As part of its Patron Saint’s Day celebrations, KU Leuven traditionally confers a number of honorary doctorates in recognition of extraordinary scientific, social, or cultural achievements. On 4 February 2019, the university will confer an honorary doctorate on Biram Dah Abeid, Abdel Rahman El Bacha, Eric Mazur, Chantal Mouffe, Kypros Nicolaides, and Philippe Sands. Stura KU Leuven nominated Biram Dah Abeid. 

Laudatio for Mr. Biram Dah Abeid

Delivered in Leuven on 4 February 2019 by
Student Council President Robbe Van Hoof, promotor doctor honoris causa

Honourable Rector,

Your Excellencies,

Dear Professors,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

And last but not least
Dear students,


“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.”


These are some of the first articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More and more each day, this declaration is becoming the subject of political attacks. In times when democratic values are under increasing pressure and autocratic leaders retake the stage, we need inspiring figures to step forward and fight for what is right. Today, the 4th of February, marks the 225th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery in Revolutionary France. It is entirely fitting that today we honour Biram Dah Abeid and his work to end modern slavery, both in his home country Mauritania and abroad.


A descendant of modern slaves himself, Biram was confronted with the deep-rooted discrimination against black people in his home country at a very young age. From then on, he has dedicated his life to freeing and reintegrating the estimated hundreds of thousands of people in Mauritania who are to still trapped in slavery. He has become one of the leading anti-slavery activists around the world. Despite the legal abolishment and criminalisation of slavery in Mauritania in 2007, the country still has the highest prevalence of slavery in the world, with the number of modern slaves being estimated between 10 and 20 per cent of the population. With a government wallowing in passivity, it falls to men and women like Biram to take up the fight for freedom.


Throughout his youth, Biram was confronted with the social inequalities and injustices that were a prominent part of society. That is when he vowed to make it his mission to end Mauritanian slavery. After obtaining his master’s degree in history and his advanced degree on the history of slavery in Senegal, Biram started to fight these inequalities in his home country on a political level. Supporting different NGOs, organising sit-ins and local marches, he tried to raise awareness and he confronted slaveowners.


As the backbone for this struggle Biram founded the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement in 2008. In the past decade, this organisation has been fighting for the freedom of countless men, women and children. Their demonstrations, court cases and liberation actions have saved many people from a life in servitude. The brave men and women who stand up for this cause face regular harassment and harsh treatment during their campaigning. The human rights defenders who speak out and challenge the practice of modern slavery are constantly targeted by those in power who still refuse to accept change. Anti-slavery activists are incarcerated while slave-owners (frequently) walk free.


Just over a month ago, Biram was released from his confinement by the government after being arrested in August. Throughout the years, he has been threatened, harassed and imprisoned on multiple occasions. Despite this constant threat, he has sworn to continue his battle against slavery until it comes to an end in Mauritania. In stark contrast with his persecution at home, the international community recognises his persistent endeavours. In 2017, Time magazine listed Biram Dah Abeid as one of the 100 most influential people in the world after he had already received the UN Human Rights’ Prize in December 2013 – along with many other awards.


In times when social engagement is questioned and caricatured, we need more role models to inspire change. Biram does what is right. With his constant and continuing devotion to this righteous cause, he is an inspiring example to us all, both old and young. The KU Leuven strongly encourages social engagement for its students. Both as KU Leuven students and as committed young people, we find this social engagement not only an important aspect of personal development but also a crucial element of being part of a modern society. We want to encourage this with all means necessary. With this honorary doctorate, we – both as students and as an academic community – want to acknowledge Biram Dah Abeid’s brave contributions and send out a message of hope. Let his fight for those who are most vulnerable be an example to young people. Let us still believe that change is possible, and a more just and fair society is always within reach.


Change is a difficult and often frightening goal, but when enough courageous people like
Mister Biram Dah Abeid stand up for a righteous cause they truly believe in, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished.


[For all these reasons, Honourable Rector, and on the recommendation of the Academic Council, I request you to confer the honorary doctorate of KU Leuven on Mr. Biram Dah Abeid.]


Om al deze redenen, mijnheer de rector, verzoek ik u, op voordracht van de Academische Raad, het eredoctoraat van KU Leuven te verlenen aan de heer Biram Dah Abeid.