In 1998, a precocious 23-year-old, Thor Halvorssen — a relative of Simon Bolivar on his mother’s side — came to a book-signing I did and took me to dinner. (Who is this kid? And why would he know the maitre d’ of Philadelphia’s fanciest French restaurant? But okay.) We’ve been friends ever since, skeptical though I was at first; and he’s gone on to do amazing things . . . not least: launch the Human Rights Foundation and its annual Oslo Freedom Forum.
Right now, the Chinese government has jailed more than 1.5 million Muslim-minority Uighurs in prison camps in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. Yet, the world says very little. Beijing claims to just be “re-educating” troubled individuals. Most companies and governments have continued their relations with Beijing, business as usual. “Never again” is happening again.
Two weeks ago, we chose to put the Uighur crisis on the world agenda. In front of an audience packed with policymakers, journalists, business leaders, and philanthropists, Nury Turkel, a Uighur activist, gave our keynote talk. You can watch it here. It was gripping and vital and, now, none of us who were there in that theater — and none of the thousands who were tuning in online — can say that we don’t know what is happening to the Uighurs.
Since Nury’s talk, his story has been featured in media around the world; design firms have donated their time to help him with his campaigns; technologists are working with him to design tools that Uighurs can use to stay safe; short films are in production about cultural genocide and technological surveillance; and donors have made pledges to help the Uighur community spread awareness about what is happening to their families in Xinjiang. This is how the Oslo Freedom Forum gradually changes the world.
This year at the Oslo Freedom Forum we were joined by extraordinary speakers including:
· The highest ranking diplomat to ever escape North Korea
· A journalist boldly exposing the system of slavery behind Qatar’s 2022 World Cup
· A technologist using satellites to uncover prison camps inside dictatorships
· One of East Asia’s most famous singers, now turned democracy protest leader
· An Academy Award-winning filmmaker who exposed the Russian doping scandal
· A young student from Malawi who now rescues girls from child marriage
While the stage content certainly stands out among top global conferences, the key catalyst of the Oslo Freedom Forum is the variety of the participants. More than 100 dissidents from more than 50 countries attended the Oslo Freedom Forum. They met with 75 top international journalists, 50 creatives and technologists, and more than 100 philanthropists or delegates from companies and foundations looking to make a difference. Practically, what this means is that in any given conversation at the event, an activist from — say, Russia or Cameroon or Venezuela — is speaking to someone who can help them tell their story; someone who can finance and scale their work; and someone who can help make their impact more effective on the ground.
The ripple effects are significant. I already mentioned what Nury’s talk has begun to spark. A few other examples from recent years include Yeonmi Park, who went on to launch a best-selling book about North Korea; Manal al-Sharif, who kickstarted a global campaign to win women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia; Denis Mukwege and Leymah Gbowee, who went on to be awarded Nobel Peace Prizes for their vital work in Liberia and the Congo; and Srdja Popovic, who has met dozens of activists in our network and helped them build effective peaceful campaigns to change policy in more than a dozen countries. We look forward to inspiring more of these ripples and sharing them with you over the coming months and years. Even just days after this most recent Oslo Freedom Forum, we’ve seen some great content come online from attendees, including:
· A podcast featuring Financial Times Beijing tech correspondent Yuan Yang and Buzzfeed News tech editor Megha Rajagopalan on how China is using artificial intelligence to control its population.
· A stage talk from Denise Ho, the cantopop mega-star from Hong Kong, about the rise and future of the Umbrella Movement. Through connections made in Oslo, Denise was already able to write an op-ed in The Washington Post and go on air on CNN.
· A series of journals and profiles by Jay Nordlinger at the National Review that give you an insider perspective on the Oslo Freedom Forum and some of its more amazing characters. Read Jay’s lively journal here and his profiles on speakers from Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe.
· A Forbes feature and a fascinating podcast featuring entrepreneurs and researchers from Iran, the Philippines, China, India, and Nigeria discussing how individuals are using cryptocurrency to evade government controls.
On the policy side, in Oslo we had top-level decision-makers in attendance ranging from the Foreign Minister of Norway to the U.S. government’s point person on developing “smart sanctions” to the European Parliament member fighting fiercest for privacy rights. On the tech side, we had leaders from companies including Facebook, Planet Labs, Twitter (you can read about their proud support for our work here), and YouTube, who all came to Oslo to voice their support for dissidents and learn how their platforms can better help the cause of freedom. On the philanthropy side, the grant-giving attendees in Oslo collectively give away hundreds of millions of dollars to charity. Over the past decade, the Oslo Freedom Forum has grown into a powerful program that impacts policy, law, and charitable giving on a global scale.
I wanted to share a few more highlights from the event so far:
· A fireside chat between HRF chairman Garry Kasparov and information warfare expert Molly McKew on the dark side of technology and the damage that dictators are doing to our democracies through technology.
· Defending the Defenders, a ceremony hosted by Norway’s Ministry of the Environment and the City of Oslo and presented by CNN in Oslo’s City Hall, where environmentalists from Russia, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Uganda shared their experiences trying to protect the planet under dictatorships. Most people fail to realize the level of criminality experienced by environmentalists inside dictatorships. The truth is that tyrannies tend to be the world’s worst polluters and producers of environmental catastrophes.
· A press freedom lunch where more than 50 journalists from around the world paid tribute to fallen OFF community members, with remarks from Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor at The Washington Post.
· Podcasts with world-renowned historian and On Tyranny author Timothy Snyder on the global erosion of democracy, and with former UN high commissioner of human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein on the global fight for freedom.
· A diverse range of breakouts and workshops covering everything from how to cope with PTSD to why we need to celebrate privacy to how the drug war deteriorates freedom to an insider’s view of the Saudi phone hacking scandal.
· A BBC Hard Talk episode with Oslo Freedom Forum speaker Iyad el-Baghdadi.
· The debut of the Activist Tech Bar — sponsored by the cyber-security company Avast — a place for attendees to bring their phones and computers to digital security experts to assess our digital safety.
· Unite moments on stage between activists and our sponsors, like this one between Twitter’s global head of philanthropy and Zimbabwean democracy advocate Evan Mawarire.
· The launch of HRF’s Freedom Fellowship, a 12-month program for 10 civil society leaders from authoritarian countries, where they will get world-class training in the areas of movement building, leadership, digital security, fundraising, and public relations.
I look forward to sharing more highlights with you later this summer, once a range of profiles, articles, short films, and new collaborations surface.
Slowly but certainly the Oslo Freedom Forum is becoming one of the world’s can’t-miss events. We are grateful for your support as we continue to advance the program around the world and help it take root in Oslo, New York, Taipei, Mexico City, and beyond.
“Never underestimate the power of one committed 23-year-old to change the world,” Margaret Mead might have said. “He or she will grow up, and, over time, just might.”