At the Oslo Freedom Forum’s (OFF) press conference, a question from the audience makes tempers flare.

Truls Lie
Truls Lie
Published date: June 2, 2018

The Oslo Freedom Forum is a network of passionate advocates committed to the promotion of human rights across the globe. This year OFF took place from May 28-30, 2018. For more information, please visit:

Does OFF «really define the US as a member of the free, democratic world?» The man posing the question to the panel cites the record-breaking percentage of the American population that is currently behind bars, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama – who stepped it up with bombings and drone attacks, an enormous surveillance apparatus aimed at its own citizens – and now, most recently, a new head of the CIA with a history of torturing prisoners.

Thor Halvorssen – the founder of OFF and a US resident – answers sharply: «Let me be absolutely clear here. The answer is definitely yes.»

Halvorssen goes on to make a distinction between three different types of government: Full-scale dictatorships (China), authoritarian states based on rigged elections, and well-functioning democracies. And for a state to be ranked among the latter, Halvorssen explains, it must have «free and fair elections, a free and independent press, constraints on and division of power, and a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government. Moreover, it must have a thriving civil society where people aren’t persecuted or arrested because of their opinions.»

Thor Halvorssen

Halvorssen further makes it clear that OFF doesn’t focus on states like the US, but rather on the authoritarian states that, put together, make up half of today’s states. Countries where the authorities, unlike in Norway, imprison journalists and attack those who challenge the official line.

The man in the audience still insists on focusing on the US, drawing a proper dressing-down from OFF’s chairman Garry Kasparov: «Shame on you! You try to draw the attention away from real abuses, from a world where killings and violence are everyday events! Children are being killed as we’re sitting here!»

Kasparov also makes it clear that in his native Russia, free elections are non-existent, something Kasparov has personally experienced. Kasparov concludes by stating that «many countries have their problems, but in the US and other states the citizens are at least protected by laws and by their citizenship.» When the man in the audience still persists, Halvorssen, the panel’s moderator, cuts him off, informing us that an ordinary judge in Hawaii thwarted Trump with the Constitution. «The only thing Trump could do was complain about it on Twitter,» he says, before reminding us that the press conference is not intended as a debating arena, but as a platform for the invited activists on the panel.

«During a puzzle-solving test I once witnessed, the contestants were asked how to make a stick on a table smaller. After pondering the issue, one of the contestants got up, found a bigger stick and laid it next to the first one.»

This reminds me of the following: During a puzzle-solving test I once witnessed, the contestants were asked how to make a stick on a table smaller. After pondering the issue, one of the contestants got up, found a bigger stick and laid it next to the first one.

The activists tell their stories. The press conference introduces a handful of activists, all from tough regimes. Among them is Farida Nabourema, who left Togo to study in the US. Her activism prompted a Togolese minister to call Nabourema’s university and demand her expulsion for criticising Togo’s regime. The university’s female principal refused the request and instead expressed her pride in her.

Yeonmi Park. The 22-year-old North Korean defector and human rights activist.

The next activist on the panel fled North Korea via China and Mongolia: Yeonmi Park explains how her country of 25 million people also has the world’s largest concentration camp. Former child soldier Emmanuel Jal from South Sudan poetically states: «I am my father’s stress, my mother’s tears, my grandfather’s worries and my grandmother’s sorrow and joy. I am the voice of my brothers and sisters. I am here to share my experiences …»

And Wael Ghonim from Egypt is an activist on social media. Has he, like the Venezuelan Antonio Ledezma, also spent more than 1000 days in prison for his political struggle against the authorities?

«I am my father’s stress, my mother’s tears, my grandfather’s worries and my grandmother’s sorrow and joy. I am the voice of my brothers and sisters. I am here to share my experiences …» – Emmanuel Jal

And what about Edipcia Dubon from Nicaragua, who emotionally narrates how what started out as a peaceful protest ended with 76 killed, 868 wounded and 438 arrested? As Halvorssen translates from Dubón’s native Spanish, it’s clear that the numbers matter. An unknown number of people simply disappeared. Nicaragua is now a country where people are being persecuted and the press is being censored. As if to illustrate the point of the stick on the table, the Norwegian member of the panel, John Peder Egenæs of Amnesty International – a citizen of a peaceful country, in his own words – choses instead to focus on Saudi Arabia. The country’s leader Mohammed bin Salman is trying to appear as a reformer, but according to Egenæs this is merely a smokescreen for a dictatorship. Women fighting for the right to drive cars are actually all behind bars – even though the leader presents himself as a liberator of women.

Emmanuel Jal. South Sudanese hip-hop artist and former child soldier.

Statistics and reports leave us unaffected. Halvorssen’s focus, then, is on authoritarian states and dictatorships. When OFF was founded ten years ago, many countries enjoyed a certain degree of democratic rule – Halvorssen mentions Nicaragua, the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary and Bolivia. But the struggle for human rights still goes on there, and during three days of events here in Oslo we came across packed audiences and committed people from all over the world. Some may nevertheless question whether something like the Oslo Freedom Forum can really help prevent the comprehensive abuses of power that are being uncovered here. And are we Norwegians really as committed as we seem to believe towards oppression outside the West?

A Danish woman I encountered outside – who has long been working for refugees and human rights issues around the world – is worried by how today’s young Scandinavians don’t seem to care much about what authoritarian regimes are up to. Why not, indeed? There is plenty of information available. Documentaries, too. Have we, as Marshall McLuhan put it, become numbed by too much information in today’s global village? «The medium is the massage», or «the mass age». The point is that statistics and reports leave us unmoved. And enlightened debate – a prerequisite for free democracies – requires more if it’s going to lead to action.

Iranian-American tech entrepreneur, founder and director of United for Iran.

Activists’ accounts or OFF «stories» recounting their struggles are important. But use of new technology can also help people in need – like liberating alternatives to centralised power in the shape of cryptocurrencies and blockchain, to take but one example. But we can also promote other types of communities other than those offered by the state or allow minorities to create new opportunities outside the strict control of the authorities, thereby generating growth creating cultures via new technology in a more anarchistic manner (more on this in an upcoming article). But must we also train ourselves to feel empathy for others, like the former child soldier told us? So that we become participants, not only observers?

The international commitment of many of the participants at OFF was evident: human rights activists, creative entrepreneurs, journalists, politicians, artists and philanthropists. Can we really see beyond ourselves and the West? Halvorssen wraps up the proceedings with a joke about Norwegians at press conferences: «The introvert asks questions while looking at his own shoes. The extrovert Norwegian, meanwhile, also avoids eye contact, but directs his glance at the other person’s shoes …»

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