HRF Brings New Level of Professionalism to Unofficial Dissident Capital

November 4, 2014

The streets of Oslo during the Oslo Freedom Forum.

The streets of Oslo during the Oslo Freedom Forum. (PanAm Post)

Though the world is strife with conflict, oppression, and the changing of political vanguards, fighters for individual rights and peaceful resistance put time aside last week to share strategies, stories, and learn from one another in one of Scandinavia’s most pristine cities.

The latest installment of the Oslo Freedom Forum, delayed five months thanks to a striking hotel employees’ union, was held once again last week in Oslo, Norway, the unofficial capital for political dissidents and human-rights heroes.

Dissidents and human rights heroes gather in Oslo, Norway annually for the Oslo Freedom Forum.

It’s the flashy event organized by the New York City-based Human Rights Foundation, one of the premier international organizations combating government violence against the bravest citizens. Thor Halvorssen, the brain and personality behind the operation, has made the event a must-attend for establishment media, nonprofit groups, and rights-conscious business people.

The weaving together of so many different professions and nationalities makes it a memorable experience on its own.

All in the breadth of half an hour, I was able to meet a business executive for a South Carolina candle company, a derivatives trader and risk analyst with unrivaled knowledge of the exact quantities of oil supplies across the Middle East, and a young Ivy League doctoral student inching up the academic ladder in order to return to politics in his home country of Rwanda.

Small connections breed vastly deep discussions on the future of democratic reforms in China, police repression in Russia, and thuggish violence in Latin America. Business cards are swapped and deals are chalked up in initial stages. And that’s just after the first dinner.

While the prime location, luxurious food, and quaint atmosphere may be Norwegian, the organization is stubbornly American. Young interns roam the halls and theater carrying coffee and posters, brushing elbows with many dissident heroes as they carry out their tasks. Sessions run on time, and equipment malfunctions are not tolerated. Participants are encouraged to Tweet and Facebook every second they can, and eager young organizers are always ready to help connect attendees with anyone they’d like.

The effects are spectacular. Lighting and color are perfectly aligned and projected. The uniformity of so many speaker presentations, using the cool blue colors and high-quality images is a daunting task, but is carried out perfectly.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky on the brutal crackdown of Russian protesters after the 2011 election. PanAmPost

Among the better sessions at the Freedom Forum was an emotional depiction of the violent police reactions to peaceful protesters in Russia in 2011, narrated by former Russian political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

It featured the stories of young men and women who casually participated in the post-election protests and subsequently found themselves facing years in prison.

The anti-Russian regime rhetoric wasn’t contained to just Khodorkovsky’s speech, however. It permeated throughout the entire event and the award ceremony.

Presentations were riddled with casual criticisms of Russian President Vladamir Putin, even labeled an outright “dictator” by Newsweek culture editor Michael Moynihan during a moderated session.

With the invasion of the eastern portions of Ukraine and the secession of Crimea often invoked, Anti-Putinsim was on everyone’s mind. He was the easy villain to target.

Russian group Pussy Riot receives the 2014 Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. PanAm Post

This culminated in the infamous Russian performance group Pussy Riot receiving the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent for their impromptu rock performance in a Moscow church which landed them in prison for 2 years for “hooliganism.”

“We like his hits,” claimed Nadieżda Tołokonnikowa after bolstering the heavy prize. One wasn’t certain whether she was being ironic or simply playful. A standing ovation followed her words regardless.

And that summed up an emotional few days of story swapping, hobnobbing among the human-rights elite, and the humbling experience of meeting the individuals behind the international headlines.

From Cubans to Chinese, North Koreans to Ghanians, the Oslo Freedom Forum featured some of the bravest and most captivating activists in our time.

It’s an event rife with politics and latest crazes in protests, but it’s a worthy few days nonetheless. The sharing of insights and ideals is exactly what so many people at this event take back to their home countries, often to start peaceful revolutions and protests on their own.

After all, there’s nothing better than the kind of crazy ideas about individual rights, civil disobedience, and peaceful resistance one can learn among heroes and fighters.

This article was published on PanAm Post.