Huffpost Canada ca
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jonathan Foreman Headshot

Human Rights vs Human Monsters in Norway

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

As you listen to a man from Haiti and two women from Cambodia and Nepal describe their childhoods spent as modern slaves, you are torn between horror and admiration.

The Haitian, Jean-Robert Cadet, was brought to America by his "owners," eventually joined the U.S. Army and went to college, and now campaigns against the 'Restavec' system of child servitude.

The 22-year-old Nepalese woman, Urmila Choudhury, comes from that country's lowest caste and was sold into domestic slavery at the age of six. She now fights debt bondage in Kathmandu.

Somaly Mam from Cambodia was sold to a brothel as a little girl and lived a life of horrendous abuse and rape until she escaped and established an NGO to help other victims.

You hear their stories of resilience and courage, and then you go out into the main square of Europe's most livable and expensive city and have a coffee on a terrace where Ibsen once sat, across from Garry Kasparov.

This is the Oslo Freedom Forum. It is the brainchild of a young, energetic, eccentric Norwegian-Venezuelan-American called Thor Halvorssen. The Penn graduate and filmmaker started the Forum in 2009, a few years after his mother was shot during a demonstration in Venezuela. He said at the first forum that he wanted it to be be "the Davos of human rights," but it is actually something more interesting than that, and its tough subject matter ensures that it is unlikely to become an annual destination for the wealthy and fashionable like the World Economic Forum.

Moreover, the Oslo Freedom Forum does something unique in the field of human rights, something far removed from fundraising dinners in New York and campaigns on U.S. campuses: It brings together grass-roots dissidents and campaigners from across the world, some of whom have been and continue to be in grave danger, and gives them a chance to share techniques and experiences with each other.

This year on the first morning of the two-day conference, there was a panel during which young leading activists from the Arab Spring who had come the previous May gave progress reports from their various countries. (Only Amir Ahmad Nasr of Sudan felt much optimism for the future.) There were also presentations by a Venezuelan ex-prisoner who campaigns against the cruelty of that country's gang-run prisons, the outspoken Kosovar journalist Jeta Xharra, and the celebrated Canadian lawyer and politician Irwin Cotler, who represented both Nelson Mandela and Anatoly Scharansky.

There are always some well-known names: Lech Walesa spoke in 2010 and Garry Kasparov came this year. But for the most part those are who are invited tend not to be the usual suspects favoured by human rights behemoths like New York's Human Rights Watch (And at OFF you certainly won't find extremists who want to deny freedom to others, like Moazzem Begg, the Islamist Guantanamo detainee celebrated by Amnesty UK). They are Ugandan lesbians threatened with death penalty, Ethiopian journalists, a British trauma therapist working in Kashmir. Some come from places with little or no foreign media coverage, like Equatorial Guinea or from societies like Bolivia that have little chance of becoming a major cause on campus.

The Freedom Forum is neither left wing nor right wing. Over its four years it has highlighted oppression and dissident courage in places as various as China, Singapore, Turkish Kurdistan, India and Sudan.

This year OFF's speakers included Manal Al-Sharif, the Saudi women's rights activist arrested for driving a car and posting a film of it on YouTube, Ecuadorian publisher Nicolas Perez who was sentenced to three years in prison for criticizing his country's President, and Pyotr Verzilov, the Russian performance artist whose pregnant wife, a member of the "Pussy Riot" political collective, is a political prisoner of the Putin government.

However, a talk by former slaves, a child soldier, and the human trafficking expert Ben Skinner was, unfortunately, followed by a long, self-indulgent and incoherent speech by a Hollywood actress. At the best of times Hollywood's self-love and self-obsession can be an unattractive quality. It is harder to bear when it eats into the time of people who have done genuinely brave and selfless things and have important things to say.

Concurrently with the Freedom Forum, the Norwegian capital is gripped by the Anders Breivik trial. For the foreign participants, especially the Americans, there is much to learn from and be impressed by in the way that Oslo and its citizens have dealt with the horror of the massacre.

For one thing the city has not been ringed with steel or covered in cameras. You can still walk right up to the parliament building and the royal palace without going through security. Although Norwegians in general, and the political class in particular, may no longer feel untouchable by terror, they have reacted with common sense. They know just how strange this terrible event is. They know that Breivik was a terrorist without a movement, and that there is therefore little danger of an allied fanatic attempting a repeat attack.

There were several people at Freedom Forum events who were survivors of Breivik's murderous attacks in the city or on the island. Some were testifying at Breivik's trial. All seemed remarkably calm and untraumatized by their experiences.

All that said, there is evidence of slightly creepy backlash here in Norway. There are some in the country's left-leaning political elite -- and despite its economic egalitarianism, Norway is very much dominated by a small, urban upper-middle class -- who are keen to exploit the Breivik horror to attack or even silence those who have expressed doubts about Norwegian "multiculturalist" policies.

Figures like Bruce Bawer, the Norwegian-resident American author who has criticized Norway for turning a blind eye to gay-bashings in Muslim neighbourhoods are now facing what is almost a kind of McCarthyism. Bawer has been called to testify at the Breivik trial, because he was cited in Breivik's writings. (Bawar has also raised uncomfortable topics like Norway'shosting of the Iraqi terrorist leader Mullah Krekar and the country's equally illiberal see-no-evil approach to practices like forced marriage and female genital mutilation in certain immigrant communities.)

What happens at the Breivik trial therefore has a bearing on the libertarian and humanitarian values that underly the Oslo Freedom Forum. It would be understandable but also a great shame if Norway, which is such an apt host for the Freedom Forum, narrowed the definition of what is acceptable public discourse in response to the Breivik massacre.