The Rafto Foundation for Human Rights was established in 1986 in a memory of Thorolf Rafto, a professor of Economic History at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration (NHH) and a human rights activist. The main objective of the Rafto Foundation is the promotion of freedom of political expression and enterprise. The work of the foundation consists of different educational and informative projects, including the annual award of the Rafto Prize in November. The foundation is based in Bergen, Norway and run by a small team of professionals and volunteers.
Thorolf Rafto was well known for his political activism in Eastern Europe, especially in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. During a visit to Prague in 1979 to hold a lecture for students excluded from universities for political reasons, Rafto was arrested and brutally beaten up by the communist security police. Inflicted injuries dramatically weakened his health. On 4 November 1986 Thorolf Rafto died. However, 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.
For the first years, the foundation was based at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration. From 1997, the Rafto foundation was relocated to the Human Rights House of Bergen, Norway. The Human Right House was established in a memory of Thorolf Rafto’s son, Egil Rafto and officially was opened in 1999 by Aung San Suu Kyis youngest son, Kim Aris. Beside the Rafto Foundation, several organisations have permanent offices in the house, such as Amnesty International, AFS Intercultural Learning, Médecins Sans Frontières, Norwegian Church Aid's Youth, while other groups use the house for seminars, meetings and social events.
The work of the Rafto Foundation is done by a small team of professionals and volunteers. The major emphasis is made on the support of previous laureates as well as educational projects, informative events and lobby initiatives.
Educational projects are given a high priority too. The house seeks to be a centre of Human Rights expertise, which can serve as a focal point in the local network and take on a co-ordinating role between the local and the international network. In August, 2008 the Rafto Foundation organised an exhibition and a roundtable on Poverty and Human Rights (with the example of Dalits) for the Summer Research School of the University of Bergen. Among the invited speakers were the 2007 Rafto Prize laureates, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.