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Icelandic whistle-blowing and Klausturgate revisited:

Holding politicians to account

The citizens of Iceland have been holding delinquent politicians of the world's oldest parliament (Althing 930 AD) to account for "bad boy" sexist banter. Caroline Hunt reports on this 21st-century Icelandic saga and suggests such human rights initiatives may be replicated elsewhere in the world, including Switzerland.

One year ago on 20 November 2018, Bára Halldórsdóttir, a disabled woman who has long advocated for the rights of the chronically ill, sat down in a Reykjavík bar where six Centre Party members of Iceland's Althing or parliament also happened to be socializing.

What was meant to be a quick coffee break turned into a four-hour recording session as Bára pulled out her phone to record insidious and extremely sexist and violent banter among Iceland's elected members of parliament.

Today, "Citizen Bára" is Iceland's favourite whistleblower. The case has since been coined "Klausturgate", a play on the name of the bar and the Watergate scandal.

Among the MPs at the bar that day was former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who had been forced to resign due to financial impropriety revealed by the Panama Papers. During those four hours, the Centre Party MPs were recorded mocking disabled political opponents, using violently sexist slurs including calling a female co-worker a "raving mad c**t," joking about rape, and describing how they would or wouldn't have sex with certain female MPs.

The MPs also divulged explicitly how they used their personal connections to abuse power.

Bára felt it her responsibility as a citizen to hand the recordings to the media with no financial incentive. Media coverage made the Icelandic public aware of the gross ethical violations by the Centre Party members.

Iceland, with its population of barely 360,000, ranks as one of the world's most gender-equal if not feminist countries in the world. It is also listed as number one in the 2016 best places to work by The Economist's 'women index'.

The nation's Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir (she is widely known by her first name ("after all, we are a very small country" she told an OECD gathering on corruption in Paris last year), hosted the hugely successful #MeToo Conference in September 2019 in Reykjavík, However, the silence regarding the "Klausturgate affair" at the #Me Too meeting was deafening.

To date, none of the six MPs have faced any consequences. All that they received was a slap on the wrist from the ethics committee for their maligning behaviour.

Bára, who identifies herself as a "queer, disabled activist and artist", is dependent on welfare. She is determined to steer the conversation back to the issue and to seek gender and intersectional justice for those deeply disappointed by their MPs.

So Bára has organised the citizens forum in the capital to reflect on Klausturgate, the lack of accountability of people in power, and to give citizens and parliamentarians a stronger voice.

Tactics by the Icelandic Centre Party, who initiated aggressive legal action against Bára (she still faces high legal bills), include accusing her of espionage and conspiring with opposition parties.

This has detracted from the core issues at stake, notably the highly questionable engagement of elected officials in "quid pro quos" and violent sexism.

In the face of the significant financial and emotional burden endured by Bára, the Icelandic public has rallied around her, and organized fundraisers to help with her legal costs and support her initiative.

This historic event will be televised, and the citizens of Iceland will be given a virtual platform to comment.

The citizens dialogue will include keynote speakers:

· Svandis Svavarsdóttir, Icelandic Minister for Health;

· Caroline Hunt-Matthes, an independent Sexual Violence Investigator, UN whistleblower, University professor and Global-Geneva collaborator;

· Stella Samuelsdóttir, UN Women;

· Freyja Haraldsdóttir, University teacher and former MP subject of Klausturgate recordings, and a disability activist; and

· a speaker from Samtökin 78, Iceland's national LGTBQ organisation.

Peter Matjasi of the Open Society has stated this initiative in Iceland is important because "it highlights the intersectional nature of an individual who stood up for what they thought was the right thing to do in exposing abuse of power and gross ethical violations by elected officials, and the backlash against the individual based on their diverse identities...".

A growing movement of citizens to hold governments to account suggests the backlash is going the other way, too.