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A Forum For Freedom: Building an Essential Global Activist Community

Opinion | December 8, 2014

Out of injustice rises powerful resistance. The Oslo Freedom Forum, held each year in Norway, gathers the leaders of human rights campaigns and political movements for a three-day conference of speeches and workshops. Put on by the Human Rights Foundation, speakers include dissidents and activists, from protest leaders to cyber security experts to journalists. This October, through the Oslo Scholars program, three Tufts students, including ourselves, had the honor of attending and left with a new outlook on global activism in the fight for human rights. This opportunity, available to any Tufts students who demonstrate interest in human rights and international citizenship, affords the chance to learn about and engage with the global project of human rights promotion outside of the context of academia.

Despite the enormity of the challenges the Forum seeks to address—the theme for 2014 was “Defeating Dictators”—a sense of optimism pervades the event, within and outside of the conference sessions. The optimism is derived from the evident opportunities for action that emerge from the collective voice of the speakers and their wealth of experience in effective resistance. This honest and passionate activist voice is not often audible in academia, mired as it is with the study of theory and the accompanying intellectual distance. It is important to recognize that it exists nonetheless.

This year’s Freedom Forum panel stretched from Bassem Youssef, commonly referred to as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, to Ti-Anna Wang, who is fighting for her father’s freedom from a Chinese prison. Some of these dissidents take on radically different methods of opposition. For example, Pussy Riot, famous for their unorthodox punk rock performances in critique of the Putin regime, can be compared to Erdem Gunduz, the Standing Man of Istanbul known for stoically refusing to evacuate from Taksim Square in the face of police oppression of protestors. While Pussy Riot and Erdem use different methods of their opposition, they are examples of the creative dissidents the Forum attracts.

These were the kinds of people that chatted over coffee and sat side by side at the Forum dinner. This is perhaps the most unique aspect of the Oslo Freedom Forum: its emphasis on informal engagement. Speakers and attendees dine together and are encouraged to interact at receptions and performances. As a result, there were a number of conversations between personalities as diverse as Pussy Riot and a Californian theoretical physicist, or North Korean defector Yeonmi Park and Jordanian activist and cartoonist Suleiman Bakhit. This went beyond clinking champagne and sharing Norwegian meals. Bonds were being built that would stretch beyond the Forum. What arises out of these interactions is a global network of activists who share ideas and spread the narratives of fellow human rights advocates. Most valuably, there is a dissemination of the most successful tactics of nonviolent resistance, such as those visible today in Hong Kong.

Some especially important engagements took place between the veterans of human rights activism and the new generation—passionate, savvy, but without the same wealth of experience. For example, Srdja Popovic, founder of Otpor!, one of the groups responsible for the nonviolent protests that deposed Yugoslavian president Milosevic, spoke at length with Yulia Marushevska, the 25 year-old activist starring in the “I am a Ukrainian” video that went viral during protests in Maidan. The two shared methods of standing up to oppressive and corrupt regimes, connecting similar situations and spanning generations. Tufts students were also drawn into these intergenerational conversations as Suleiman Bakhit motioned us into a group discussing a future project. “You young guys, you need to hear this,” he said.

Listening to the individuals who are instrumental in human rights activism and nonviolent resistance is not a passive act. It allows us to bear witness and amplify their voices, while simultaneously enabling us to bridge the gap between academic understanding and empathic engagement.

Yeonmi Park, a 21 year-old North Korean defector, exemplifies why these personal narratives have value. “When I was crossing the Gobi Desert, scared of dying, I thought nobody in this world cared. It seemed that only the stars were with me. You have cared.” In sharing her story, Yeonmi illustrated the realities of injustice in North Korea. But more importantly, Yeonmi called attention to the necessity of listening to these stories. Without these narratives, students are stuck in textbooks rather than exposed to the emotional reality. Yeonmi’s story allows us to move past our theoretical examination of human rights.

The result of these exchanges is a collaboration of ideas and causes. By bringing some of the world’s most creative activists together, the Oslo Freedom Forum creates a network of activists and professionals with a diverse range of experience and expertise—all with a common aim. Although they face vastly different challenges in their work, through knowledge exchange and cooperation, they are able to employ demonstrably successful methods of nonviolent resistance across the globe, serve as an advocate for each other’s causes, and collaborate on the global project of speaking truth to power. In short, Oslo creates a global activist movement.

While this global movement is important in theory, it means nothing if there is no change to the system. Much of the discussion at Oslo centered on the necessity of action. This point was particularly articulated by activists who have faced oppression and injustice directly.

On one of the cold, grey mornings, Marina Nemat, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Yang Jianli, former political prisoners of Iran, Russia, and China respectively, gathered for a press conference in a cozy café off Oslo’s center square. Throughout the conference, a sense of deep frustration regarding the apathy of the international community emanated from personalities like Nemat, who was the first to speak. “Imagine a street; on this street there are four houses,” she began. “One of them is called Russia, one of them is called China, one of them is called Iran and one of them is called the West. The first three houses keep slaves, beat and starve their children —some are worse than others, but nevertheless, rights are not respected. If you lived on that street, what would you do? Would you ignore reality?”

At Oslo, she was far from alone in this sentiment. “Indifference is certainly an option,” she continued, “But then the other option is to find a way to take care of this problem in the most civilized manner possible.” Russian anti-Putin political activist Garry Kasparov expanded on this point when he spoke to us on the international community’s approach to Russian abuses of human rights. “Engagement has failed. Closer economic ties bring just that: closer economic ties. It needs to be clear that this behavior is not tolerated in the 21st century.” For students and activists alike, the speakers’ points were clear: we, as a global community, cannot afford to take on a passive stance against injustice.

At the Oslo Freedom Forum, the community that is created from solidarity and shared hardship, demonstrates that action is not only far from futile, but absolutely necessary. Within academia, immersed in our study of political science, history and diplomacy, perspective can be difficult. The “lean-in” ethos often attributed to our generation can obscure our greater, collective aims. But to recognize our potential for enacting change is not hubris—it is a responsibility. Remember the story of the four houses and become a part of the global activist movement—for a student, this can be as simple as listening to the experiences of those who have struggled against oppression, or as invested as seeking to contribute through involvement with individuals and organizations. All of these opportunities are available to us through programs at Tufts, such as Oslo Scholars.