Too often the term "human rights" has been misused or cheapened. Take the UN Human Rights Council, which has become a standing joke because so many of its 47 member countries kill or torture their opponents. Indeed, the latest candidate for membership put up by Latin America is Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, which in February refused to vote for a UN resolution criticizing Syria's brutal killing of civilians and continues to ship oil to the Assad regime.
The Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual event organized by the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, is rehabilitating the concept that people of good will can promote basic rights in all nations at all times without an overlay of ideology or hypocrisy. Indeed, at the meeting I attended last May, there was no desire to blame racism or gender discrimination on the U.S. or other Western nations.
"We all should want freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom from torture, freedom to travel, due process and freedom to keep what belongs to you," says Thor Halvorssen, a human-rights activist and the conference's 36-year-old founder. "Our goal is to popularize human rights, end the monopoly of the experts who have colonized the space and make it something relevant, easy to grasp, and exciting for people to be able to participate in."
The conference's "fair play" approach has made it a place where others can spot up-and-comers. Liberian rights advocate Leymah Gbowee spoke at the 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum and members of the Nobel Committee came and listened. Five months later, they gave her the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Ugandan equal rights advocate Kasha Jacqueline spoke about persecution against gays in her country at the forum the year before that. Shortly afterward, she won the Martin Ennals Award, the world's premier human rights prize. But, sadly, early this year Ugandan government stooges assaulted her and forced her into hiding.
The range of speakers showcased at OFF is stunning. A visitor to the Reagan Library in California will see a permanent collection of forum videos that showcase speakers such as the late Elena Bonner, Russian human rights activist and wife of Andrei Sakharov; the late Czech President Václav Havel; and Lech Walesa, Nobel laureate and leader of Poland's Solidarity movement.
When speakers cannot physically appear at OFF, conference staffers still get their testimony. In 2010, they traveled to Vietnam and conducted an undercover interview with Thich Quang Do. As the head of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam—a banned organization—he is a unifying symbol of Vietnam's pro-democracy movement, despite being held under house arrest since 1983. The video of him premiered at the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum, was later shown at a congressional meeting, and is used by Vietnamese groups abroad to educate and inspire.
Many speakers appear at the Oslo meeting at great personal risk. Ales Bialiatski of Belarus spoke at OFF in 2009, and for most of the last year he has been imprisoned by the dictator there. After North Korean defector Park Sang-Hak spoke, North Korean agents tried but failed to assassinate him with poisoned needles. Ali Abdulemam, a blogger from Bahrain, was scheduled to speak at last year's forum but had to cancel after being forced into hiding and sentenced to jail in absentia.
The conferences bring together and help bond activists from far-flung corners of the world. Vladimir Bukovsky, the great Soviet-era dissident and scientist who was tortured by the KGB for years, has come to warn that many of Russia's old oppressors are "safely in power again" in new guises.
Palden Gyatso, a diminutive Tibetan monk, has told horrifying tales of being imprisoned for 33 years and being tortured by Chinese captors who wedged electric batons into his mouth and destroyed all of his teeth. After his talk, he was embraced by Harry Wu, a survivor of 19 years in China's network of labor camps, which still contains untold numbers of prisoners.
At one conference I attended, Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane kept his audience riveted as he told how he'd been raised in an elite Mauritanian family that kept slaves even after the practice was officially abolished in his land in 1981. While living in Paris as an adult, he became infuriated at the world's indifference to slavery and teamed up with a former slave from Mauritania to provide legal help to escapees and also conduct covert rescue operations of those still in bondage. Ethmane's talk was followed by presentations from two powerful speakers from Kurdistan and Uzbekistan, both women who had served prison time for pro-democracy activism.
All of this ferment has attracted support from people who want to see human rights promoted outside the prism of narrow ideologies. Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and a major booster of libertarian causes, has supported the conference since its inception in 2009. Thiel recently told me that he views the conference as a place where human rights "isn't handled as being from the right or left, but rather from an up or down perspective." Similarly, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and a major backer of President Obama, has just added the conference to the list of grants given out by the foundation he established with his wife.
"We include controversial figures, provocative contributors and forgotten voices, but few professional 'experts' in human rights," Halvorssen told me. His range of speakers has included Julian Assange, who spoke long before the Wikileaks scandal that made him infamous. Victor Hugo Cardenas, a former vice president of Bolivia who is of indigenous heritage, used the conference to denounce the "shock troops" deployed by President Evo Morales to silence critics.
"But you will hear little of this from our media, much of which is bought by the Venezuelan money of Hugo Chavez," he thundered.
In turn the forces allied with Chavez and his mentor Fidel Castro have targeted the Oslo Freedom Forum. Before one conference, the Cuban Embassy in Norway denounced the forum, accusing Halvorssen of being a CIA agent.
Halvorssen expressed both amusement and exasperation at the charges. "They accuse me of having worked for the CIA in the 1970s, when I was an infant, inside countries I've never visited," he told me.
But overall Halvorssen remains optimistic. He recognizes that no matter how unyielding or deceitful authoritarian governments can be, providing a space for human-rights dissidents to network and reach a wider audience can hasten the day when some of those governments finally topple.