Personal memories from WUS Austria and WUS international 1983 – 1998

During the early 1980s, I was assistant professor of public law at Vienna University and strongly involved in development politics. Thanks to the innovative ideas of Professor Konrad Ginther and his highly motivated team at the Institute of International Law of the University of Graz (above all Wolfgang Benedek and Renate Kicker), I spent much time with them in Graz. We had established an Austrian Committee against Torture, in close collaboration with the Swiss Committee against Torture, the current Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), based in Geneva. In 1982 I vividly remember Konrad Ginther speaking about his experience in Harare, where he had participated at a General Assembly of WUS International. He was full of praise for the excellent work of WUS in combating the apartheid system in South Africa, in providing refugees from the academic community (students and professors) with scholarships and in fostering a more sustainable environment and global development. In addition, he asked whether we knew that this important international NGO had been founded in 1920 in Vienna. I must confess I didn’t know, but I was highly inspired by his idea that we should immediately found an Austrian WUS Committee and to join the international WUS family. 

From founding WUS Austria to the Balkans crises and beyond

Founding WUS Austria

So we did: Wolfgang took the lead and became the President of WUS Austria, I served as Vice-President, and Renate managed WUS Austria as Secretary. Our first activities at WUS Austria were to assist foreign students, above all from the Global South, in their daily life and bureaucratic struggles. Together with Brigitte Ortner, Grete Kernegger and others we re-formed the Austrian Foreign Student Service and published an information brochure for foreign students. We spent much time with students from the Global South and invited them to engage in political discussions about the relationship between Austrian development politics and academic solidarity. In 1983, I travelled for almost one year by car to various North, West, Central and East African countries to evaluate projects of the Austrian development co-operation in the field of education. During this trip, we also traced and interviewed many former students, who had studied with an Austrian development scholarship at an Austrian university, about the impact of these studies on their life and work after returning back to Africa. This was an eye-opening experience, which I could well use in my further work for WUS Austria.

The Balkans crisis

Our national section became most active during the armed conflicts and ethnic cleansing operations in the former Yugoslavia, when we established an “Academic Lifeline” and WUS Austria offices at various universities, and assisted the academic community to survive these terrible times. Wolfgang was much more engaged and will certainly tell more about these activities, which also led to him becoming an honorary citizen of Sarajevo.

Since I had spent much time in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1994 and 2003 in my functions as UN Expert leading the “Special Process on Missing Persons in the Former Yugoslavia”, head of a project led by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights (BIM) on the exhumation of mortal remains from mass graves, and as one of eight international judges at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina, I regularly visited the Office of WUS Austria at the main building of the University of Sarajevo. Every student in Sarajevo knew WUS as a humanitarian organisation which had contributed a great deal to keep this university alive during the siege. Immediately after the war I was involved in negotiating with the Rector of the University the establishment of a Human Rights Centre in the main building of the University. WUS Austria and the Human Rights Centre, which later moved to the new Campus of the University at the former “Tito Barracks”, was also instrumental in establishing in 2000 the European Regional Master Programme in Democracy and Human Rights in South-East Europe (ERMA), one of the seven Master programs of the Global Campus of Human Rights, based in Venice, where I am currently Secretary General.

Wider programming

During the 1990s, WUS Austria also organised, in co-operation with WUS Uganda, the Austrian UNESCO Commission and UN Women, annual training programs on Human Rights of Women in Africa, funded by the Austrian Development Agency. We started to hold these training programs, which involved high level women (and a few men) representing African Governments, Parliaments, NGOs and academia, at the Peace University in Stadtschlaining, a remote Austrian town near the Hungarian border. To our surprise, the African women went on strike and demanded that we move these six weeks training course to the city of Vienna with its well known cultural activities and night life. We complied, but in the following years we organised these training seminars at Makerere University in Kampala and the town of Mukono. We had highly inspiring and controversial discussions about traditional practices, including female genital mutilation, polygamy, HIV/AIDS, child marriage, gender-based violence, capital punishment and other issues relating to women’s rights.

Engaging with WUS International and the Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom

But let’s go back to the early years: After having established WUS Austria, we also became actively engaged in WUS International. I remember with pleasure my first WUS General Assembly 1984 in Nantes. At that time, WUS International was an impressive international NGO with national sections in more than 50 countries around the world. Although the international secretariat in Geneva, with its beautiful “villa” and garden in a green area near the airport, had an impressive budget and carried out many international activities, some of the national sections, above all the Canadians, had an even bigger budget and portfolio of activities.

WUS Internationally

My first impression was that WUS International consisted of highly motivated and active students and professors with many left-wing “progressive” ideas about how to make the world a more equal, just, prosperous and secure place to live. The highly political discussions in the General Assembly and its working groups, as well as the regional caucuses (Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Global North) in which every resolution was extensively discussed before being submitted to the plenary, reminded me strongly of the United Nations. Everything was political, including the elections into the International Executive Committee consisting of 12 persons. Since WUS was very strict about equality and diversity, there were rigid quota requirements regarding the composition of the Executive Committee: 3 members from each regional group, altogether 6 students and 6 professors, 6 women and 6 men.

It was not easy to fulfil all these quota requirements at the same time, in particular since the elections were supposed to be conducted by secret vote. Should the result of these secret elections not fulfil all quota requirements, we had to vote again. Despite heavy political fights during our meetings, we spent the evenings without bad feelings and quickly got included into a very inspiring, mutually respectful and diverse international WUS family. Some of the friendships I had developed in these days last until today.

Despite having moved to the University of Utrecht, where I had been appointed Director of the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) in 1987, I remained active as Vice-President of WUS Austria. During the 1988 General Assembly in Lima, I had the honour and pleasure of having been elected to the Executive Committee of WUS International – I guess that there must have been by chance just one quota position vacant for a male professor from the Global  North.

The Lima Declaration

I had also submitted a first draft of a document, which after long and controversial discussions was finally adopted and became well-known as the “Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education”. This was still a time when we believed that States would progressively implement their obligations under international human rights law, such as the “progressive introduction of free education” in the field of higher education, as stipulated in Article 13(2)(c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. We also discussed tenure as an important element of academic freedom against undue State interference.

Similarly, we believed in the autonomy of institutions of higher education and proclaimed in Article 19 of the Lima Declaration that all “governing bodies of institutions of higher education shall be freely elected and shall comprise members of the different sectors of the academic community”, including students. We felt that we had to protect academic freedom primarily against interference by repressive regimes and did not envisage that neoliberal economic policies would soon drastically change the university landscape, lead to massive privatisation of universities, reintroduction of student fees, the end of student participation in the management of universities, precarious working conditions of academic staff and short-term contracts (instead of tenure) of professors, whose success would be measured less by the quality of their academic research than by their ability to raise funds from the corporate sector.

Implementing the Lima Declaration

The Lima Declaration became a guiding document for the activities of WUS in the field of education.

We worked in close co-operation with UNESCO, the United Nations Decade for Human Rights Education and aimed at an international treaty on academic freedom and university autonomy. In May 1989, we organised a major conference on academic freedom in co-operation with UNESCO in Paris, and in April 1990 we celebrated the 70th birthday of WUS at the University of Geneva, where we clearly positioned WUS as a human rights (rather than only development) organisation. During the UNESCO World Congress on Human Rights Teaching in March 1993 in Montreal, we drafted a World Plan of Action on Education for Human Rights and Democracy as well as a Declaration on Academic Freedom, which was strongly inspired by the Lima Declaration.

WUS also played an important role during the Second UN World Conference on Human Rights, held in June 1993 in Vienna, where I, as co-director of the newly established Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights (BIM), had a leading function in organising a large NGO-Forum and co-ordinating the input of civil society. In the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, a separate chapter was dedicated to Human Rights Education, basing itself on the Montreal World Plan of Action and advocating the proclamation of a UN Decade for Human Rights Education.

With the assistance of our national WUS Committees in all world regions, we also engaged in monitoring the level of implementation of the Lima Declaration in all world regions. In this respect, we published three reports which focused on the actual state of academic freedom in countries like Colombia, El Salvador, Palestine, Peru, South Africa and Sri Lanka, later in Malawi, Swaziland, Burma, Sri Lanka, Paraguay, Palestine, Sudan and Lebanon, and finally in Burma (Myanmar), China, Haiti, Iran, Kosovo, Malawi, Palestine, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tibet and the USA.

Downsizing WUS International

Downsizing WUS International while increasing the role of the regional offices In September 1991, we organised an important General Assembly and Conference on “Education for All” in New Delhi. Despite some pressure from the Europeans and Latin Americans, I declined, for lack of time, the offer to stand for elections as WUS President. Finally, our President Hugo Miranda from Chile (who had been elected at the 1986 General Assembly in Madrid) was replaced by Caleb Fundanga from WUS Lesotho (who in 2002 became Governor of Zambia’s Central Bank). Professor Gurdip Singh Randhawa, at that time Vice-Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dek University in Amritsar and host of our General Assembly, was elected Vice-President.

Nigel Hartley, our long-term and highly effective Secretary General from the UK, was re-elected for another term, and I also continued as member of the Executive Committee and chair of the Human Rights Commission for another term. Nigel was requested to re-organise the Secretariat and make WUS International more focused on its activities. In particular, he was requested to severely downsize the Geneva Office and to create strong regional offices to be primarily responsible for running the various programs. I personally was sceptical about this decision, but Nigel was successful in establishing regional offices in Chile, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. The newly established WUS Committee of South Africa offered to host the next Assembly, to be held in 1994 in Cape Town.

Nigel Hartley WUSI General Secretary 1986-95

The demise of WUS International

Unfortunately, the Assembly in Cape Town was cancelled at the last minute due to financial problems. These problems were the result of a kind of paradox: When the values for which WUS was standing and fighting for were increasingly realised during a short window of opportunity after the end of the Cold War, these developments at the same time created serious financial problems for the organisation and finally led to its bankruptcy. WUS was highly dependent on two major international programs, which were financed by influential donors, such as the Swedish, Danish and Swiss Development Agencies (SIDA, DANIDA and DEZA). One program was assisting the African National Congress (ANC) and the South West Africa Peoples’ Organization (SWAPO) through various educational projects in their fight against the white Apartheid regimes in Namibia and South Africa. In fact, this was a political support by some European Governments to the armed struggle against apartheid, which for political reasons was easier to be channelled via an NGO, such as WUS.

With the independence of Namibia in 1990 and the gradual dismantling of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, this support was no longer needed, and WUS lost one of its major sources of income. The second important international program was the support of academic refugees (students and professors) from the conflict areas in Central America (above all El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua), who were granted scholarships for continuing their studies and research work in Mexico and other countries of refuge. Again, as a result of the UN led peace processes in these countries during the early 1990s, many refugees returned to their home countries and were no longer in need of scholarships from WUS and political support from European States.

The International Secretariat

These dramatic developments, which threatened the very existence of WUS International, culminated at a time when its Secretary General Nigel Hartley was infected with HIV. Nigel was a wonderful person with many talents, an excellent manager with extraordinary social and communication skills, who was the ideal person to mediate between many centrifugal tendencies within and between nationaL committees, and to lead WUS International as the co-ordinating body and international face of the WUS family. In addition, Nigel was a very warm person and one of my best friends at that time, whom I admired tremendously.

My diary tells me that it was on 15 February 1994 that he told me during a private dinner that he had tested positively. The last time that I had visited him at his home, from where he was still managing the secretariat of WUS International, was on 2 September 1994. We discussed various issues relating to WUS and his health after he had already developed AIDS. Nevertheless, he was in a good mood and optimistic that he was strong enough to cope with this deadly disease. On 15 January 1995, we held an Executive Committee meeting at our “Villa” in Geneva. The financial situation was dramatic, WUS more or less bankrupt, Nigel very ill and painfully absent, and the Executive Committee unable to take the necessary emergency decisions.

Nigel had proposed already in May 1994 to appoint Ximena Erazo from Chile as Deputy Secretary General to assist in the day-to-day running of the International Secretariat. I remember how Kambiz Ghawami, my long-term friend and head of WUS Germany, together with Martin Blakey (Treasurer of WUS UK), Robert Dubois (Head of Finances) and others, had tried to develop some kind of effective crisis management, but unfortunately without success. On 26 February 1995, Nigel sadly passed away, and our President Caleb Fundanga appointed Ximena Erazo as Interim Secretary General. Although Caleb had told her to carry out this function in Geneva and to prepare the General Assembly in Cape Town, she wrote to the members of the Executive Committee and asked them to authorise her to operate from the regional office in Santiago de Chile.

She appointed Frederiek de Vlaming as Deputy Secretary General to attend to day-to-day affairs at the Geneva Headquarters. I knew Frederiek well from my time at SIM in Utrecht, and worked closely with her in her function as Human Rights Officer of WUS International. Despite the financial crisis, she remained optimistic and had still organised between 24 July and 11 August 1995, together with the International Organization for the Development of Freedom of Education (OIDEL), the first Summer University on Human Rights and the Right to Education in Geneva within the context of the UN Decade for Human Rights Education.

The deteriorating situation

In view of the deteriorating financial situation, the European and North American WUS-Committees on 19 August 1995 organised an Emergency Meeting in Geneva, where Kambiz Ghawami, Alison Girdwood, Marc Dolgal, Martin Blakey, Robert Dubois and Frederiek de Vlaming took the lead. On 20 August 1995 these Committees proposed to our President Caleb Fundanga to approve an emergency plan by exercising his emergency powers accorded under Article 19 of the WUS Statute.

Despite a strongly formulated letter dated 24 August 1995 by Ximena Erazo, who had not participated in this Emergency Meeting in Geneva and who called this emergency plan an “attempt to impose an authoritarian modus operandi to rule our organisation”, Caleb informed all WUS national committees on 28 August 1995 that he had approved this emergency plan for the period until 20 November 1995 and decided to establish a Board of Trustees of Friends of WUS. These friends were high level personalities active in international organisations, who had before served as General Secretaries or Assistant General Secretaries of WUS.

I participated in first talks with Roger Eggleston, who was one of the friends and highly dedicated to find a solution for our financial crisis. For various reasons, this attempt to save WUS International from bankruptcy was, unfortunately, not successful. At the end of 1995, Ximena Erazo gave notice of termination of employment to all staff at the Geneva Office, which was closed on 31 May 1996. In October 1996, the “villa” was sold for 700,000 Swiss Francs, but even this decision did not prevent the bankruptcy of WUS International. On 1 June 1996, Ximena Erazo had resigned from the position of Secretary General.

After the “villa” was sold, Frederiek de Vlaming moved the Human Rights Programme of WUS International to Amsterdam. This Amsterdam Office of WUS, which was established as a Foundation under Dutch law, also became a kind of regional office for Europe and served as a de facto Secretariat of WUS International after the closure of the Geneva Office in May 1996. The International Human Rights Programme of WUS was financed by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Municipality of Amsterdam. After Frederiek left, she was followed by Leo van der Vlist and later by Wieke Wagenaar.     On the initiative of WUS Germany (Kambiz Ghawami, Inge Friedrich and others), representatives of WUS Austria (Wolfgang Benedek), WUS Canada (Marc Dolgin), WUS France (Aleksander Glogowski), WUS Palestine (Issa Salim), WUS UK (Caroline Nursey), WUS International (Caleb Fundanga) and the Amsterdam Office (Leo van der Vlist, Wieke Wagenaar and Miriam Frank) met on 6 and 7 December 1997 in Wiesbaden to discuss the future of WUS International. Caleb presented a comprehensive report about the state of affairs, recent developments and a possible future of WUS International.

The last time that I visited the small Amsterdam Office of WUS International and Wieke Wagenaar was on 9 December 1998. At that time, we had developed vague plans to revitalise WUS International with funds from Sharjah, the third-largest emirate in the United Arab Emirates. Sharjah considered itself at that time as the “Arab World’s Cultural Capital”, and Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Quassimi, the Ruler of Sharjah, had invited us to hold the 70th General Assembly of WUS at the newly built Sharjah University.

The last General Assembly in Sharjah 1998

This last General Assembly took place on 12 and 13 December 1998 at this futuristic university in the desert. Because of the financial crisis, we had not been able to organise and finance another General Assembly since the one in New Delhi in 1991. From a legal perspective, this meant that the Executive Committee, elected in New Delhi, was still formally in function despite the fact that we had not met any more since 1995. In Sharjah, we adopted important amendments of the Statute of WUS International and replaced the General Assembly and the Executive Committee by a Management Board of five members. We elected these five members (Leonard Connolly from WUS Canada as chair, Gurdip Singh Randhawa from WUS India, Inge Friedrich from WUS Germany, Caleb Fundanga from WUS Lesotho and Raquel Leal from WUS Argentina) and, thereby, ensured the continued existence of WUS International as an international NGO, even though the Management Board was not required to hold regular meetings.

The strength of WUS as an organisation has always been and continues to be its national committees, including WUS Austria, whose existence does not depend on an international secretariat. Nevertheless, it was a sad experience to having served for ten years in the Executive Committee of a very well-known, lively, innovative and respected international NGO without being able to save it from bankruptcy caused by international developments which I as such considered as highly positive.

In Sharjah, we tried to regain some optimism, and I actively participated in the drafting of our “Appeal for Sharjah”. Together with Professor Hommadi, I developed an ambitious project on “Human Rights Education for All”, which we submitted to the Sheikh of Sharjah during our lunch on 13 December. I am afraid, however, that these attempts to revive WUS International with Arab money had not been very successful. In view of the absence of funding, the Amsterdam Office of WUS International was closed on 30 April 2000, and WUS International, at that time a Foundation under Dutch law, was finally dissolved on 31 May 2000.


I am very happy and grateful to our colleagues in the national WUS sections of Austria (Wolfgang Benedek), Germany (Kambiz Ghawami and Bettina Schmidt), the UK (Alan Phillips), Canada (Roger Roy), South Africa (Clive Nettleton), and Robin Burns (of Now-extinct WUS Australia) for having taken the initiative to celebrate the 100th birthday of WUS at Vienna University. Because of COVID-19, we had to postpone this conference from May to November 2020 and then to September 2021. WUS has shown during these 100 years that it is a very resilient organisation, created in the aftermath of WW1 and revived in the aftermath of WW2. Let’s hope that it does not need another WW for the next revival of WUS and that the Vienna Conference instead will lead to a new impetus to re-establish WUS International, since its ideas, ideals and values of universal education for all, academic solidarity, active participation of students and professors in the university administration, academic freedom, university autonomy, human rights and sustainability seem to be essential in times of radical changes of university education brought about by decades of neoliberal economic policies.


World University Service, Academic Freedom 1990, A Human Rights Report edited by Laksiri Fernando, Nigel Hartley, Manfred Nowak and Theresa Swinehart, Zed Books, London 1990. World University Service, Academic Freedom

2, A Human Rights Report edited by John Daniel, Frederiek de Vlaming, Nigel Hartley and Manfred Nowak, Zed Books, London 1993. World University Service, Academic Freedom

3, Education and Human Rights, edited by John Daniel, Nigel Hartley, Yves Lador, Manfred Nowak and Frederiek de Vlaming, Zed Books, London 1995.

Author profile
Manfred Novak

Manfred Nowak leads as Professor of Human Rights the Vienna Master of Arts in Human Rights at Vienna University and is secretary general of the Global Campus of Human Rights, based in Venice. He was one of the founders of WUS Austria in 1983, served on the Executive Committee of WUS International between 1988 and 1998, and as main author of the 1988 Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education.