Let's begin with an article by Kristoffer Rønneberg that appeared in Aftenposten, Norway's newspaper of record, on May 7:
From all over the world, activists, academics, politicians, businesspeople, and technology pioneers are coming [to Oslo] to negotiate, discuss, and learn. About 90 journalists are traveling to Norway to cover the conference....This is an event that puts Oslo and Norway on the map.
It is therefore incomprehensible that Norwegian authorities are choosing to stay away.
What are the authorities staying away from? It's the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), an annual event which, during its four years of existence, has presented talks by Vladimir Bukovsky, Elena Bonner, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Elie Wiesel, and dozens of other human-rights heroes from around the world. Year after year, the OFF shines a light on regimes that have abused and imprisoned citizens simply for speaking out and wanting to breathe free. What's not to like?
Well, it appears that a number of people in Norway's Foreign Ministry and elsewhere in the upper echelons of the Norwegian government “are skeptical about the conference because they fear that it can have underlying political motives.” They're “especially skeptical about the man who is behind the whole thing” – Thor Halvorssen, the energetic young head of Human Rights Foundation in New York. Despite his name, Halvorssen is not Norwegian but a Venezuelan-American. His grandfather was a Norwegian ambassador to Venezuela; his mother is a descendant of Simón Bolívar, the hero of South American independence.
Although, noted Rønneberg, “there is nothing about this year's conference that indicates a political bias in one direction or the other,” Halvorssen has had a rough time of it in Norway because his politics grate against those of the Norwegian elite. What politics? Well, for example, he's “an outspoken opponent of Hugo Chávez” and has been criticized for inviting opponents of Chávez and Castro to the OFF in 2010.
Yes, you read that right – in Norway, it just isn't done to invite opponents of Chávez and Castro to a human-rights conference.
“It shouldn't matter what Halvorssen thinks of Castro or Chávez,” wrote Rønneberg (although, of course, Halvorssen's opposition to these tyrants matters very much indeed). “What matters,” said Rønneberg, “is who is taking part in the conference and what they can do to promote human rights in the world.” The forum's 121 speakers, he noted, come from 71 countries; 36 have been imprisoned for a total of 175 years; 20 are exiles; 23 have been tortured.
But that's not enough, it seems, for Norwegian authorities, who view the OFF as unacceptably un-Norwegian. Rønneberg pointed out that one of the offenses committed by the attendees at the OFF, in the eyes of its Norwegian critics, is that they're too formally dressed. (Many Norwegian leftists simply can't process the idea of a human-rights activist in a business suit – you're supposed to look like a hippie, goddamn it.) The leftist daily Dagsavisen sneered that the title of this year's conference, “Out of Darkness, Into Light,” was too “far-reaching” – in other words, “American.” (Norwegian like their conference titles dry and low-key.) There were even complaints about the gift bags – containing an umbrella, a candy bar, and other modest items – that were distributed this year to forum participants. This, too, is considered un-Norwegian.
The main complaint, however, is that the OFF devotes too much attention to “political and civil rights, not the broader human rights concept that Norwegian authorities and organizations often advocate” – the “broader” concept, that is, that makes it possible to make heroes of monsters like Castro and Chávez. The sad fact is that Norwegian authorities, like many on the left, don't feel terribly comfortable with the word freedom. They're proud to call their country the “peace nation,” and they're happy to blather on about “social justice” and “economic justice” (which they think people like Castro and Chávez have promoted), but they consider freedom an illusory concept, if not an outright lie, and, in any case, a preoccupation of the right-wingers they abhor.
Perhaps what really makes the OFF stick in the craw of the Norwegian establishment, however, is that, unlike many feel-good, politically correct, peace-centered Norwegian initatives, it's had tangible results. As a consequence of the OFF's attention to Singapore dissident Chee Soon Juan, the Norwegian ambassador to Singapore has felt compelled to ask for his case to be reviewed. “It is easy to suspect that some of the displeasure directed at Halvorssen and the conference,” suggested Rønneberg, “stems from a kind of envy – that he, in a short time, has accomplished something that Norwegians have not dared to dream of.”
Stingingly, Rønneberg pointed out that although Norwegian foreign minster Jonas Gahr Støre has eagerly participated in “dialogue” with all kinds of unsavory characters (including – although Rønneberg doesn't mention it – Hamas), he's boycotted the OFF from the outset. Rønneberg wondered whether Gahr Støre, after having engaged in “dialogue” with officials from Ethiopia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, fears “being seen in the same room as activists who work for better human rights in these countries.”
I've been at every OFF since its inception, and can testify that Norwegian leaders are, indeed, missing out on something moving and magnificent. This year, attendees heard the testimonies of human-rights activists from Zimbabwe and West Papua, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea and Syria. Asma Jahangir of Pakistan warned against “Islamists” who “use the ladder of democracy to get to the top, and once they get there, they kick it off” – and warned, too, against Western governments that, out of political correctness, fear the necessary “war of words” over Islamic rule. Several gutsy young Russia activists, plus veteran human-rights hero Garry Kasparov, discussed the lack of freedom under Putin. Nick Cohen, the British journalist and author of the new book You Can't Read This Book, made some eloquent observations:
...militant Islam has emerged at a time of great phoniness in Western culture. Writers, actors, such as myself...criticize, when it’s safe. We criticize our own politicians without restraint, because we know men won’t come around to our house and harm us. But we fall silent when faced with those who might....
...censorship is at its most effective when no one admits it exists. Let me repeat that. Censorship is at its most effective when no one admits it exists.
And Manal al-Sharif, an impressively self-effacing young woman who got into hot water in Saudi Arabia for driving a car, told her own riveting story:
In the year 2000, the internet was introduced to Saudi Arabia. It was our first window to the outside world....I began to realize how very small the box I was living in was....
Do you remember the first time you listened to music?
I remember. I was 21 years old. The first song I listened to was “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” by the Backstreet Boys. And the music was so pure, so innocent.
And that day, I realized how lonely I really was, in the world I had isolated myself in.
Another turning point in my life was 9/11....I saw this picture. It was of a man, who threw himself from the towers to escape the fire. I couldn’t sleep that night.
I thought, no religion on earth should be like this.
When Al-Qaeda took responsibility for the attacks, I realized my heroes were nothing but bloody terrorists.
Rønneberg's article actually had results. After it appeared, foreign journalists who were in town for the OFF asked Foreign Affairs Ministry officials why they were giving the OFF the cold shoulder. The ministry buckled. During the Putin session, which came toward the close of the conference, I was sitting at the back of the auditorium when the door opened and a cluster of six or eight people, including Halvorssen and a guy with a big video camera, bustled in. The camera was aimed at one of the women in the group – whom I recognized, as she moved past me, looking flustered and uneasy, as Gry Larsen, who as recently as 2006 was head of the Labor Party youth group and is now one of the top people at the Foreign Ministry.
When the panel ended, Larsen was ushered onto the stage, where she delivered a few unscripted, vacuous words in praise of the OFF. Her discomfort was palpable. She plainly didn't want to be there. And she really didn't have anything to say. Without a doubt, this was nothing more or less than a desperate, last-minute attempt to forestall a flurry of negative international press about the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. In other words, the only reason she was on that stage was so that the ministry could say it hadn't snubbed the OFF.
There was, however, something positive about Larsen's appearance. For if her vapid bureaucrat-speak accomplished nothing else, it underscored, by contrast, the substance and import of the courageous testimonies we'd just heard from the same stage. And it underscored, too, the vital significance of the OFF and its work for freedom – for, as Larsen's empty, grudging performance confirmed, it's a kind of work that she and her Foreign Ministry colleagues are uninterested in doing and whose value they seem unable to fathom. It was, indeed, as if Larsen was there specifically to remind us that we should never count on governments, not even the relatively virtuous ones, to preserve and protect our freedoms; at the end of the day, the price of your individual liberty and mine is our own vigilance. For illustrations of what this means and what it can entail, we can scarcely do better than to look to the valiant, extraordinary men and women whom the OFF brings to Oslo every year.
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