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. Previous parts are at the following links: I, II, III, IV, and V.
The head of Amnesty International, Norway, is at the podium, here in the Christiania Theater. He’s saying that “detention without due process in Guantanamo Bay is just as bad as in the other half of Cuba” — by which he means Cuba Cuba: Castroland.
Yeah, whatever, bud. At least he makes me feel like I’m at a regular, normal human-rights conference. Although do they acknowledge abuses by the Cuban government in those?
‐Lidia Yusupova, the human-rights lawyer from Chechnya, is making a presentation. She shows photos. One is an extraordinary shot of three children. And the children don’t look . . . normal. They look . . . weird. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Yusupova then says, “These are not children’s faces. They are the faces of old people who have experienced bad things.” Yes, that’s exactly what they look like! Yusupova goes on to explain that these children watched their father being killed. I think, “These are for sure the strangest children’s faces I have ever seen” — like some weird aging process has been performed on them.
Toward the end of her talk, Yusupova says, “I need moral, economic, and psychological support from you.”
‐Marcel Granier was — is? — the general director of RCTV. It was the oldest and most popular television station in Venezuela. But the Chávez government shut it down. RCTV was an independent voice, and that is not tolerated in the new Venezuela. One by one, the lights have gone out in that country. RCTV was a very bright light. Granier makes a statement that strikes me as particularly sad: After a “democratic experience,” Venezuela saw “the comeback of the caudillos.” And that comeback, for those who tasted democracy, and expected it to last, has been very hard to take.
He talks about all the attacks on journalists — and he means physical attacks, not just governmental denunciations and expropriation. And he says, “The military has taken over most of our assets.”
It would be nice if journalists in free countries remembered a little solidarity with their colleagues in Venezuela. Agree?
‐Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani repeatedly appeals for solidarity. I mentioned him in this journal a few days ago — he is the journalist from Yemen who has endured kidnappings, beatings, imprisonment, and other ghastly things. Here in theater, he says that “living in Yemen is like being trapped on a hijacked plane.” Elections are never fair, and the judiciary is directly controlled by the presidency. It is “dangerous” to be a journalist in Yemen, he says — as his life has proven.
He mentions the prominent American journalist Thomas Friedman. He expresses disappointment: saying that Friedman came to Yemen and stuck close to the government, his hosts, without “going into the streets” or “meeting any journalists.” (I have no idea whether this charge is true.) He then says, “I would like to salute the American blogger Jane Novak, who learned about Yemen and led an international campaign to free me. Jane restored my faith in human beings.” He pleads with journalists in free countries to keep an eye on their colleagues in unfree countries, and yell as loud as they can when those colleagues are in danger.
He closes his remarks by saying, “I have made it a tradition to write an article entitled ‘We Shall Continue’ every time I leave prison. And I say to you now, ‘We shall continue.’”
‐Clara Rojas was held by the FARC — the Colombian terror group — for six years. Another hostage was Ingrid Betancourt, once a presidential candidate. There in the jungle, they encountered all the humiliations you might imagine. Rojas was raped and gave birth to a son, Emmanuel. He is romping around this conference (and is adorable). As Rojas says, the FARC had “no respect for law, human dignity, or God.” And yet, after her release — they were heroically rescued, actually — “I resolved to live again, to have as normal a life as possible, and to leave the kidnapping behind me.” I will keep quoting:
“I wake up every day with enthusiasm, joy, and the will to live, for which I am daily grateful to God. I realize this is a miracle of life, and I live each day to the fullest. I enjoy the rise of the sun, a walk through the park, maybe flying kites with my son, eating ice cream, watching a children’s movie in a cinema — just like any other woman in the 21st century.
“I have forgiven my captors, and I believe this has allowed me to find freedom, real freedom, from resentment, pain, bitterness, and hate. And I feel free, light, without any burdens weighing me down.
“Thousands told me they prayed for me, and they helped me to resist. Otherwise, how could my son and I have survived this drama? We were physically isolated but we were never alone, because there were millions of people who looked deep inside themselves and offered their prayers. The result is, we survived.”
I can tell you, as a listener and watcher, that this woman seems to mean every word she says.
‐Yoani Sánchez is not here, not in the flesh — how could she be? She lives in Cuba. The dictatorship is not real good about letting people out. But she is here in a videotaped interview. How it happened, I’m not sure — but I doff my hat to the Oslo Freedom Forum for pulling it off. Fantastic.
Regular readers of my column are well familiar with this extraordinary young woman — a Cuban blogger who has braved all sorts of things to get her writings out to the world at large. In her interview, she speaks crisply, confidently, and fast. The words simply tumble out of her, as if pent up. She has a great deal to say.
About her inability to travel, she says, “I am condemned to stay on my national territory. I have received international prizes, but I can’t go to receive them.”
Over the years, the authorities have kidnapped her, beaten her up. These actions are “all part of a terror frame,” she says, “to deter me from what I’m doing.” She says that she fights, she blogs “for personal exorcism. I have a lot of demons to expel, dissatisfactions about the country I’m living in. It is not the one I was promised as a child.”
People use words such as “oppositionist” and “dissident,” and these words are fine. But “I like to say I’m a citizen. What we need now are citizens: empowered citizens, people who know their rights and know how to demand things.”
Orlando Zapata Tamayo was a prisoner of conscience who recently died after an 83-day — an 83-day — hunger strike. (Readers will recall a piece I did about him for National Review. His bravery was, simply, superhuman — far beyond human.) His death, says Yoani, “served to unify dissident groups on the island. Orlando became a catalyst of unity and indignation.” Currently, Guillermo Fariñas is on hunger strike. “I wouldn’t do it, but I also understand how a person has to do it” — is driven to do so.
Her strongest message for her international audience: “Don’t leave us here alone.” I hope to meet Yoani Sánchez someday, tell her how much I admire her.
‐Diego Arria is a relatively rare bird — a diplomat with spine and principle. He is as smooth, polished, and educated as they come. He is almost from Central Casting: the handsome, urbane, multilingual diplomat and man of the world. But he has the heart and guts of a dissident. I might mention that he and I have something in common: both friends of Bill Buckley. That is a large and glorious club.
Arria, a Venezuelan, was an ambassador to the U.N. As he puts it, “I used to represent my country when it was a democratic country.” He was an assistant secretary-general of the U.N. And he was a witness against Milosevic at The Hague. He tells us, “I have spoken before the United Nations many times. But I have never felt more inspired or humbled than to speak before you.” He calls the Oslo Freedom Forum — this is a beautiful phrase — “a magnificent way to embrace humanity.”
His main topic today is the U.N. and its failure to stop the massacres in Srebrenica. He has chapter and verse: about how the U.N. knew exactly what was going on and refused to do anything about it. Arria uncovers a cover-up. And he says — with sadness and anger — “We promised to protect the Bosnian Muslims. And we didn’t.”
Arria’s testimony is hard to listen to, and I don’t doubt a word of it.
‐Do you know about Wikileaks? It is a “whistleblower website . . . helping to publish anonymous submissions and leak sensitive documents from governments and other organizations to the public.” I have quoted from the bio of Julian Assange, “an Australian journalist, programmer, and Internet activist” who takes a leading role in Wikileaks. He is with us today, and I will give you a flavor of what kind of activist he is. He compares Auschwitz and its slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” to the Guantanamo facility and its slogan “Honor-bound to Defend Freedom” — and he says that the Gitmo slogan is worse “as a perversion of the truth.”
There’s one in every crowd. Actually, there’s more than one in every crowd.
‐Readers of this journal have already met Kasha Jacqueline. She is a woman of considerable charm, as well as considerable courage. Introducing her, Thor Halvorssen says, “Every day, from the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to bed, she is harassed and tormented.” Jacqueline is the founder and director of Freedom and Roam Uganda, a gay-rights group.
She begins her remarks, “I’m a feminist, a lesbian, a pan-African, and a Ugandan.” Before continuing, she puts on her glasses, saying, “I only wear these to look intellectual.” She talks of what it is to be gay in Uganda. A girl was beaten to death in school — by the headmaster. Another was beaten at a school assembly — by whom, I don’t quite hear — then went home and swallowed a bottle of pills.
And so on, and so on.
Pending before the Ugandan parliament is an anti-homosexuality bill that is hair-curling: A gay could be sentenced to life in prison, or even sentenced to death; a person who knows another person is gay, but fails to report that person to the authorities, could be imprisoned for three years. That includes the mothers and fathers of gays, the brothers and sisters, the friends . . .
Sitting here in the Christiania Theater, I think what “gay rights” used to mean — back home in America. How swiftly things change, in politics. Time was, being for gay rights meant that you were for the right of homosexuals to be let alone — to live their lives, free of harassment and persecution. I know a man in New York, now in his eighties, who was imprisoned for one or two years, after being caught with another man (I believe). That was in Connecticut.
(Incidentally, the man I’m speaking of, after 9/11, took to wearing an American-flag pin on his lapel. He has done this through the Afghan War, the Iraq War. Some of his friends give him grief about it. He couldn’t care less.)
Then came such tricky questions — or, for some tricky — as “Should they be allowed to teach in schools?” and “Should they be allowed to adopt children?”
Not so long ago — like two seconds ago — the far-out, barely fathomable progressive position was civil unions: to be in favor of civil unions for gays. Then, basically one second after that, if you were for civil unions, but not gay marriage, you were a bigot, a homophobe, a hater. You might as well be wearing a white sheet.
What a bizarre country, America.
‐Belarus is one of the worst places on earth — certainly the worst place in Europe. Its dictatorship is iron-fisted. We have with us an opposition politician, a brave, graceful, supremely dignified man. He is Alyaksandr Kazulin, a mathematician (Ph.D.), as well as a politician. He has been beaten up and imprisoned and otherwise abused, but he is still standing, pretty tall. He tells us of the misery of Belarus: how it leads the world in alcoholism and suicide.
His wife died while he was in prison. “She did everything she could to save me. She fought until her last day, asking for my freedom.” The authorities refused to let him out to attend the burial. So he began a hunger strike. “I said, ‘If I’m not allowed to leave for the burial, they can bury us together.’” After three days, they let him out, to attend the service and burial. “Soldiers surrounded the church where we had the ceremony.”
Kazulin was released from prison in 2008, “thanks to the previous administration of the United States. That’s how I remain living.”
You know how sometimes you can just sense you are in the presence of a great man? That’s how I felt — I must confess — about Kazulin.
‐Peter Thiel, I mentioned in yesterday’s installment: co-founder of PayPal, hedge-fund manager, board member for Facebook, advocate of freedom, funder of freedom, etc., etc. What a useful life. What a lot of good he has done. As I understand it — and I’m not an expert in all things Thiel, as some of my friends are — he came up with products or devices that improved the lot of man, and made a fortune as a result. He has since used that fortune to perform yet more good. John Dos Passos once wrote a book called “The Theme Is Freedom.” So it is with Thiel’s life and work, I gather.
Thiel is a backer of the Freedom Forum, and he gives a brief, elegant speech to the assemblage. How nice it would be, he says, to hold the forum one day in Havana, Harare — or even Pyongyang? Oh, yes.
‐There are several Africans at this conference, and I talk with one of long experience. I ask a fundamental question: “Does foreign aid mostly help or mostly hurt? I know it does both.” My interlocutor confirms that it does both — but mainly it hurts, he says. “Do you know the difference between AID and AIDS? The letter S.” He means that foreign aid is the occasion of corruption and a cause of dependence.
Tough, even harsh words — but, given the source, worth listening to.
‐Can I tell you that Armando Valladares calls me “Yay,” making the “J” into a “Y,” as in “Yo-yo”? I hope he never quits and is never corrected.
‐In our rooms — my room, at least — in the Grand Hotel is a Gideon Bible (Norwegian and English). They used to be standard equipment: as standard as a bed and basin. I see them less now. I am glad to see it; I consider it a service. Does the presence of this Bible offend some people? I’m sure, because everything offends someone, right? (In golf, we say, “Every shot pleases somebody.”)
‐Thank you so much for joining me for this unusual journal, this Oslo Journal. I think I’ll knock off now. I have more — an interview with Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader who is kind of the presiding spirit of this conference. But I will deliver those goods some other time, soon: either in National Review or here on the site.
Should I offer some “big thoughts” here at the end? Well, you know any thoughts I might have to offer — I have voiced them already. The Oslo Freedom Forum is most unusual, and invaluable — a genuine, bona fide human-rights conference. Many of the people who are participating have come through the worst things life can impose. And many have done so with utter grace, dropping hatred or bitterness and embracing love, for the benefit of themselves and others. As I said at the outset, we often say that we are “humbled” to be somewhere or to meet someone or to do something. I’m not 100 percent sure what that means. I do know, however, that it has been humbling — and rewarding and gratifying — to be among these people.
See you and thank you!