Editor’s Note: The Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual human-rights conference, took place last week, in the Norwegian capital. We begin Jay Nordlinger’s journal today.
I have a strange thought in the airport men’s room. No, it won’t be as shocking as you might suppose. My thought is: “Someone should do a piece on urinal heights around the world. A study.” The urinals here in the Oslo airport are as high as I’ve ever seen. Italians and other shorties would have to be on tippy-toe, for sure. Children — no chance.
The Dutch are the tallest people in the world, I’ve read — even taller than East Africans. Their urinals must be skyscraper-like.
Being in the Oslo airport reminds me of one of my favorite stories. I use it when I need to illustrate the pulchritude of Norwegian women.
An American guy and a Norwegian girl met at a business school in Switzerland (I believe). They fell in love and got engaged. The American guy thought his Norwegian was absolutely the hottest thing on two feet. He went with her to Norway for the first time — to meet her family and see her homeland.
At the airport, he looked around and said, “Hey, wait a minute. They all look like you. You’re nothing special.” The engagement survived this remark, and it became a running joke in their marriage.
Joke or not, there is truth to it: If Norwegian girls don’t think they’re beautiful, it’s because everyone else looks like them, more or less.
Reminds me a little of British journalists: They go to America and dazzle us Yanks with their style. They are the toast of our towns. Back at home, they would not especially stand out: They all got style, to considerable degrees.
I meet a man from Equatorial Guinea — Tutu Alicante, a lawyer and human-rights activist. For many years, he has lived in the United States. Equatorial Guinea is no place for a human-rights activist.
I would have been hard pressed to place Equatorial Guinea on a map. Papua New Guinea, I sort of know about. And Guinea. And even Guinea-Bissau (which I mentioned in a piece last month, about an American criminal who fled there). But Equatorial Guinea? Anyway, it’s a nation on the west coast of Africa, halfway down.
In the airport, Alicante speaks Spanish with some Latin American journalists. (They may be from Spain, but I think not.) In short order, I find out that Equatorial Guinea is Spanish-speaking.
I never knew that Spain did African colonization. I couldn’t have told you that a single African nation was Spanish-speaking. There’s Portuguese out your ears there. But Spanish?
How satisfying to learn something new.
The theme of the 2012 Oslo Freedom Forum is “Out of darkness into light.” I think of what Michelle Obama just said: “This president has brought us out of the dark and into the light.”
You didn’t know that President Obama was the Messiah? What are you, some kind of right-wing racist?
In the Grand Hotel, I pass the Nobel Suite — where the peace laureate stays, when he comes to collect the prize. If I ever stay in the suite, I’m afraid I’ll have to shell out for it. I’m not sure the peace prize is in the cards.
But think of it: To sleep where Rigoberta Menchú once slept . . .
A press conference is held in the Hambro Room of the Grand Hotel. I thrill and bow to this name, Hambro. It refers to C. J. Hambro, a Norwegian politician from the last century. A Conservative. It was he who organized the flight of the royal family, government ministers, and others out of Oslo. He arranged a train, which spirited these people away with 30 minutes to spare. The Nazis were closing in.
Anyway, a tense, amazing story, when you have time for it. Later, Hambro became a member of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. He died in the 1960s.
Presiding over the press conference is Thor Halvorssen, the founder and president of the Freedom Forum. He is also the founder and CEO of the Human Rights Foundation in New York. Halvorssen is a dynamo for human rights, and therefore invaluable.
Today, he says that dictatorships want two things: to blot out civil society and strangle freedom of speech. Those are their two foremost goals.
At this year’s forum, he will present many, many speakers, from all over the world. Three of them are former slaves, and current abolitionists.
One participant in this press conference is Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani lawyer. A friend tells me she is a great lady. I believe him. On this occasion, she accuses the United States of undermining human rights in the world. She says that the U.S. has “sanctified” human-rights violations.
I remember a conversation I had with a high official of the U.S. government — a man of rectitude, of excellent moral sense. We were talking about the waterboarding of those terrorists — the three of them. Mass murderers, who belonged to a network that was threatening yet more mass murder, and more mass murder.
I said, “I must confess, I don’t lose any sleep over that waterboarding.” He said, “Me neither.”
When the U.S. “tortures” mass murderers, they go back to their three delicious meals a day. Their top-quality medical care. Their blue-chip lawyers. Their due process. When other governments torture innocent people — well, they tend to die or be maimed for life.
Funny old world.
Allow me to quote from a column I wrote two years ago:
Michael Mukasey was attorney general from November 2007 to January 2009. He remembers visiting Guantanamo Bay in February 2008. He looked at many of the high-value detainees on video monitors. But he did not see Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; Mohammed wasn’t in his cell. He was off having a Red Cross visit.
Mukasey did see the exercise room, adjacent to Mohammed’s cell. And he noticed something interesting: Mohammed had the same elliptical machine that he, the attorney general, had back home in his Washington apartment building. Only there was this difference: Mukasey had to share his, with other residents; there was a mad scramble in the morning to get to it. Mohammed had his machine all to himself.
Bear in mind that he was the “mastermind” of the 9/11 attacks, which killed almost 3,000 people. That he was the beheader of Daniel Pearl. And so on. I wonder how much more tenderly America’s critics expect us to treat such people.
At the press conference, a Kosovar journalist, Jeta Xharra, speaks. She, too, has criticisms of the U.S. Well and good. All God’s chillen got criticisms. And, about the U.S., there is plenty to criticize. I do it more or less every day.
But I can’t help thinking, “That’s a tiny bit rich, coming from a Kosovar journalist.” Does that make me damnable? Okay, then.
Someone asks, “What are we going to do about the fact that business interests are always trumping human-rights interests?” Bless Irwin Cotler, the Canadian politician and lawyer, for giving the answer he gives. He says — and I paraphrase — “Business interests and human-rights interests are in harmony. Think of the rule of law, for example.”
I know you get his drift.
A Saudi Arabian heroine is here: Manal al-Sharif. She’s the one who had the audacity to drive a car, and to post a video of herself doing so. The government arrested and imprisoned her. After nine days, and an international outcry, she was released.
She says she had to give up her job in order to accept the Freedom Forum’s invitation. Thor Halvorssen points out that others, too, have had to give up their jobs. And more. Some have had to give up their very freedom — going into hiding, for example, just because they accepted an invitation from him.
People are willing to risk a lot to attend this forum and make their voices heard.
One of the benefits of the forum is that dissidents get to know other dissidents: They compare notes, draw comfort from one another, feel less alone. Sharif says, “Last night, six of us from the Arab Spring got together — they are heroes of mine. We were just talking, trading stories.”
She seemed happy, inspired, and validated. Thus the wonderment of solidarity.
A Syrian, Ausama Monajed, speaks of the Assad dictatorship. It has decided, he says, to be “as aggressive as possible.” The only way to survive, it thinks, is to kill without let-up. Monajed drops a stunning statistic, in a completely matter-of-fact way: There are between 70 and 100 Syrian dead a day.
An Ethiopian journalist expresses his sorrow at the deportation of Ethiopian asylum-seekers from Norway. “It is like returning those who have escaped from hell.”
The return of asylum-seekers: always a sore, horrible subject. Some of the most painful reporting I have done has been on this subject. No country can keep everyone, I suppose. But to return an innocent person to certain torture . . .
Another journalist identifies herself as a Cuban working for a democratic magazine in Sweden. Wouldn’t it be sweet, one day, to work for a democratic magazine in Cuba?
She worries about the trend of leftism in Latin America — a very sick trend in a world of sick trends.
Taking questions are two women who worked as slaves — one from Cambodia, one from Nepal. The Cambodian is Somaly Mam, sold into sexual slavery, the inmate of a brothel. “The traffickers are very well organized,” she says. “The anti-traffickers are very badly organized.” The Nepalese is Urmila Chaudhary, who is dressed like a beautiful princess — a fairy-book princess. At age six, she was sold into slavery by her parents for 70 dollars.
I am always remarking at these Freedom Forums: Some people endure absolute hell, then rise to combat evil in the world. And they do so with cheerful spirits. How is this possible? Somehow, it is.
This journal will continue tomorrow. To get Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here.