Hanging Out with Human Rights Heroes at the Oslo Freedom Forum

It's a bit like Comic-Con, only all the heroes are real.

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May 21 2013, 4:00pm


Chen Guangcheng (left) and Ali Abdulemam.

Down in the breakfast room at the Oslo Freedom Forum, Ali Abdulemam is being introduced to Chen Guangcheng. It hits me that this is about as close to celebrity as the human rights world gets – the equivalent of Tom Cruise and Leo shaking hands at the Oscars. Abdulemam (an exiled blogger) and Guangcheng (an exiled lawyer) are the two of the most famous dissident escapees from dictatorial regimes – Bahrain and China, respectively. Syrian dissident Ali Ferzat – an exiled satirical cartoonist – saunters past. It’s a bit like Comic-Con, only the heroes are real, and all too often they never got a chance to heroically vanquish the bad guy. Instead, they were tortured, imprisoned and forced to flee for their lives.

Understandably, Abdulemam doesn’t want to reveal much about his time in hiding. He needs to protect those who helped him and his wife and children are still in Bahrain (though their safe transit out of the country will hopefully be secured soon). Ali told me that he wanted to be the voice of the Bahraini youth, many of whom belong to the February 14 street movement, a collective who are increasingly turning to violence in frustration at their country's lack of progress towards democracy. Though he's glad to be free, exile from his home was the price Ali eventually decided to pay for his freedom. I asked him what it felt like to be in hiding for two years.

“I felt nothing, actually," he told me. "I was just worried that this regime is wasting its time instead of finding a real solution to the current situation that they have to fix. They are doing something worse by delaying the solution and I was thinking that the cost of this delay will be much more than the cost they would pay if they find that solution."

There's been a lot of controversy surrounding the Oslo Freedom Forum’s sources of funding. Nasty and poorly referenced attacks have been levelled at the Forum’s charismatic head honcho, Thor Halvorssen Mendoza (commonly known as Thor Halvorssen) accusing him of being financed by the same far-right Islamophobes who inspired Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik. Halvorssen is a Venezuelan of Norwegian heritage, whose father was a political prisoner in Venezuela in the early 90s, and whose mother was shot at a protest against Chavez’s re-election in 2004.

If you were a secret right-wing ideologue, it'd seem like a pretty strange decision to pour lots of your own money into organising a human rights conference. (Halvorssen has also funded the event with donations sought from other parties.) Halvorssen’s anti-Chavez stance is pretty clear and seems, from the outside, to be increasingly justified. There is evidence to suggest that the ruling United Socialist Party – the one that has held power for 15 years – has been using violent and coercive means against the opposition, including beating up parliamentarians who refused to recognise the result of the recent election.

Halvorssen did tell me that he'd been a Tory while in the UK in the 80s, but has more recently described himself as a liberal. Whatever the case, it’s true that, as a number of the participants repeated, there is no such thing as a dictatorship of the right or of the left; there are only dictatorships. This is as true today as it's ever been. Looking at a map of world dictatorships, for example, where would you place Russia, China or Saudi Arabia along a binary left-right spectrum?


Thor Halvorssen Mendoza.

Despite the accusations that the Oslo Freedom Forum is a front for right-wing investors, a quick look at the wide range of speakers and topics covered would suggest it’s not all about criticising South American socialists.

Talking to Jacob Appelbaum scares the shit out of people. Jake is one of the coders behind Tor (at its most base level, an internet browser that promises anonymity) and has been involved with WikiLeaks for some time. He told me that some people on the Silk Road website – the infamous internet black market – have solicited for their ex-girlfriends to be murdered. Applebaum was appearing on a panel on cybersecurity, where he described the persistent surveillance under which the US government has placed him. At one point in a conversation, he took out a white noise machine to prevent anyone unsavoury from listening in. 


Jacob Appelbaum, on the right, talks to Rafael Marques de Morais about his hacked laptop. 

Later that evening, activists attending the forum began asking Appelbaum to inspect possible spyware on their computers. Rafael Marques de Morais, an Angolan anti-corruption activist, was found to have simplistic screencapture spyware that was traced back to a coder in India, most likely contracted by Angola to report on Marques for them. Cryptography and hacking are part of the future of the human rights project. Those who seek to control their citizens hire mercenary hackers to spy on them. So it's gratifying to know that there are some hackers out there, like Appelbaum, who say they cannot be bought and who actively help dissidents protect themselves from their governments.

The Oslo Freedom Forum is an important event to help encourage, teach and publicise human rights activists from around the world. These kinds of connections are necessary to continue the peaceful struggle against oppression that so many people are engaged in. Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, who led the revolution that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 1998, told the Forum that nonviolent revolutions were twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.

By connecting with people like him, members of ongoing revolutions – like the one in Bahrain – can get advice on how to maintain their nonviolent principles in the face of brutal repression. By seeing the work of satirists like Mads Brugger and Ali Ferzat, we see how comedy can be used to make the powerful ridiculous. Activists need these events to tell their stories, make connections and learn that they are part of an interconnected human rights support network.

The Oslo Freedom Forum should be rightly praised for its work, not criticised. After all, there are conventions of arms dealers going on all the time, so it’s hard not to look like a dick when you rail against the use of government and private money to promote human rights. However, it’s important to also realise that human rights problems are not solely things that happen far away from the relative liberal paradise of the EU.

Just around the corner from the theatre hosting the Forum’s lectures, a group of protesters were criticising a new law that criminalises sleeping rough in Norway, a measure that seems to disproportionately target Roma Gypsies, many of whom can be seen begging on Oslo’s streets. There was an influx of Roma into Norway around 2006, and to many here they are largely unwelcome guests.

Western Europe has a collective and long-term shame resulting from its policies on Roma, Sinti and traveller people. In the UK, Tory minister Eric Pickles repealed Labour’s planning laws requiring councils to provide land for Gypsies and travellers, only to have to re-institute the same system three years later to solve the same problem of where they should camp. This kind of government incompetence also costs the public a lot of money – take the £11 million eviction of Dale Farm, for example.

If we are to fully commit ourselves to human rights, we have to criticise abuses that happen in our own backyards as well as those that happen thousands of miles away. I put this point to Thor Halvorssen and asked him whether he would have someone to speak about Roma gypsy rights, or whether this might endanger funding from the Norwegian government. He said that if the right speaker could be found, it wouldn’t be a problem.

In the end, human rights are about the small things – the incremental successes that confirm the work is important. Hearing Ali Abdulemam tell Jake Appelbaum that he managed to hide from the Bahraini government by using Appelbaum’s anonymous TOR software is one of those little things that makes all the other bullshit worthwhile.

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