Imagine that you are back in 1888 and listening to the defence of a doctoral thesis. The candidate’s main hypothesis is that the nervous system consists of separate nerve cells rather than a continuum of tubes. This would later be known as the Neuron Doctrine. The candidate went on to become professor of zoology at the University of Oslo, establishing the Oslo school of neuroscience. He also established himself as a famous oceanographer, a world-known explorer – a polar explorer as such – and a man that made a difference for millions of European refugees.
His name was of course Nansen, Fridtjof Nansen.
The “Nansen passport” saving lives
In the final decade of his life, Nansen devoted himself primarily to the League of Nations, following his appointment in 1921 as the League's first High Commissioner for Refugees. In 1922, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work for the displaced victims of the First World War and related conflicts. Among the initiatives he introduced was the “Nansen passport” for stateless persons, a passport that became recognised by more than 50 countries. It allowed the bearer to cross borders legitimately.
The Nansen passport was much sought-after and made it possible for many people to flee to the West and establish a new life. Many of these later left a strong imprint on the world: composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergey Rachmaninov, painter Marc Chagall, photographer Robert Capa, and ballet dancer Anna Pavlova.
The challenge of distance and numbers
Fredrik Stang, a professor at the University of Oslo, presented Fridtjof Nansen with his Nobel Peace Prize in 1922. Stang talked about how the huge challenge of refugees and migration is difficult to grasp for someone living far away and not affected directly by it.
As he said: if we see a person laying on the street, poor and destitute with no place to go, it is something happening right in front of our eyes and we feel compassion. Nameless, faceless millions on the other side of the world – that is unfortunately something different. Sadly, it does not affect us as easily and profoundly, because of the physical distance and sheer numbers.
We must strive so that this does not turn into indifference.
Creating the legacy of UiO?s Human Rights Award
The Nansen passport made a difference also to our small nation. Leo and Lisl Eitinger fled from central Europe and from the Nazis in 1939, and came to Norway with a Nansen passport.
Leo Eitinger was born in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He graduated from medical school in 1937. As a Jew, he experienced being degraded as a citizen and losing his basic rights and legal identity. He fled the Nazis two years later, came to Norway as a refugee on a Nansen passport, and worked here as a psychiatrist.
When the Nazis later occupied Norway, Eitinger was taken prisoner alongside other Norwegian Jews and sent to Auschwitz, then later on to Buchenwald. He was one of the survivors. After the war, he and his wife Lisl devoted their lives to the promotion of human rights and the fight against injustice and racism.
Leo and Lisl Eitinger left behind a great tradition and legacy. They donated a huge fortune to the University of Oslo, which has become the basis for the University of Oslo Human Rights Award. It is with great gratitude and pride that we honour their legacy by annually saluting champions of basic human rights.
Scholars and students attacked all over the world
Academia is not untouched by conflict and suppression. Yesterday?s release of the Free To Think Report 2022, published by Scholars at Risk?s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, shows that conflict and authoritarianism threaten scholars and students around the world. It has been a year of many attacks on higher education. These occur in closed and repressive societies, where the right to think and speak freely is routinely curbed, but they also occur in more open, democratic, and stable societies. No country is immune.
Individuals and families are hard hit, but the consequences are also institutional. The long-term effects are enormous. The conflicts also affect the most important and renewable resource: the collective brainpower. It is easy to destroy institutions and competence. It takes many years to rebuild them.
It is the responsibility of society to respond with humanity. It is the responsibility of academia to respond with support. That is the reason why Scholars at Risk is so important. We need to understand and show sympathy, but we need to do so much more. We need to act.
The importance of raising your voice
Researchers and students are always vulnerable groups in war and conflict, and live dangerously in authoritarian regimes. Research is about investigating facts, asking critical questions, and testing ideas. In a society where there is only one truth, there is no room for critical voices – no room for knowledge-based debate and development.
I am thankful to all those individuals at the University of Oslo that are raising their voices and engaging in relevant debates. No one mentioned, no one forgotten.
We will of course continue to support Scholars at Risk. We have taken part in this arrangement since 2001 and offer, under more ?normal? circumstances, protection to four scholars yearly. At the present, we are host to more than these four.
With democracy at the core
Academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to liberal democracy, and the academic community has a responsibility to provide research and education that sheds light and continuous attention on subjects of relevance.
For that reason, democracy is at the pivot of UiO:Democracy, a new strategic initiative at the University of Oslo. In addition, democracy is one of the gravitational fields of Norway?s first innovation district, Oslo Science City, and furthermore a central pillar in one of the knowledge hubs of the European university alliance, Circle U.
Fittingly enough, the first Circle U. national conference on 5-6 December is shedding light on this important issue, with its focus on ?European values in times of upheaval – our political, institutional and economic order under pressure?.
Circle U.?s national conference coincides with the start of Oslo Peace Days 2022, which stretches from 5 to 12 December. One of the highlights on the program is the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. This year Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State, is among the participants, partaking in a panel discussion entitled “Afghanistan – finding a way forward”.
Oslo Peace Days is the venue for the University of Oslo Human Rights Award ceremony as well. This year?s prize goes to Dr. Andrea Pet?, a Hungarian historian and a professor of gender studies at Central European University. She receives the award for her defence of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. With her connection to gender studies and Holocaust research, Pet? represents disciplines that come under attack when European regimes move in a more authoritarian direction.
I hope to see many colleagues and friends at both the conference, the UiO Human Rights Award ceremony, as well as Oslo Peace Days in general.