Gudni Johannesson, President of Iceland, gave his opening remarks to this year’s Spirit Of Humanity Forum

There was a time that we Icelanders we asked every single person who arrived on this island, ‘how do you like Iceland?’. With the eager anticipation that the person would reply ‘I love it, I love the nature, the people, it’s a wonderful country’. There was a sense of minority complex in this question. We were relatively new on the international stage and we desired recognition. We have grown up, but we still like you to like Iceland.

But how can we help, how can we make the world a better place? Iceland remains small on the international stage, just over 330,000 people living here. There is no military, GNP is miniscule compared to other countries. What can we do as a nation, as individuals? Only less than a year ago, I was a University lecturer at the University of Iceland. I had to face this question, how could I contribute? I would ease my welfare guilt by supporting a charity here, making a donation there. But then also saying this is just about all I can do. Well I can also help my maintaining happiness in myself and my family, that is a contribution to the world. But apart from that the problems of the world are so big that a University lecturer, it is too overwhelming.

Well this is no my escape route any more. As a Head of State, I must take responsibility. What can I do? Well, I get to be on stage, I will meet powerful people in this world, I will meet other Heads of State. So what can I do? Can I tell them straight up, ‘get your house in order, things are not working in your country’, or ‘you have the power to stop war here, make peace there, now please rise up to the occasion and start making the world a better place.’ No, as happy as I would be to say human rights are not respected here, you are ignoring climate change etc, a straight up approach like this could maybe get me some applause, but would it actually change something, any more than a University lecturer can change things on his own. But we cannot just stop there, because if we only say I am just a poor individual and I cannot affect change, so be it, then things will never change.

But if I feel, yes I am an individual, yes I am small, but with the help of others, if we unite, if we stand together, then we are mighty and furthermore even though we cannot implement change overnight, we can take a long term view, be hopeful, be optimistic, and despite everything we can make a plan to go on a road to a better world step by step.

So I leave you with these thoughts, a translation I made this morning from a Reykjavik poem and it reads like this….

“For as long as there was harm that you could have eased, and there was fair battle you could have joined, but did not, the problems of this world are also your fault.”