There are human-rights organizations and there are human-rights organizations. Some of them, while purportedly apolitical and worldwide in scope, are awash in anti-Americanism, soft on Communism, prepared to let African tyrants off the hook while blaming all the world's problems on the West, and eager to smear Israel even as they blithely overlook the viciously brutality of Islamic governments. And some are out-and-out frauds – churning out rhetoric about their own virtue while behaving abominably behind the scenes. A few months ago I wrote about the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, which was named for a civil-rights pioneer and which had such big names as Bill Clinton and former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young on its masthead. Last August the foundation was scheduled to hold a gala “summit” in Equatorial Guinea under the sponsorship of that country's thuggish kleptocrat-in-chief, Teodoro Obiang.
Now, Obiang heads one of the world's most corrupt, cold-blooded, and censorious regimes. He's personally pocketed much (if not most) of his nation's oil wealth. Yet the D.C.-based Sullivan Foundation gave him a human-rights award and showered him with praise for having provided his people with “political pluralism,” “good governance,” and a “civil society” – all sheer fantasy. The more closely one looked into the Sullivan-Obiang connection, the harder it was to avoid the conclusion that the foundation had made a deal with the devil – providing splendid P.R. for a brutal dictator in return for a cut of his ill-gotten gains.
But the fact is this: no one was looking closely until Thor Halvorssen and his New York-based Human Rights Foundation got on the case. Halvorssen's initial move was to dispatch a letter to the Sullivan Foundation, itemizing in detail Obiang's crimes against humanity and asking, as it were, what the hell they were smoking. At first the Sullivan people loftily waved away the query and reiterated their line about Obiang being a heroic reformer. But Halvorssen and his team of a dozen or so twenty-somethings (who, though hailing from various points on the political spectrum, share a tireless commitment to principle and moral consistency) put on the public pressure – and kept it up. And it worked. First Clinton's name disappeared from the Sullivan Foundation's website; then Young openly distanced himself from the group. And finally, mysteriously, some time after its big bash in Equatorial Guinea, the foundation slipped out of existence – its phone was disconnected, its website went silent, its offices were vacated.
That kind of action on behalf of human rights is part of what sets the Human Rights Foundation apart. HRF doesn't just talk the talk, it walks the walk – even if it involves doing the unthinkable: namely, taking on another member of the sacrosanct “human-rights community.”
But HRF hasn't just taken on fellow human-rights groups. It's taken on dictatorships – sending its representatives behind the lines in Cuba and Vietnam to covertly videotape inteviews with dissidents. (In Vietnam, a HRF staffer was arrested and beaten.)
In short, HRF is the real thing. And on Friday came news that underscored just how real it is. In an article posted at the website of The Atlantic, Halvorssen wrote about a Bahrainian blogger and human-rights activist, Ali Abdulemam, whose popular pro-democracy website, Bahrain Online, founded in 1999, was that country's “first free Internet forum for political and social debate.” Over the years Abdulemam has been repeatedly arrested, imprisoned, interrogated, and tortured. Halvorssen decided to try to get him out.
How? Bahrain is an island off the coast of Saudi Arabia and just across the Persian Gulf from Iran. An escape by either sea or land was fraught with potential difficulties. So Halvorssen and his crew – knowing that Bahrain was “desperate for as much 'normal' celebrity activity as possible” and would thus “bend over backward” for any high-profile visitor who didn't “mouth any concern about human-rights violations” – hatched a plot right out of a movie. In brief, it went like this: a U.S. performance artist would travel to Bahrain in a private jet, purportedly just to put on a show, and would bring with him an entourage that included an Abdulemam lookalike. The artist would do his show, then fly off in his jet with Abdulemam in tow; the lookalike, remaining behind, would depart later on a commercial flight in the company of Halvorssen himself. This brilliant, audacious scheme was all set to go when it turned out the operation was unnecessary: coincidentally, Abdulemam had managed to get out of Bahrain in the secret compartment of a car that transported him through Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, from which he traveled by water to Iraq, and, finally, by air to London.
All this happened just a couple of weeks ago, in the run-up to HRF's big annual event, the Oslo Freedom Forum – which starts today, and which, on its third and last day, will feature Abdulemam's first public appearance since his rescue.
There could be no more appropriate venue. For just as HRF is no ordinary human-rights foundation, the OFF is no ordinary human-rights event. After attending the first OFF, in 2009, John Fund of the Wall Street Journal noted that it “was unlike any human-rights conference I've ever attended.” For all too many human-rights organizations, the default position, when confronting outrages anywhere on earth, is to find some way to pin them on America and the West. Not at the OFF. Every year, the roster of speakers is remarkable: one comes away with fresh horror at the everyday savagery of many governments around the world; with admiration for good, courageous people who have survived years of subjection to that savagery with their humanity, and their determination to effect positive change, intact; with a renewed appreciation for one's own heritage of liberty; and with a powerful sense of having been challenged by these heroes' testimony to try to live up to them, in at least some small way, by standing up for freedom in one's own corner of the world.
This year, in addition to Abdulemam, the speakers at OFF include Srđa Popović, a Serbian dissident who helped overthrow Slobodan Milosevic; Normando Hernández, a Cuban journalist who spent seven years in Castro's prisons; Birtukan Mideksa, an Ethiopian judge whose support for human-rights landed her behind bars; and Lapiro de Mbanga, a Cameroonian performer who was incarcerated for writing a song mocking his country's president. These are just some of the three dozen-odd participants who will bring their own personal insights to bear on the human-rights crises in places ranging from China and North Korea to Mali and Syria – and who will also discuss ways of confronting those crises.
Needless to say, the lack of leftist ideological bias in OFF's approach to human rights has its price. As I reported after last year's OFF, leading members of the Norwegian government – people who will travel to the other side of the planet to go to the “right” kind of human-rights conference – were refusing to cross the street to attend so much as a single session of the OFF, because HRF's concept of human rights, which focuses on freedom and thus involves criticism of tyrants like the Castro brothers and the late Hugo Chávez, just doesn't mesh with their concept of human rights, which focuses on twisted lefty notions of “social justice” and “economic justice,” according to which the current Cuban and Venezuelan regimes are just dandy. Last year, international media attention to the Norwegian government's snub of the OFF led a Foreign Ministry official to make a last-minute, bumbling appearance at the event, which only served to underscore the contrast between her ministry's penchant for amoral equivocation (as evinced by its friendliness with the likes of Hamas) and the harsh reality reflected by the OFF speakers' chilling personal accounts. One wonders which Norwegian officials, if any, will be on hand to applaud Abdulemam when he steps onstage the day after tomorrow.
(Disclosure: I have translated for HRF, was a planned speaker at a previous OFF, and am proud to call Halvorssen a friend.)
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