OSLO: Thor Halvorssen has long been deemed a suspicious liberalist. We interviewed him about dictatorships, his native Venezuela, anarchism and meritocracy – so that you can judge for yourself.

When the State becomes too powerful

[Watch video interview at the bottom]

Venezuelan-Norwegian Thor Halvorssen starts the ninth edition of his Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) – featuring over 50 different talks and seminars – by bringing up the Thai military coup anniversary, in addition to authoritarian North Korea, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

He reminds us of the global crises, wars and conflicts where “65 million people are fleeing, about 280 million are affected by natural catastrophes, 793 million lack clean water and 836 million live in abject poverty.” He adds: “However, authoritarian regimes, dictatorships and democratic autocracies impact more people than all of the above put together. Which is more than half of the world’s population. This is what this year’s OFF is all about.”

The current OFF theme is “Defending Democracy”. To the 200-strong audience at Oslo’s Hotel Continental, Halvorssen states: “In our opinion, a true democracy has the following: freedom of speech, an active civil society, separation of power, and fair and free elections.”

From right: Antonietta Ledezma, Vladmir Kara Murza, Thor Halvorssen, Mohammed Nasheed, Wai Wai Nu and Kang Chol-hwan. Press conference. (Photo: Berit Roald / NTB Scanpix)

Background. Four days later, Modern Times Review meets up with the OFF-leader for an in-depth conversation. The motivation for his long term work for freedom and human rights is rooted in the experiences of his parents: His Norwegian father was falsely accused and imprisoned as a political prisoner until Amnesty and others finally managed to free him. Halvorssen’s mother fared worse. Some 13 years ago, he witnessed her being shot by the Venezuelan authorities, during a peaceful demonstration against President Hugo Chávez and his politics.

Every authoritarian system requires a lie

“The way I saw the event live on TV, I thought she had died. It caused me indescribable amounts of pain and anguish and a sense of unfairness. As a consequence, I bond naturally with people who have suffered this kind of violence – it does not matter where you were born or with what privileges. When someone you admire or care for is attacked, we understand what it is like to live in a country where authorities do not abide by the law. Even senior citizens, who only expressed their opinions during a non-violent demonstration, were attacked by the state. My grandparents were also present.”

Following this experience, Halvorssen wanted to establish the Human Rights Foundation – also because of his frustration over “Amnesty and International Human Rights Watch’s lack of focus on Venezuela – as Chávez –sympathisers”.

But, why hold an Oslo Freedom Forum, here on the other side of the globe?

“Because Norway puts human value high and has never incited war.”

The fact that his father was Norwegian is irrelevant, although the 41-year old Venezuelan reminds me that those of us who are born into freedom in Norway “have a responsibility for not forgetting those who incidentally do not grow up with the same opportunities”.

Individuals. The conference strategy was, as before, to present a series of witness statements from vulnerable individuals: “We believe, although this may sound strange to the collective mentality of Norwegians – that individuals really achieve things; that the truth is that individuals, not the group, is at the centre of society”.

“The suffering and survival of these people can make them liberating role models to others.”

Individuals make a difference. Someone else who spoke during the conference was Charlie Chaplin himself – in an extract from his film The Dictator (1940). Chaplin makes fun of Hitler’s use of mass suggestion; he talks about the dignity of life and that soldiers must not allow themselves to be subjugated into violence or blind aggression. Halvorssen introduced the excerpt by explaining the risks Chaplin had to take, and that he was forced to finance the film himself as The Dictator was banned at the onset of World War II. The enormously popular film was smuggled into France, where several soldiers – when they realised what they were watching – shot the screen to pieces.

Halvorssen has a vested interest in films. He has made several through his company Moving Pictures Institute – films aimed at promoting freedom: “But OFF is also a combination of politics, research, film and art. Early on, totalitarian movements understood the importance of films to influence people. We, the protesters, also know that truth and good ideas may need the help of a film. That is why we make the speeches here in Oslo into short films and spread them worldwide.”

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