Thorolf Rafto (July 6, 1922 - November 4, 1986) was a human rights activist and professor in Economic History at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen, Norway. During a visit to Prague in 1979 to hold a lecture for students excluded from the universities for political reasons, Rafto was beaten up by the communist security police. He suffered from the inflicted injuries the rest of his life and died in 1986 at the age of 64. The Rafto Foundation for Human Rights was established the same year, in gratitude for his efforts and inspiration.
Thorolf Rafto was born in 1922 in Bergen, Norway. His father, Robert Rafto was an Olympic gymnast and the winner of the Norwegian decathlon championships in 1918. In his younger days Rafto competed on national level in athletics, and won the Norwegian championships in decathlon in 1947.
During the World War II, Thorolf Rafto fled to Britain and served with the Royal Air Force. Back in Bergen after the war, he earned university degrees in Languages and History. In 1950, at the age of 28, Rafto married Helga Hatletvedt with whom, he had four children.
In 1956, Thorolf Rafto became a lecturer at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen. “Thorolf's abilities and charisma soon made him one of the most popular lecturers ever at the college. He had an almost photographic memory that enabled him to cite historical, economic and cultural facts as if he had a reference book before him. When he started his classes, only eight students enrolled. Two years later the lecture halls were crammed.”
Involvement in political activism in Eastern Europe has started from the Prague Spring of 1968. Later in his life, Thorolf Rafto got, particularly, supportive of the liberal ideas of the Czechoslovak reformists such as Alexander Dubcek and Jiri Hajek. In 1973, Thorolf Rafto travelled to Odessa, where he witnessed the persecution of intellectuals and Jewish refuseniks, who had applied for emigration to Israel. On the return from the Soviet Union, Rafto wrote an article criticizing internal Soviet politics in Italy's Corriere della Sera, that later was published in Norway and Denmark. Later, in March 1984 he was awarded the Danish Jewish Youth Organisation’s Ben-Adam Prize for his efforts on behalf of the Soviet Jews.
In 1979, Rafto travelled again to Prague to hold a lecture for students excluded from the universities for political reasons. However, he was brutally beaten up by the communist security police and had to come back to Norway. In 1981, Rafto made several trips to Poland to work closer with labour organisations there.
By 1985 his health was weakening. On 4 November 1986 Thorolf Rafto died.
After the death of Thorolf Rafto, his friends and colleagues agreed to establish a foundation that would continue the Rafto’s work on a promotion of freedom of speech and political expression in Eastern Europe. It was also decided to introduce a prize for human right activists.
Nevertheless, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the consequential democratization of Eastern European states made to reconsider the status of the foundation. Meanwhile it has opened new possibilities to work with other geographical regions in a promotion of human rights. Already in 1990, the Rafto Prize was awarded to a Burmese democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi that in the following year 1991 has received the Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.
The initial idea of the Rafto Prize is to provide a basic informative platform for the laureates that would help to receive further attention from the international media and support from political and non-political organisations. By awarding the Rafto Prize, the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights seeks to bring attention to independent voices that due to oppressive and corruptive regimes are not always heard. For example, four Rafto Laureates have subsequently received further international assistance and were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Aung San Suu Kyi, Jose Ramos-Horta, Kim Dae-jung and Shirin Ebadi were awarded the Rafto Prize prior to the Nobel Peace Prize.