Nansen Conference: Opening speech
Ministers, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
“Charity is practical politics.” This quotation by Fridtjof Nansen is as relevant today as it was when he first said it. I would like to draw our attention to the man who has given name to this conference. Nansen was convinced that society benefits from helping refugees and victims of war wherever they may be. The result if we fail to fight poverty and suffering is social unrest and war. Today we are here to address the consequences of climate change on displacement – which may become one of our greatest challenges, if climate change is not curbed.
Nansen, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1922, played a significant role in the history of modern, independent Norway. Nansen – who crossed Greenland on skis already in 1888 – was a role model who had great impact upon his contemporaries. He played a fundamental role in the emergence of an independent Norway, including the development of a Norwegian cultural identity. He was a great scientist in the field of oceanography, but he was also making early contributions on climate change, with focus upon the relationship between sunspots and climate. He was a man of action, and was often mentioned as a possible candidate for high ranking positions in the young nation’s government. However he showed little interest in this.
The First World War marked a turning point for Nansen. The alarming suffering brought about by the war moved him and he got involved in humanitarian work. He endorsed US President Woodrow Wilson’s idea to establish a league of nations, a forum for joining forces in the struggle against war. He became himself a committed participant in the League.
As an international civil servant he was a pioneer in the field of international relief work. The internationally-orientated Nansen argued strongly that all nations should be given access to the League. This vision of his was finally realised when the United Nations was established after the Second World War.
Nansen was the first High Commissioner for the Repatriation of Prisoners of War. But he is probably better known for his relief efforts following the famine in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, which affected around 30 million people. On this occasion, Nansen reached out to civil society after failing to convince the governments of the day. With their support, thousands of Russians were rescued from the famine.
He managed to stay above political disagreements in his continuous work to prevent human suffering.
Very early on Nansen understood the advantages of modern communication. He travelled around in the Soviet Union, taking photographs of the hungry. The powerful images were published in the newspapers. In this way he managed to put the Soviet famine on the agenda, mobilizing funds to alleviate the disaster.
As High Commissioner of Refugees, he had to deal with a million Russians who had fled the communist revolution, scattered around Europe, without any rights or prospects for the future. Nansen then introduced a temporary arrangement which turned out to be a great success: the Nansen Passport.
This was an identity card that provided fundamental rights for the carrier. This was the beginning of the international protection of the rights of refugees as we know it today.
Refugees from war were the challenge of Nansen’s time. Today, additionally, we face displacement due to climate change. There seems to be no doubt that climate change will affect the lives of millions. I hope the spirit of Nansen: honest, brave and with full force – will galvanize the global community to join forces and work together in the tasks ahead.
I wish you all a successful conference.