Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) convened again this summer. For the fifth consecutive year, organizers brought together “hundreds of the world’s most influential dissidents, innovators, journalists, philanthropists and policymakers” to discuss authoritarianism in their home countries. The founders call the event a “Davos of human rights.”
Many of the invited activists deserve praise and an international platform, but disturbing facts about the OFF have been revealed. This forces us to ask if this is an attempt to use human rights to advance a narrow political agenda. The story of the Oslo Freedom Forum is also a story of US right-wing sponsorship, lack of transparency and “heroes of human rights” involved in supporting serious human rights violations.
From the very beginning in 2009 until this year, OFF officials and its founder, Thor Halvorssen, have invited speakers who have supported gross violations of human rights or committed such themselves. A media scandal broke in 2010 as busloads of Norwegian school kids were shipped in to hail people they had been told were “heroes of human rights” and “voices of freedom.” It turned out that three of the speakers had recently participated in or actively promoted military coups against democratically-elected governments in Latin America. One of them, Leopoldo López, was a key figure in the internationally condemned right-wing military coup against Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez in 2002. López demanded the ousting of all elected authorities. Followed by his own armed police force, he broke into the apartment where the minister of interior and justice was hiding and had him handcuffed and dragged out to a waiting mob that beat, kicked and spit at him before he was finally arrested. This was described by Amnesty International as one of the most serious human rights violations, among many, perpetrated during the short-lived coup d’état. López is Thor Halvorssen’s cousin.
Halvorssen’s relative was accompanied to the 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum by fellow coup maker Marcel Granier. He was the general director of RCTV, the most watched TV channel in Halvorssen’s native Venezuela. In 2002, Granier and RCTV were supportive of the coup. They also manipulated footage and bluntly lied to their own viewers about the events during the coup to ensure the ouster of Chávez, as shown in the Irish documentary The Revolution will not be Televised. Before Chávez’s allies got the president back in power, RCTV and other private TV stations were warmly thanked by the leaders of the coup, saying that they could never have succeeded had it not been for RCTV and the rest of the private media. Granier and López were dubbed “voice of freedom” and “hero of human rights,” respectively.
Another “voice of freedom,” the one-time Cuban prisoner Armando Valladares, was one of the most vocal supporters of the military overthrow of the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, for which he received the highest medal of honor from the illegal Honduran coup government. Valladares and López were presented as “heroes of human rights” and “voices of freedom” at the OFF two years in a row.
In 2011, a figure from Argentina’s far-right, Victoria Villarruel, was invited to speak about “the forgotten victims of terror.” According to respected Latin America experts Benedicte Bull and Johannes Nymark, Villarruel is trying to rewrite the history of Argentina’s military dictatorship, which killed about 10 times as many dissidents as Chile’s Pinochet, and defend the military that committed the atrocities. With this in mind, it might not come as a surprise that the only Venezuelan speaker at this year’s Forum, Julio Borges, not only supported the 2002 coup, but also demanded that the democratic institutions be dissolved and the elected representatives be relieved of their duties.
In its original mission statement, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), the organizer of OFF, proclaimed that it was founded to “to unite people – regardless of their political, cultural, and ideological orientations – in the common cause of defending human rights and promoting liberal democracy in the Americas.” One might argue that violently overthrowing democratically-elected governments is not a human right. And that supporting right-wing coups and regimes that have subjected a continent of 600 million inhabitants to violence, poverty and injustice for decades does not make you a “voice of freedom.” The organizers of the OFF, however, have refused all invitations to debate such criticism in the Norwegian broadcast media.
Most of the criticism has come on the basis of the Latin American guests, but other speakers have also expressed opinions incompatible with human rights. American columnist James Kirchick supported the military coup in Honduras; he has defended the torture of Guantánamo prisoners; and he marked the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq invasion by saluting the decision to go to war in the first place.
Peter Thiel, a billionaire hedge fund manager, a personal friend of Thor Halvorssen and a donor to OFF, was a speaker at the 2011 forum. Little did the audience know of Thiel’s personal ties with Halvorssen and the fact that he helped fund the Forum. I believe it’s safe to assume that the vast majority did not have knowledge of Thiel’s views on democracy either. “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” The Electronic Intifada quotes him writing in his manifest. He is also concerned that extensions of women’s rights “have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.”
Thor Halvorssen himself is no stranger to opinions rather peculiar for a man in his position. He surprised many by approving the conspiracy theory that Russian president Vladimir Putin might be the mastermind behind the April Boston bombing. He has denounced the peace talks in Colombia between the government and the FARC guerrilla group, aligning himself with Colombia’s far right.
There has been considerable controversy regarding the lack of transparency surrounding the OFF’s funding. Halvorssen has refused to give details. Max Blumenthal of The Electronic Intifada did a thorough investigation of the Human Rights Foundation. Halvorssen is the creator and director of the HRF, based in New York. While the HRF has attracted little attention, a few journalists and activists have noticed that the Foundation’s funding sources seem to come mostly from the right wing. These have included the conservative Sarah Scaife and Lynde and Harry Bradley foundations. Other funders that include the libertarian Atlas Economic Research Foundation; the National Christian Foundation, a major bankroller of US evangelical groups and conservative causes; and the right-wing Randolph Foundation and Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation.
Blumenthal has uncovered another source of the HRF’s funding. The HRF’s filings with the Internal Revenue Service, Blumenthal writes, “show that the Human Rights Foundation received approximately $600,000 in donations from the Donors Capital Fund from 2007 through 2011. Donors Capital Fund is essentially a slush fund for the cadre of rightist donors who bankroll the conservative movement.” Donors Capital has been a major funder of Islamophobic groups and projects, including some that Norwegian white supremacist terrorist Anders Breivik has cited as inspiring his beliefs.
So why did Halvorssen choose to support the Human Rights Foundation and other causes through Donors Capital Fund, which is tainted by its reputation as a pass-through for anonymous donors to give enormous sums to Islamophobic and anti-gay causes?
Halvorssen would have us believe it is a mere coincidence that all of the HRF’s known donors are right wing and that he uses the conservative Donors Trust to contribute to his organization.
Knowing these groups find HRF a worthy receiver of such favors, can we take his word that he is just an open-minded liberal who spends millions of dollars on human rights conferences without any political agenda? And why did he choose to hide this information from both the public and the invited speakers while establishing the Oslo Freedom Forum?
Halvorssen began his career as a conservative student activist, perceiving conservative students such as himself as sort of a persecuted minority. He would later follow up on these ideas by producing the film Indoctrinate U, which targets feminist academics and other oppressive tyrants. He also took on the environmentalist movement, with a pro-mining movie, Mine Your Own Business, which The New York Times dubbed, “the world’s first anti-environmentalist documentary,” sponsored by a powerful Canadian mining company, heavily criticized for using large amounts of cyanide to extract gold.
Even more revealing are some of the HRF’s past staff and associates. Aleksander Boyd, previously HRF’s vice president of programs, is a right-wing blogger notorious for his writing describing his fantasies of torturing pro-Chavez Venezuelans. “I wish I could decapitate [. . .] Diosdado Cabello [now the president of Venezuelas National Assembly],” and “I wish I could torture for the rest of his remaining existence Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel,” are some of his passages. The HRF and Boyd parted ways in 2009. Many Latin Americans, however, would not feel comfortable with an organization whose then-vice president of programs openly promoted the same kind of torture and assassination that Latin American right-wing dictatorships carried out against hundreds of thousands of leftists, trade unionists, journalists and indigenous people.
At this point I’m sure no one will be flabbergasted that in this year’s OFF, with the exception of a Bahraini blogger, none of the listed speakers were there to highlight abuses in countries that are strong US allies or violations by the US government. Previous incarnations were little different. Of all the North American speakers listed on the Forum’s website, for example, none was there to primarily address the role of the US government as a human rights violator. (Julian Assange’s participation in 2010 is a notable exception, but this was before Wikileaks’ release of the State Department cables that provoked US ire.)
The purported liberal views of Thor Halvorssen are at best highly doubtful, and accusations that he uses the platform he himself built to invite friends, family and ideological allies from the far right is serious. But that is far from the most pressing issue. The fact that Oslo Freedom Forum abuses the name of human rights to whitewash human rights offenders, their supporters and apologists is far worse. However, looking at the track record of these people, there should be no doubt that they were invited exactly because of their political affiliation.