says, “Iceland continues to need an adequately equipped a Debtors Ombudsman to assist over-indebted households in debt mitigation, provide advice and improve financial literacy to prevent citizens from falling again into a debt trap.”

Ensure that all people have access to social security benefits of last resort on an equal and fair footing.

Left behind

Other concerns, according to the findings, include unemployment among foreigners, in particular Polish citizens, which reportedly reached over twenty percent during the crisis and remains at ten percent today, while overall unemployment is below four percent.

Meanwhile, households depending of financial aid, nearly doubled from 4,280 in 2007 to over 8,000 in 2013. Those most at risk of becoming dependent on such last resort support are single individuals, men without children and women with.

Noting that as of January 1 2015, unemployment benefits will be reduced to 2.5 years, from four years since the crisis, Bohoslavski says that the increasing number of people dependent on municipal social security “enjoy different levels of benefits depending on their place of residence”. From such factors, Bohoslavsky concludes that a “harmonized, equal and non-discriminative treatment of all applicants for the social security benefit of last resort” in conformity with the ICESCR, appears to be missing.

A society that is rightly proud of its comprehensive social welfare system and sees children and family as its core should not tolerate that the risk for children to grow up in poverty is currently (with 12.2 percent) still higher than for the entire, mostly adult population (9.3 percent).”

Furthermore, Bohoslavsky notes especially that children are at a greater risk of growing up in poverty, at 12.2 percent, than the entire, mostly adult population, at 9.3 percent. He points out that “Iceland has not yet specified a core minimum budget, that people and families would be required to have, in order to enjoy essential economic and social rights and be able to participate in public live, which reflects actual costs of living”.

Iceland’s obligations

Bohoslavksy reminded his audience that under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), “Iceland is obliged to respect, protect and fulfill progressively social and economic rights, including the right to work, social security, health and education using “the maximum of its available resources””. According to the covenant, he noted, “States should not lower the level of enjoyment of these rights by its population” in any form. He conluded his address by stating the importance of reflecting “on the moral driving forces of the colossal over-borrowing that led an entire country into the crash”:

“To what extent, and under what circumstances, debt-based-growth strategies are necessary and consistent with the full realization of human rights and happiness? The Icelandic case shows that these questions are at the core of the role currently played by financial markets in modern societies.”

Juan Pablo Bohoslavksy

Bohoslavsky obtained a law degree in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and a European Doctorate in Law in Salamanca, Spain, under the supervision of Professor Kunibert Raffer at the University of Vienna. Bohoslavsky did postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public law and International Law, in Heidelberg, Germany. In 2009 he was appointed Professor at the University of Rio Negro, Argentina, and an Independent Expert on Foreign Debt and Human Rights, by the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year. The mandate of appointed experts covers all countries. Bohoslavsky’s titles includeMaking Sovereign Financing and Human Rights Work“, which he co-edited and was published earlier this year.

* Correction: An earlier version of this story counted the establishment of a Debtors Ombudsman as one of Bohoslavsky’s recommendations. That office, however, already exists, as is widely known. Bohoslavsky’s words are: “Iceland continues to need an adequately equipped Debtors Ombudsman” – meaning that the office needs continued support. We apologize for this mistake. HMH.

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