Editor’s Note: Last week, the Oslo Freedom Forum took place. It is the annual human-rights conference in the Norwegian capital. Jay Nordlinger’s “Oslo Journal” began yesterday, here.
Thor Halvorssen, the founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum, presides over a press conference. He is flanked by participants in the forum: dissidents, ex-political prisoners, and activists from many parts of the world.
Halvorssen says that some 35 percent of the world’s population lives under dictatorship. There are countries that are not quite dictatorships but not democracies either. If you count all non-democracies, you have half the world’s population. In other words, half of all people do not enjoy the blessings, or the right, of democracy.
A lot of people live in poverty. But three times that number live under dictatorship. There are endless efforts to defeat poverty, Halvorssen points out. But efforts to defeat dictatorship? Not so many.
And the relationship between dictatorship and poverty is very close.
“The opportunity costs of dictatorship are impossibly large,” says Halvorssen. The potential of billions of people is “asphyxiated.”
He mentions the famous satellite photos of the Korean Peninsula at night: The southern half is all lit up; the northern half is almost completely dark.
You know who gave me a copy of one of those photos? Donald Rumsfeld, in the Pentagon, when he was defense secretary (the second time, under George W. Bush — he had been SecDef under Ford). Probably, most people at this conference don’t like Rumsfeld very much. You know what? I don’t care. I do.
Halvorssen further mentions the United Nations — whose Human Rights Council is stocked with dictatorships, of course. The Davos conference, in Switzerland, is partially funded by dictatorships. So is the Clinton Global Initiative. And so on.
‐At the press conference, I’m glad to see Manal al-Sharif. I didn’t recognize her at first. She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her. And that’s because I had never seen her out of Muslim garb. (Forgive me if I don’t know the precise terms for this garb.)
Manal al-Sharif is the Saudi woman who became well known by driving a car — in a country, her native country, in which women are forbidden to drive a car.
‐Also at the press conference is Vladimir Kara-Murza, from Russia. He is the head of Open Russia. It’s particularly gratifying to see him — because they almost killed him. They poisoned him last year. He fell into a coma. He came out of it. He is still working in Russia, though his family is in safe keeping, elsewhere.
It’s hazardous work, criticizing the Kremlin, advocating democracy for Russia. Just ask Boris Nemtsov, with whom Kara-Murza worked closely. Actually, you can’t ask him, because they shot him dead.
Kara-Murza talks of a time after Communism and before Putin. Russia had many problems, says Kara-Murza. But it also had diverse media, multiple parties, and regular elections. There are people who say that Russia is not suited to democracy, Kara-Murza notes. “But if a Slavic and Orthodox country like Serbia can do it, then a Slavic and Orthodox country like Russia can.”
It’s a “lie,” says Kara-Murza — an outright lie — that Russians are unsuited to democracy. “We are suited, just like you, and we will get there.”
‐Back to Manal al-Sharif — who is asked about progress in Saudi Arabia. Aren’t women running for office now? This is deceptive, says Sharif. Any changes are cosmetic.
I can’t help wondering, Are cosmetic changes better than none? Maybe a prelude to real changes? I don’t know.
‐A participant here — who is evidently lightly informed, and probably excusably so — says that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro started out as freedom fighters. And then went bad. This makes Cubans, and their supporters, in the room uncomfortable: for they, we, know that Che and Fidel started out black as pitch.
(Not in skin color. Fidel Castro was known in Spain as Cuba’s “Great White Hope.” The military dictator, Batista, was a mulatto.)
‐Anastasia Lin is an extraordinary person: an actress, a beauty queen, and a human-rights advocate. She is a practitioner of Falun Gong. She was born in China, and immigrated to Canada. She acts in movies that depict the Chinese government’s persecution of innocents. In 2015, she was crowned Miss World Canada.
But she was not able to move on to the international competition — because that competition was held in China. Why, by the way, are international events, such as the Olympics and Miss World, held in police states? Why shouldn’t they be held in democracies, only?
The Chinese Communist Party — a.k.a. the Chinese government — declared Anastasia “persona non grata.” So she was not able to compete in the international event. She is just a slip of a girl — a beautiful slip of a girl. Yet the mighty CCP, which has nukes, is afraid of her.
There is so much more to say about this extraordinary person — and what has happened to her family left in China. You can get to know her through a podcast, here. We had a wide-ranging conversation.
Several years ago, I wrote a history of the Nobel Peace Prize, Peace, They Say. It includes an essay about peace — the nature of it, the arguments over it. I say that there has long been some tension between peace and freedom. And peace, however conceived, usually wins out.
You are familiar with the great, clichéd line in beauty pageants. The contestant is asked what she most wants. She answers, “World peace.” Has a contestant ever said, “World freedom”? That would shake up the judges.
Well, Anastasia Lin is such a contestant! One in a million. In a billion? More?
‐I meet a man from the Persian Gulf — Bahrain. He says, “For Norwegians, oil is a blessing. For us, oil is a curse.” That is a profound statement — which can be fleshed out over essays and books.
‐Antonio Ledezma is the mayor of Caracas. He is also a political prisoner: a prisoner of the chavista regime in Venezuela, led by Chávez’s handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro. Ledezma is not a chavista; he is a democrat. That’s why they arrested him last year, and in brutal fashion: 120 state-security agents stormed into his office, breaking glass as they went. They like to intimidate.
Yet Ledezma’s party is called the “Fearless People’s Alliance.” And one of those fearless people is Antonietta Ledezma, the mayor’s daughter. She graduated from college last year. And she is here at the Freedom Forum. She is spending her time campaigning for her father — and for Venezuela at large. It was once a democracy, and prosperous. Now night has fallen, and people are starving.
With Antonietta, I recorded a podcast, here.
‐Let’s talk about food. I’m holding a chocolate-and-nuts bar of some kind. Looks good. And the label says, “Ingredients you can see and pronounce.” Which is kind of amusing.
‐Okay, a thermos — which has a tag saying, “Responsibly Made in China.” Huh. What do they mean “responsibly”? Is it an environmental thing or a slave-labor thing?
‐Regular readers may know that I like Lincoln memorials, and that I particularly like the one in Frogner Park, here in Oslo. It is now lilac time. (“Lilac Time” is the name of a once-popular operetta.) There is a lilac bush near the memorial. And I’m thinking, What is the relationship between lilacs and Lincoln?
Takes me a second, but it’s Whitman’s poem — his elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
‐Javier El-Hage is a legal scholar from Bolivia and an official with the Human Rights Foundation back in New York. He is a classical liberal. And he is a comrade, a friend, of mine. Here in Oslo, he gives a most interesting talk about freedom of speech: its meaning, its history, its struggles. This is an important topic — a rich, multifaceted one — and I must say my friend addresses it superbly.
‐Speaking of superb: I see Justine Hardy, the English journalist, at dinner. (She is the daughter of Robert Hardy, the actor.) I also see Jonathan Foreman, the Anglo-American journalist. (He is the son of Carl Foreman, the late screenwriter and producer.) And Garry and Dasha Kasparov — a formidable couple.
It’s a joy to see, for the first time, Thulani Maseko, who is with his wife, Tanele. Oslo has seen Mrs. Maseko before: She was at the Freedom Forum, speaking for her husband, who was a political prisoner back home in Swaziland. Now he is sprung and speaking for himself, against that monarchical dictatorship.
I say, “What I’d like for Swaziland is a constitutional monarchy, like Great Britain, and, for that matter, this country, Norway.” The Masekos say, “Exactly!”
Thanks for joining me, dear readers, and see you later for Part III.