The Rafto Foundation for Human Rights was established in 1987 in memory of Professor Thorolf Rafto (1922-1986), an iconic lecturer in economics at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen, Norway.
Now, a little over 30 years on, one of a new generation of supporters, Jostein Hole Kobbeltvedt, is inspired to continue Rafto’s work. Kobbeltvedt joined the Foundation as Director last year after over a decade of working on international development issues and social activism around the world.
Born in Bergen, he coincidentally met Rafto when he was four years’ old, long before he was inspired by Rafto’s unwavering commitment to support dissidents, the oppressed and the persecuted, but like many working for the Foundation today, he found Rafto’s legacy just as relevant today as it was back then.
As well as running advocacy and education initiatives, the Foundation has awarded the Professor Thorolf Rafto Memorial Prize for Human Rights (the Rafto Prize) to a human rights defender every year since 1987. Jostein is helping to move the Foundation forward and extending its operations into the maritime world.
Tell us about Professor Rafto’s work.
Thorolf Rafto was a Professor of Economic History at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen. He was not satisfied with a quiet and safe academic life. Instead, he took an active role in world issues.
He was admired for his unshakeable integrity and devoted much of his life to the promotion of democracy and respect for human rights, especially in Eastern Europe, where he travelled extensively. Rafto was an important spokesman for the persecuted Jews and intellectuals in the former Soviet Union and for political dissidents in other Eastern European countries.
He was arrested in 1979 in Prague after holding a lecture for young people who were excluded from the university for political reasons. He was beaten by security police and suffered from the inflicted injuries for the rest of his life. He died on November 4, 1986, 64 years old.
His son Egil was a co-founder of the Rafto Foundation. Did he follow in his father’s footsteps?
Egil Rafto was a journalist enthusiastically engaged in the struggle for human rights. In 1989, he organised aid shipments to orphanages in Romania, which at the time suffered from very serious shortages of funds, food and the equipment needed to provide decent shelter for the children. He was active in running a number of humanitarian organisations, including the Rafto Foundation.
Egil Rafto was also chairman of the National Foundation for Film Production and the Theatre Society of Bergen. His journalistic work included reporting on news, sports, literature, music and other current events. He also made documentaries about topics such as the homeless children of Brazil.
He worked for various media organisations in his hometown of Bergen, and towards the end of his life, for the national broadcaster NRK. He died in January 1997, 45 years old.
What strikes you personally as the most important aspect of human rights today?
We need to be constantly reminded that human rights are for everyone. If human rights are violated in one sector, for example for a Filipino seafarer on an oil tanker, it is an issue for all of us. If one person’s human rights are violated, and that violation is accepted, we run the risk of having our own rights violated.
We are seeing now, both in the U.S. and Britain, and to some extent also in Norway, that when we talk about refugees or fighting terrorism, there are politicians that are more and more openly saying that if human rights stand in the way, then they will set those rights aside. They say it very explicitly, and we the human rights community, need to work very actively to ensure that people who today feel safe in their democracy, their welfare state, are reminded that human rights are in all of our interests. When politicians can explicitly say that they will set aside human rights, and a lot of people feel human rights are about minorities, someone else, we should remember World War II. After the war, there were strong feelings about human rights, because we saw what happens if governments don’t respect human rights. That’s the challenge we will face in the coming years.
What activities is the Foundation undertaking to support that view?
Our primary purpose is to award the annual Professor Thorolf Rafto’s Prize for Human Rights work. We try and draw attention to the causes our laureates are fighting for, and we try to connect our laureates and create platforms where they can support each other. In some cases, the Rafto Foundation has followed and supported the laureates and the organisations they represent for a decade or longer.
We also offer human rights education to local and international audiences. We currently have about 5,000 students college students taking part in our education programs on democracy, integration and racism. This autumn we are launching a human rights course at the University of Bergen.
Additionally, we work on other issues such as freedom of speech which is a common issue for most of our laureates, and we also support female human rights defenders in the Middle East and South East Asia. The projects have all in some way been inspired by or initiated by our laureates.
How are laureates chosen?
Our prize committee tries to find someone that has not received a lot of awards, someone who is not yet famous and influential. In that way, we try to find somewhere where the award can make a difference, and we commit to working with the laureate for as long as it takes to achieve that.
During the first few years, the Rafto Foundation was mainly concerned with the struggle for human rights in Eastern Europe; this was also the main focus for the work of Professor Rafto himself. After the peaceful democratic revolutions that swept over Eastern Europe in 1989, the Rafto Foundation turned its attention further afield. The first prize awarded to a recipient working outside Europe was given to Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma in 1990.
Many Rafto laureates are individuals working for people living in areas strongly influenced by major powers such as Russia, China and India. Other laureates have addressed problems that are truly international, such as organised crime in different forms or the plight of the Roma people.
The Foundation is based in Bergen rather than Oslo which is home to other human rights organisations. Is that an advantage?
In Bergen, we have the opportunity to work more closely with the business sector and academia. We are not so surrounded by all the other NGOs located in Oslo. We are currently working with some Norwegian companies that have a business footprint globally. We are helping them to increase their understanding of human rights issues, and to support that, we are developing a training package for businesses working globally.
How did you get involved with the shipping industry?
We are working with some of the big Norwegian companies, and we identified the shipping industry as one of the areas that we would like to focus on. Shipping has been one of the big industries in Norway for more than a century, and given we are a small country, we’ve provided quite a lot of seafarers and ships to the world during that time. Today, there are few Norwegians working on those ships, but Norwegian shipping companies are still influential, as are Norwegian investors.
What human rights issues affect shipping?
Generally, the shipping community has not focused much on human rights issues yet. One of the reasons the shipping industry has made less progress on workers’ rights than other industries is a lack of feeling of solidarity. People don’t know the workers, don’t know where they come from and don’t interact with them much. By nature, they are moving around, which also makes it more difficult for people within the industry to organize on industrial issues.
We have dialogue with Norwegian shipowners who were shocked to find out that, for example, there was a case where North Korean slave labour was being used in a shipbuilding production line in Poland; not directly, but via a sub-contractor.
We have talked openly about the challenges of this and the lack of information available, and we are very grateful for Human Rights at Sea, as they can shed light on such issues. There are not many other organizations that have this competence, and they have really set the agenda within an area of human rights and business that few others have been able to do.
It is very timely, and we want to put pressure on the business sector, so it is important to have such an organization to provide the knowledge and focus within a sector that is lagging behind.
Thank you, Jostein.
Source: Human Rights at Sea
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.