Thunder in Oslo

The tug of war over human rights in the age of Obama.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images
JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Who owns human rights? For generations, the answer was the left -- the anti-fascist left that fought Franco and formed the core of the Free French, and took to the streets to defend the working man against capitalist exploitation. Then, the threat of fascism gave way to communism and Third World revolution, and the left split, first over Stalin and then Castro and Ho Chi Minh and the Sandinistas. Soviet dissidents rejoiced when Reagan thundered, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" The great literary spokesmen for human rights -- Havel, Milosz, Solzhenitsyn -- were the anti-totalitarians from behind the Iron Curtain. And then the wall came down, and autocracy lost its ideological salience. Now we live in the era of Milosevic, Hutu genocide, Iranian theocracy, and the personalized authoritarianism of Putin or Mubarak. So who owns human rights?

Last week, I attended the second annual Oslo Freedom Forum, a very moving mass testimonial by the men and women who have planted themselves in the path of the world's worst tyrants -- and also an adroit piece of stagecraft. The forum is the brainchild of Thor Halvorssen, a 34-year-old Venezuela-born American of Norwegian background. When I first met Halvorssen three years ago, he was rattling around a few rooms on the eighth floor of the Empire State Building, assembling kits full of brochures and CDs to be smuggled into Cuba by a staff of eager young volunteers. Halvorssen was an activist of the anti-communist right, which had been given new life by the rise of populist authoritarians in Latin America, including Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

Who owns human rights? For generations, the answer was the left — the anti-fascist left that fought Franco and formed the core of the Free French, and took to the streets to defend the working man against capitalist exploitation. Then, the threat of fascism gave way to communism and Third World revolution, and the left split, first over Stalin and then Castro and Ho Chi Minh and the Sandinistas. Soviet dissidents rejoiced when Reagan thundered, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" The great literary spokesmen for human rights — Havel, Milosz, Solzhenitsyn — were the anti-totalitarians from behind the Iron Curtain. And then the wall came down, and autocracy lost its ideological salience. Now we live in the era of Milosevic, Hutu genocide, Iranian theocracy, and the personalized authoritarianism of Putin or Mubarak. So who owns human rights?

Last week, I attended the second annual Oslo Freedom Forum, a very moving mass testimonial by the men and women who have planted themselves in the path of the world’s worst tyrants — and also an adroit piece of stagecraft. The forum is the brainchild of Thor Halvorssen, a 34-year-old Venezuela-born American of Norwegian background. When I first met Halvorssen three years ago, he was rattling around a few rooms on the eighth floor of the Empire State Building, assembling kits full of brochures and CDs to be smuggled into Cuba by a staff of eager young volunteers. Halvorssen was an activist of the anti-communist right, which had been given new life by the rise of populist authoritarians in Latin America, including Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia.

But Halvorssen had, and has, ambitions far beyond the ideological and geographical confines of his Human Rights Foundation. He spends half his time in Hollywood, a filmmaker trying to cross over from the hothouse of polemics to the big time (though perhaps also of polemics). He had recently finished a 25-minute film — titled 2081 — of Kurt Vonnegut’s story "Harrison Bergeron", which one of his ubiquitous aides explained was an Ayn Randian tale of a future in which gifted people would be given handicaps to reduce them to the level of the envious masses. When I asked Halvorssen how he planned to market a 25-minute polemical work of fiction, he said, "People in Hollywood aren’t just going to give you $80 million to make a feature film. You need a calling card." 2081 didn’t sound like an $80 million calling card, but Halvorssen is not a man to be underestimated.

The Oslo Freedom Forum, now in its second year, attracted a largely conservative and libertarian crowd of journalists and spectators, but the speakers’ list was shaped with a careful eye to bipartisanship: Conservative journalist Claudia Rosett, a U.N.-hater, was followed by Julian Assange, the Australia-born founder of the website WikiLeaks and a U.S.-hater. The forum felt a little like a string of arias without an opera. One notable after another stepped to the podium to deliver testimony — Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer and Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani villager who had become a leading women’s rights advocate; Garry Kasparov and Lech Walesa. There were no questions from the audience; the effect was sometimes stupefying.

But Halvorssen, unlike most advocates, understands that the unadorned truth may not be able to make its way in the world. Speakers were instructed to show pictures. Mart Laar, a leader of Estonia’s independence movement against the Soviet Union, illustrated his country’s "Singing Revolution" by showing a video of a choirmaster, dressed in white, fervently leading a crowd estimated at 200,000 in the singing of patriotic songs — popular democracy as sheer romance. Halvorssen also supplied visuals of his own. He hired Elizabeth Chambers, a correspondent for the E! news bureau who looks very much like Angelina Jolie, to serve as one of his "presenters." She did her presenting in a very short black cocktail dress. She interviewed Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto by video, knitting her brows and asking, "How important is democracy?"

What, if anything, did the Oslo Freedom Forum mean? Perhaps it was too obvious to be stated: Men and women armed with nothing more powerful than an indomitable conscience and an apparently irrational faith in the future can challenge, and sometimes even upend, the most brutal and cynical regimes. But of course sometimes they can’t. The Estonians and the Poles made a lot more headway against the termite-ridden Soviet Union than the Uighurs have against China. Anti-Castro activists like Halvorssen have succeeded in discrediting the Castro regime without coming close to dislodging it. The Iranian fundamentalists and the Vietnamese communists seem equally implacable.

The crucial difference is not the moral courage of the opposition, but the capacities of the regime, including not just its repressive mechanisms, but its domestic popularity and self-confidence. Human rights activists no longer face tapped-out regimes prone to crumble once people take to the streets. At the opening reception, held in the grandiose Oslo City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is annually awarded, the city’s deputy mayor, Aud Kvalbein, declared that tyrannical regimes were weak at the core and "trembling at the voice of truth." Would that it were so.

What, then, are the rest of us — those who don’t live in hateful countries or don’t have the courage or the faith to take on the worst regimes — to do? The answer hinges, in part, on who owns human rights. For all of Halvorssen’s conscientious balance, the Oslo Freedom Forum offered a clear, if implicit, answer to the problem of systematic injustice. After screening a taped exhortation to Cuban dissidents — bound for the smuggled packages — Halvorssen said resolutely, "Liberty is not a means to an end; it is the end in itself." The belief that liberty is humanity’s great universal aspiration lay at the core of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s policy of democracy promotion. But this is not quite the self-evident proposition that Bush and Halvorssen took it to be. President Barack Obama, for example, often cites FDR’s "Four Freedoms," which include "freedom from want," but not freedom from tyranny. Obama’s emphasis on economic and social development, and his tendency to slight the importance of elections, proceeds from the belief that liberty will seem hollow to suffering people unless it is understood not only as an end in itself, but as a means to prosperity and social justice. It is possible to hold this view without succumbing to the tyrant’s cynical claim that political freedom must be postponed to some remote future era of mass comfort.

So there is still a left and a right in the advocacy of human rights, though neither side can claim ownership. Nor does either still defend a politically protected class of abuser — with one, or perhaps two, important exceptions. The words "Abu Ghraib" and "Guantánamo" were almost never mentioned in Oslo, save to ridicule the alleged assumption of moral equivalence of those who criticize torture by the United States as well as by the regimes in Zimbabwe or Burma. Israel is, of course, another point of contention. But the real difference of opinion has to do with solutions rather than perpetrators. The Bush administration offered the people of Iraq and Afghanistan liberty — freedom from repressive control — with little regard to the need for orderly governance and economic development. Obama, on the other hand, may be prepared to sacrifice liberty in the name of development. That’s certainly a premature judgment, but if he really believes, as he seems to, that he has made good the resonant promises of his Cairo speech with events like last week’s "summit on entrepreneurship," he will no more be remembered as a champion of human rights than Bush will be.

Halvorssen says that he is planning many more freedom forums, not just in Oslo but in Taipei, San Francisco, and New York. He could do the world a different kind of service by asking, along with his guileless presenter, "How important is democracy?"

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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