Politics & Policy

The Best Conference in the World

Ukrainian politician Viktor Yushchenko speaks at OFF. (Pedersen Terje/AFP/Getty)

Oslo — Many years ago The Economist published an article titled “The Best Think Tank in the World.” Its name and lost status atop the heap are not relevant, but the idea was sound. Some enterprises are so startlingly effective they need to be celebrated while they are in their prime.

Such is the case with the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual showcasing of human-rights activists from all over the world. They may spend the rest of the year in exile or shunted to the margins of their societies or, in some cases, in prison or on the run. But in Oslo they are celebrated, and they can network and swap ideas. Jay Nordlinger, my National Review colleague, files his trademark dispatches from OFF every year.

OFF offers vivid storytelling from a flashy stage, workshops focused on effective action to fight tyranny, a touch of Hollywood showmanship, entertainment by musicians and comedians, and a genuine effort to throw aside ideology and embrace anyone fighting for fundamental rights against government violence or intimidation. The result, year after year, is a stirring exercise in old-fashioned courage and hope.

Things also get done. The Human Rights Foundation, the New York City–based group that puts on the event, helps connect the most effective activists with foundations headed by the likes of Google executives or billionaire Peter Thiel. The 23-year-old North Korean defector Yeonmi Park has become a sought-after speaker owing to articles on her speech at last year’s Freedom Forum. She will tell the story of her harrowing escape from the Hermit Kingdom in a September book from Penguin, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom.

The foundation has also helped smuggle dissidents out of prison, sent balloons carrying subversive videos across the border into North Korea, and facilitated the delivery of the latest portable communications and printing technology to dissidents.

The need for its activities has never been greater. 

There has been a “democracy deficit” in the last decade, with a growing number of countries slipping into dictatorship or losing ground on basic rights. Backsliders include, of course, Russia and China, but there are now disturbing signs that nations such as Turkey and Malaysia are seeing the rule of law chipped away by would-be autocrats.

The collection of experts who attend the OFF is fascinating and wide-ranging. Nico Sell, a privacy consultant, holds seminars on how to avoid having government snoops monitor cell phones and computers. A group of cartoonists from around the world shared tips on how they puncture official lies with satire. Bill Browder, a grandson of former U.S. Communist Party chief Earl Browder and now a venture capitalist, speaks passionately about how his Russian lawyer was murdered in prison. He successfully crusaded for the Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress in 2012, which placed Western travel and banking restrictions on 32 Russian officials engaged in violating human rights. “If we could get 2,000 people on the list it would put enormous pressure on Russian elites to change,” he told me. 

The growing shadow of Putin’s Russia was a major theme of the conference. “Putin is spending billions on the most sophisticated propaganda apparatus a dictator has deployed in memory,” says Thor Halvorssen, the 39-year-old president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of OFF. “He has paid Western journalists to discredit critics, launched lavish news channels in other countries, and bombarded his population with highly effective nationalism.” For Halvorssen, a Venezuelan with Norwegian ancestry, the fight against the collapse of civilized norms has been personal. Last year, a Venezuelan uncle of his was killed in an apparent street crime in a country where the socialist government has increasingly ignored citizen safety in favor of plundering anything it can get its hands on. In 2004, Halvorssen’s mother was shot, though not killed, by Venezuelan security personnel during a demonstration against the Chávez regime.

The Oslo Freedom Forum displays diversity in every conceivable way, with a wheelchair-bound activist from Gabon sharing the stage with a gay activist from Morocco. But the conference is almost entirely free of the politically correct gender and racial rhetorical obsessions and selective outrage of United Nations human-rights talkfests.

Indeed, some of the speakers tackle head-on the hypocrisy of smug Western liberal elites. Zineb El Rhazoui is a writer for Charlie Hebdo who missed being massacred by Islamic terrorists along with her colleagues last January only because she was on vacation in her native Morocco. She has bitterly attacked Muslims who she says claim a right not to be offended, and she requires 24-hour security because of the death threats she gets. But she also passionately attacks Western liberals who think Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of Mohammed was “racist.”

“What is really racist is to tell me that in the West we want women’s rights but we should understand that in the Middle East they treat women differently, that they aren’t capable of the same universal values,” she told the OFF audience. “It is not liberal to patronizingly condemn people to be ruled by their own traditions when they violate human rights.”

The OFF’s emphasis on promoting basic rights in all nations at all times is its most refreshing aspect. “It’s pretty simple,” says Halvorssen. “We all should want freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from torture, freedom to travel, due process, and freedom to keep what belongs to you.” Unfortunately, he explains, “the human-rights establishment at the United Nations is limited to pretty words because so many member countries kill or imprison or torture their opponents.”

Dictators and demagogues will always have the upper hand when it comes to crushing opponents. But the Oslo Freedom Forum allows a sharing of insights and ideals that many activists take back to their home countries or places of exile. Don’t be surprised if someday the civil-disobedience tactics or protest organizing you see on your TV screen in a foreign land will have its roots traced back to the Oslo Freedom Forum.

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