By awarding honorary doctorates (Doctor Honoris Causa or DHC), the University is following an old tradition of honouring people (from Belgium or abroad) whose thoughts, achievements, or actions in the fields of science, art, or politics have left a mark on their era.

In 2021

Svetlana Alexievich, Belarusian investigative journalist, historian and writer

On 3 May 2021, ULB and VUB awarded Svetlana Alexievich an honorary doctorate during Difference Day, held on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day.

The universities wanted to honour an author who gives citizens and the repressed opposition in her country a voice. In her quest for the truth, she does not hesitate, at the risk of her life, to seek out facts and events that are not included in the official historiography. 

Svetlana Aleksandrovna Alexievich is a Belarusian investigative journalist, historian and writer, whose work was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015.

Because her work uncovers myths and delusions, and is not steered by the official version of the facts, she was often criticised by the authorities, both during the Soviet Union, when she lost her job as a journalist, and later as a writer in Belarus, where her work could not be published. She therefore had to leave her country in 2000 and stayed in Paris and Berlin for a long time. In 2011, she deliberately chose to return to Belarus and became one of the faces of the democratic opposition in the country.

In August 2020, Svetlana Alexievich took part in the demonstrations against the elections manipulated by the outgoing president Lukashenko. On a free radio station, she urged the president to resign: "Leave before it is too late, before you drag the people into a terrible abyss, the abyss of civil war. Nobody wants to see blood. You only want power. And it is your thirst for power that demands a bloodbath.  Svetlana Alexievich played a leading role in the "Coordination Council", which united the opposition to Lukashenko.

In September 2020, all members of the Coordination Council were arrested, expelled or disappeared without trace after being abducted. Svetlana Alexievich was the only one still free, probably because the regime did not dare to attack her because of her international prestige. However, she was threatened and Western diplomats offered to 'guard' her to ensure her safety. While she initially intended to stay in Belarus at all costs, she decided to leave for Germany in September 2020, intending to return as soon as possible.

Aude Merlin's speech

In 2020

Koenraad Tinel, sculptor and artist, and Simon Gronowski, lawyer at the Brussels bar and jazz pianist

On 22 September 2020, ULB and VUB awarded the insignia of Doctor honoris causa to two children of History, to two men who would become friends: Simon Gronowski and Koenraad Tinel. This joint insignia award ceremony took place on the Etterbeek campus of the VUB on the occasion of the VUB's academic year kick-off ceremony.

Koenraad Tinel is a Belgian sculptor and artist. Simon Gronowski holds a doctorate in law, a lawyer at the Brussels bar and a jazz pianist. The two men are close friends, which may seem surprising given their respective backgrounds. At the age of 11, during the Second World War, Gronowski escaped from the train that was taking him and his family to the Auschwitz extermination camp. Tinel, on the other hand, grew up in a Flemish family that supported the Nazis. Their exceptional friendship is a powerful symbol of hope, happiness and peace.

Caroline Pauwels, rector of VUB

On 8 July 2020, ULB granted an honorary doctorate to Caroline Pauwels, rector of VUB, who perfectly embodies the values of ULB as well as the struggles of the past years, most of the time involving both universities working together.

Examples include: the promotion and practice of bilingualism, especially in compulsory education and post-secondary studies; the defence of free speech, with her creation and continued support of Difference Day; the defence of academic freedom, which is so unfortunately topical with her fight to free Dr Djalali, who was sentenced to death in Iran; her extremely positive and proactive vision of the European project, embodied among other things by European University Eutopia, which she started together with her colleagues; and her strong intention to bring the two sister universities, implanted in different communities, closer together. 
This partial list illustrates the lifelong commitment and optimism of Caroline Pauwels, a woman who never shies away from public debates, even on very personal topics. 

In 2019

On 3 May 2019, ULB and VUB awarded honorary doctorates to Elena Milashina and Rudi Vranckx during Difference Day, an event held in conjunction World Press Freedom Day.

Elena Milashina

Elena Milashina is a Russian investigative journalist for independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. She is known for her keen investigation skills, and for her articles criticizing human rights violations and government corruption. Her work includes an investigative report on the repression of LGBT people in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus (in Russia). 
Speech by Aude Merlin

Rudi Vranckx

Rudi Vranckx is among the Belgian journalists and war correspondents who are the most esteemed by their peers. He owes his fame to his coverage of international conflicts: with a background in history, he strives to provide an objective and human perspective of the factors that drive nations to enter deadly conflicts.

In 2018

  • On 3 May 2018, as part of Difference Day, ULB and VUB decided for the first time to award honorary doctorates jointly, to two famous activists who have dedicated their lives to defending these values in their respective countries. By choosing Sihem Bensedrine and Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the two institutions demonstrated their shared deep attachment to freedom of speech and opinion, civic engagement, and the defence of human rights.

Sihem Bensedrine

A former journalist and champion of human rights from Tunisia, she was imprisoned under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and is now president of the Truth and Dignity Commission. She returned to Tunisia in 2011 after several years of exile.

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa

A defender of human rights and a pioneer in the fight against torture, he was imprisoned multiple times in his home country of Burundi. He survived an assassination attempt in 2015 and now lives in exile in Belgium.

Ahmet Insel

A Turkish economist, political scientist, journalist, and professor emeritus at Galatasaray University, Ahmet Insel was chosen for the value of his scientific contributions and the intellectual quality of his critical analysis of Turkish society.

Siegi Hirsch

This educator, trainer, and therapist is a specialist of transgenerational trauma transmission.

Christiane Taubira

She was chosen for her defence of diversity as France’s Minister of Justice under President François Hollande.

Ken Loach

This British filmmaker was chosen for his activism, as his work tackles social conflicts and the fight for the rights of workers and illegal immigrants. 

Christian Debuyst

A criminologist and professor emeritus at UCL, Christian Debuyst was chosen for the diversity of disciplines he works with, as well as for his thoughtful positions and his ethical reliance on a diversity of perspectives. – Law and criminology

Agnès Van Zanten

A professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, she was chosen for her work on the inequalities and elitism of France’s education system. – Psychology and education

Jan Van Impe

Jan Van Impe is a full professor at KULeuven and was chosen for the scientific impact of his research—both fundamental and applied—, as well as for its social impact, especially in the areas of public health and cooperation with developing countries. – Polytechnique and Bioengineers

Monique Capron

This professor of immunology at the University of Lille is a former chairwoman of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, which has formed a tight partnership with Hôpital Erasme. – Health Cluster

DHCs of the University and its faculties since 1973

  • 2005: Fadela Amara, Baltasar Garzon, Pierre Goldschmidt, Alpha Oumar Konaré, Robert Maistriau, Radhia Nasraoui 
  • 2005: Jean-Noël Jeanneney, Philippe Jestaz, Cheryl Elisabeth Praeger, Sébastien Candel, Joël Bockaert, Michael Herzfeld, James L. McClelland, Alan B. Krueger
  • 2004: Philippe Busquin
  • 2002: Hywel Ceri JonesDomenico LenarduzziAlan SmithAngélique Verli
  • 2001: Toots Thielemans (ULB-VUB)
  • 2000: Louise ArbourNora Irma Morales De CortinasSimone SusskindWassyla TamzaliJoaquim Chissano
  • 1999: Jean-Didier Vincent
  • 1998: Claude Allègre
  • 1997: Marc Van MontaguAndré Capron
  • 1996: Immanuel WallersteinBaron Arthur HaulotMarek Edelman
  • 1995: Théodore AngelopoulosAndré DelvauxHenri StorckAndrzej Wajda
  • 1994: Simon WiesenthalS.M. Albert IIPierre Alechinsky
  • 1993: Edgar Morin
  • 1992: Fédérico MayorHubert Reeves
  • 1991: Bronislaw GeremekArpad Göncz et Vaclav Havel
  • 1990: Alexandre Dubcek
  • 1989: Doïna Cornéa et Fang Lizhi
  • 1987: Abdou DioufShimon PeresSandro PertiniMario Soares
  • 1984: Simone VeilWilly BrandtNelson MandelaAndréi SakharovAltiero Spinelli
  • 1979: Maurice Béjart et Paul Delvaux
  • 1973: Salvator Allende

The ceremony

For this special occasion, the academic authorities wear an outfit consisting of a gown, a cap, and, for the rector, a sash. The gown and cap are inspired by the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger
In this way, the University honours this great humanist whose encyclopedic mind and freedom of thought and speech are consistent with the core values of our University of free enquiry.

The ULB gown is black, adorned with fur for the University’s president and rectors (current and honorary), with a distinctive band of colour for the representatives of faculty authorities.

In addition to the gown, the rector wears a sash, which is a distinctive strip of cloth hung over the shoulder. The ULB sash is made of blue silk, with a highlight of white fur, a golden embroidered ‘torch’ seal, and a green and red cord that symbolizes the close and trusting relationship between ULB and the city of Brussels.

Each Doctor Honoris Causa receives the ULB sash, a diploma written and read in Latin, and a silver medal bearing the University’s ‘torch’ seal. The encomium that recounts the career and achievements of each laureate is read in French.

The University’s rector, assisted during the ceremony by the pro-rector and the former rector, gives each laureate their DHC insignia. When the formal ceremony is over, they are official members of the university community.
Updated on April 8, 2024