EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the human-rights conference in the Norwegian capital. The conference is over, but the journal continues — and for Parts I and II, go here and here.
Breakfast is in the Grand Café, as lunch and dinner often are too. This is a historic old café: where Ibsen came daily, one hears. There is an interesting scene on this particular morning. As I mentioned previously in the journal, Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president, is in Oslo on a state visit. In the café, for breakfast, are many men who are part of his security team. They look like they mean business, to put it simply — like they could hurt you while barely stirring themselves. Also in the café is Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who is now one of the foremost opponents of the Russian government. He has spent time in jail. People notice a tension in the café: Kasparov wary, scowling, the security men much the same. In a way, a Moscow drama has been transported to the Grand Café in Oslo.
I hope you won’t think it dramatic to say that Kasparov’s defiance is palpable, because it is.
‐A Venezuelan participant in this conference has woken up to the news that his farm, back home, has been confiscated. Simply stolen from him, by the Chávez government. He defied them, refusing to play along or shut up. And now they have acted.
How has your morning been, by the way?
‐The speakers give their presentations in the Christiania Theater, a jewel of a place, with red walls and white-plaster decorations. The seats are not your regular theater seats. They are detached — lined up, but detached — and very comfortable. They are armchairs.
First at the podium is Rebiya Kadeer, sometimes called “the mother of the Uigur nation.” She is unyielding against Chinese oppression. Beijing, of course, has accused her of being a fomenter of violence. In reality, she is what the Dalai Lama has called her: “a paradigm of nonviolence.”
Kadeer was arrested in 1999 while on the way to provide testimony to a foreign delegation investigating human-rights abuses. She was sentenced to eight years in prison for “leaking state secrets and endangering state security” — that’s how they do things in China, as in other police states. She spent about five years in prison, and 700 of those days were in solitary confinement. She was released thanks to international pressure, including the award of the Rafto Prize here in Norway. That is a prize for human-rights activism and leadership. Kadeer is now exiled in the United States.
She says, “We all need to fight together against dictators and the powers of darkness.” And then she tells the story of her “nation.” In October 1949 came the occupation by Communist Chinese forces. “They persecuted not only us,” she says, “but the majority Chinese people, too. Anyone who wants democracy is treated as an enemy of the Chinese state.” But Uigurs, she says, face worse persecution than the majority Chinese. “We cannot speak our own language in our homes, and our sons and daughters cannot work in their own country. They are forcibly removed to other Chinese states to work as Chinese slave labor.”
She talks of wives who are afraid to ask, “What happened to my husband?” “We are living in an open prison,” she says.
And then there is this: “I have no weapons. They use guns, bombs, and instruments of torture to intimidate the Uigur people. And yet the Chinese government is afraid of me, because they’re afraid of the truth.” Before this lady boarded the plane that would take her into exile, “my Chinese minders said, ‘Don’t talk about human rights.’ But I do. One human voice, speaking the truth, can accomplish a lot.”
Kadeer sums up, “I’m confident that dictators and tyrants are afraid of our being together today. They are trembling now because of us. If we fight together, our peoples that live under these dictatorial, totalitarian regimes will be free.”
She has had much taken from her: her business, her family — her sons are in prison. And, of course, she is unable to live in her country. But she seems cheerful and without bitterness. She says, “My experiences have caused me great pain and grief. Nonetheless, I must speak on behalf of my sons, and not only them, but on behalf of all the others too.” She is determined to carry on, with grace.
This is an extraordinary-looking woman, with an extraordinary physical presence. She is wearing a blue jacket and a blue skirt. A green cap is on her head. She has two long braids, on either side of her face. She has high cheekbones, sparkling eyes, and a warm, bright smile. Her posture is perfectly erect. In her body, she exudes confidence, serenity, imperturbability, defiance — all those things.
I find myself wishing she could be on American television: that she could be a celebrity. She is someone with important things to say, unlike most of those who appear on television and are known to one and all.
‐Mart Laar was a leader of the “Singing Revolution” in Estonia. A singing revolution? Yes, they sang illegal patriotic songs when the Soviets were in charge, and, in fact, when Estonia seemed a forever part of the forever USSR. Eventually, Laar negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and he became prime minister in the new Estonia, twice. He has always said that his boldness came from his naivety: He had no idea that what he was doing was judged, by others, impossible.
The first thing Laar says impresses me a great deal, and I’ll tell you what it is. Thor Halvorssen has introduced him, generously, as one does. And Laar says, “As always in introductions of me, my role was overestimated. I was only one of many brave people who helped change the country.”
He says that the address by Rebiya Kadeer “touched my heart, because I know how it is for a language to be suppressed, and for a culture to be suppressed, and I know how it is when no one wants to hear about what’s happening in your country, when you feel cut off from the world, all alone.”
He remembers when Soviet troops fired on unarmed people in Vilnius, Lithuania, in January 1991. This was about the same time that “Mr. Gorbachev was given the Nobel Peace Prize. That was something very hard to understand, but something we see continually around the world.” He means the ignoring of victims, the appeasement or celebration of victimizers.
(The Gorbachev case is a complicated — and a historic — one, I grant you.)
Laar notes that the Baltic revolutions turned out fine — but, “as we saw in Tiananmen Square, it can all end in a different way.” What’s key, he says, is international pressure: the threat of sanctions, the imposition of sanctions, and so on. If the Chinese kill Uigurs, and the world continues to bow to the Chinese, the Uigurs have no chance. More than “beautiful statements,” says Laar — beautiful statements about human rights with nothing behind them — is necessary.
He is a strong free-marketeer — a Reaganite, a Thatcherite — and Estonia has blossomed under free-market principles. He is also a historian, a founding member of the Foundation for the Investigation of Communist Crimes. In the Christiania Theater, he makes the familiar point that the world unanimously condemns and reviles Nazism, but will not do the same where Communism is concerned. Communist crimes are somehow excused. “But we must speak up loudly against killing and oppression, wherever these occur, and no matter who the oppressors and killers are.”
As I think I said earlier in this journal, who cares whether the boot is black or red, as long as it’s stomping on the human face?
Concluding his remarks, Laar says, “If we think too much about what’s possible and what’s not possible, we won’t do anything. There weren’t many people who believed that Estonia could be free. There are people in the Uigur nation who think that this violence will last forever. I have seen with my own eyes that oppression can end. Let’s have no fear. Let’s fight for freedom, and support the people who are doing the same.”
‐Jared Genser is doing something outstanding with his life. He is a young American lawyer, the founder and president of Freedom Now, a non-profit organization that works to free prisoners of conscience across the world. He is also a partner in a Washington law firm — which I imagine allows him to do the Freedom Now work.
He and his human-rights colleagues are lawyers for those without lawyers: people in dungeons. He represents such people as a Pakistani Christian on Death Row for blasphemy. Or a Vietnamese doctor imprisoned for translating a page from the U.S.-embassy website: a page headed “Democracy.”
Genser speaks of “airport moments” — those moments when a freed prisoner greets the family he has been waiting for, as they have waited for him. This is what makes his work “worthwhile,” he says. Of course, it’s worthwhile whether the prisoners get released or not. The thing that most distresses political prisoners is the belief that they are alone, unhelped, and forgotten.
At the end of his talk, Genser says, “Freedom is universal. Everyone yearns to be free. I have found this throughout the world.” This is the sort of talk that George W. Bush was mocked for. It’s still true. Are there people like Idi Amin and Pol Pot who do not wish for freedom, at least for others?
Come on, folks: Accept a generalization. And, no, freedom is not necessarily the liberal democracy of, say, Ames, Iowa. It involves decency and rights, however: freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom not to be stolen from — not least by the state.
‐Samuel Kofi Woods is a Liberian. I ask him about the second of those names: the one shared by the former U.N. secretary-general. A common West African name, says Woods. The culture is similar, if not the same, across national boundaries; those boundaries were drawn with little rationality.
“Kofi” means that you were born on a Friday. “Kweisi” means that you were born on a Sunday. And so on.
Let me quote from Woods’s bio:
His lifelong commitment to human rights began with student activism that led to his first arrest in 1981. In 1986, as a member of the National Student Union, he was forced into hiding and later banned from employment and travel. Upon the outbreak of civil war in 1989 he fled to Ghana, but returned to Liberia in 1991 to found his country’s most prominent human rights organization, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission. He also established a radio program that focused on publicizing arrests and extrajudicial executions and educating citizens about their rights. In 1994 he founded the Forefront Organization to document the human rights abuses of the Second Liberian Civil War. In 1998 he was declared an anti-government activist and was threatened with sedition for exposing forced child labor in the country. Although many of his colleagues were murdered and his family was under threat from government authorities, Kofi Woods persisted in his work for justice. He now heads the Liberian Ministry of Labor.
Not bad, huh? Makes me, for one, feel incredibly lazy. Before the Christiania Theater assembly, Woods speaks of “a universal contest between good and evil.” Good “will eventually triumph,” he says, but “not by retiring. Good must confront evil,” and by confronting evil we do at least two things: “offer society a moral alternative” and “test our own convictions.”
He is an inspiring man, Woods. Also notably fit. He tells me he does sit-ups, push-ups, etc. every morning. And, like so many others here who have seen and endured horrific things, he is the picture of cheerfulness, warmth, and goodwill. A phenomenon to ponder.
‐Jimmy Wales, who gave us Wikipedia, could not be with us in person, but he speaks via video. He talks about the importance of Wikipedia to people under dictatorship, to people who live in places where information has long been controlled by the state.
He has something amusing to say about North Korea — to the extent anything about North Korea can be amusing: “We’re not censored there. The one guy with a computer can probably get” Wikipedia.
In China, he says, the censorship is not perfect — not total. But the government doesn’t need perfect censorship to get the chilling effect it wants. People are made to understand that “certain conversations can’t be had in public.” Still, things are different from “an era when people could be completely kept in the dark.” Sunlight pokes through in China.
Wales also talks about “the heroes of Wikipedia,” people who risk their lives to work on the site. He mentions a man in Iran who has been reported to the police twice — “even though he wasn’t editing politically sensitive topics.”
Amazing, the risks people are willing to take . . .
‐Give you a couple of notes about Norway — about Oslo, I mean. Kicking around, I see a statue of FDR — very nice to discover. Norwegian gratitude for American help during the war is set in stone. But the stone figure looks nothing like Roosevelt. I mean, it could be anybody. You’d never be able to identify the figure if not for the name on the pedestal.
Still — nice.
‐Here is a curious fact: 7-Elevens, all over the world, smell the same. There is an established, unchanging 7-Eleven smell. Whether the store is in Peoria, Oslo, or Timbuktu, you walk in, take a whiff, and go, “Yup — 7-Eleven.”
‐Seagulls whine a lot, don’t they? Big whiners, they are. Some of the whiniest creatures on earth.
‐One of the best things about being in Norway — maybe the best, despite the wondrous natural beauty? Interacting with Norwegians.
Thanks for joining me, dear Impromptus-ites — Oslo-ites, during this period? — and I’ll see you tomorrow for Part IV.