Let’s begin with an article by Kristoffer Rønneberg that appeared in Aftenposten, Norway’s newspaper of record, on May 7:
From all over the world, activists, academics, politicians, businesspeople, and technology pioneers are coming [to Oslo] to negotiate, discuss, and learn. About 90 journalists are traveling to Norway to cover the conference….This is an event that puts Oslo and Norway on the map.
It is therefore incomprehensible that Norwegian authorities are choosing to stay away.
What are the authorities staying away from? It’s the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), an annual event which, during its four years of existence, has presented talks by Vladimir Bukovsky, Elena Bonner, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Elie Wiesel, and dozens of other human-rights heroes from around the world. Year after year, the OFF shines a light on regimes that have abused and imprisoned citizens simply for speaking out and wanting to breathe free. What’s not to like?
Well, it appears that a number of people in Norway’s Foreign Ministry and elsewhere in the upper echelons of the Norwegian government “are skeptical about the conference because they fear that it can have underlying political motives.” They’re “especially skeptical about the man who is behind the whole thing” – Thor Halvorssen, the energetic young head of Human Rights Foundation in New York. Despite his name, Halvorssen is not Norwegian but a Venezuelan-American. His grandfather was a Norwegian ambassador to Venezuela; his mother is a descendant of Simón Bolívar, the hero of South American independence.
Although, noted Rønneberg, “there is nothing about this year’s conference that indicates a political bias in one direction or the other,” Halvorssen has had a rough time of it in Norway because his politics grate against those of the Norwegian elite. What politics? Well, for example, he’s “an outspoken opponent of Hugo Chávez” and has been criticized for inviting opponents of Chávez and Castro to the OFF in 2010.
Yes, you read that right – in Norway, it just isn’t done to invite opponents of Chávez and Castro to a human-rights conference.
“It shouldn’t matter what Halvorssen thinks of Castro or Chávez,” wrote Rønneberg (although, of course, Halvorssen’s opposition to these tyrants matters very much indeed). “What matters,” said Rønneberg, “is who is taking part in the conference and what they can do to promote human rights in the world.” The forum’s 121 speakers, he noted, come from 71 countries; 36 have been imprisoned for a total of 175 years; 20 are exiles; 23 have been tortured.
But that’s not enough, it seems, for Norwegian authorities, who view the OFF as unacceptably un-Norwegian. Rønneberg pointed out that one of the offenses committed by the attendees at the OFF, in the eyes of its Norwegian critics, is that they’re too formally dressed. (Many Norwegian leftists simply can’t process the idea of a human-rights activist in a business suit – you’re supposed to look like a hippie, goddamn it.) The leftist daily Dagsavisen sneered that the title of this year’s conference, “Out of Darkness, Into Light,” was too “far-reaching” – in other words, “American.” (Norwegian like their conference titles dry and low-key.) There were even complaints about the gift bags – containing an umbrella, a candy bar, and other modest items – that were distributed this year to forum participants. This, too, is considered un-Norwegian.
The main complaint, however, is that the OFF devotes too much attention to “political and civil rights, not the broader human rights concept that Norwegian authorities and organizations often advocate” – the “broader” concept, that is, that makes it possible to make heroes of monsters like Castro and Chávez. The sad fact is that Norwegian authorities, like many on the left, don’t feel terribly comfortable with the word freedom. They’re proud to call their country the “peace nation,” and they’re happy to blather on about “social justice” and “economic justice” (which they think people like Castro and Chávez have promoted), but they consider freedom an illusory concept, if not an outright lie, and, in any case, a preoccupation of the right-wingers they abhor.
Perhaps what really makes the OFF stick in the craw of the Norwegian establishment, however, is that, unlike many feel-good, politically correct, peace-centered Norwegian initatives, it’s had tangible results. As a consequence of the OFF’s attention to Singapore dissident Chee Soon Juan, the Norwegian ambassador to Singapore has felt compelled to ask for his case to be reviewed. “It is easy to suspect that some of the displeasure directed at Halvorssen and the conference,” suggested Rønneberg, “stems from a kind of envy – that he, in a short time, has accomplished something that Norwegians have not dared to dream of.”
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