The Thorn in Tyranny’s Side: A Look at the Oslo Freedom Forum by Patrick Beliard (A’21)

by tuftsigl
Jul 09

“The Oslo Freedom Forum is the thorn in tyranny’s side – a thriving global community of activists united by a common vision of making the world more peaceful, prosperous, and free from authoritarianism.”

Since its inception, the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) has been the beacon of light that celebrates and acknowledges the efforts of activists fighting for a better tomorrow. Once a year, dissidents and troublemakers from all around the world gather in the city of Oslo, Norway to discuss the past year’s victories and the future challenges that they face. As promoters of democratic principles, civil rights, and equality, they often put their lives on the line for what they believe.

Since 2008, the speakers have fced 248 years of imprisonment. Seventy-two of the activists are living in exile from their countries, and ten have been banned from attending the OFF. The event is all the more vital considering these daunting statistics.

Thanks to the Institute for Global Leadership (IGL) and the Human Rights Foundation’s (HRF) Oslo Scholars Program, I had the honor of attending the Oslo Freedom Forum earlier this summer.

I can unequivocally say that this experience was transformative in every way possible. Learning about and meeting so many inspiring people instilled in me a sense of hope for the future (and an eagerness to get to work!). This year’s theme was ‘unite,’ which acknowledged and reaffirmed the importance of standing in unison against the threat of tyranny.

The first day was by far the most hectic one. Dorothy and I (the two Tufts attendees) were volunteering early in the morning to set up for the event. This allowed us to see the administrative process of creating such a prominent forum. The day was divided into three sessions: theatre sessions one and two (which were formal stage presentations), and the breakout sessions (which consisted of panels that were more casual). In between each session, we were able to talk with the speakers over lunch or in other venues.

The first day focused on Democracy vs. Authoritarianism, and it saw the likes of Nury Turkel, an attorney who fights for Uyghur rights; Félix Maradiaga, a Nicaraguan democracy advocate; and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. These are just three of the many speakers that left me speechless. Throughout their sessions, we learned about the Communist Party’s surveillance state in China’s Xinjiang region and about the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority, the strangle hold that Daniel Ortega has over Nicaragua’s civil society, and about the challenges that human rights advocates face internationally (as well as what we can do to help them).

On the second day, we had the opportunity to meet and connect with the rest of the Oslo Scholars who attended the event. Dorothy and I met students from Wellesley and Harvard. We got to talk a little bit about each of our activist’s work, and what we will be working on the rest of the summer. I was very happy that we got to connect—it really is an amazing group of motivated and conscientious students!

I was especially blown away by the breakout sessions of the second day. The first one I attended was titled “Instituting a Global Sanctions Regime.” Headed by Bill Browder, this breakout discussed the inception and application of the Magnitsky Act, which is an innovative way of punishing affluent human rights offenders by freezing their assets, among other things. It was originally conceived in order to avenge the death of Sergei Magnitsky, who died in Russian custody after attempting to investigate tax fraud committed by Russians in Putin’s inner circle. Another breakout session that was completely breathtaking was “Breaking the Cycle of Corporate Impunity,” which discussed how conglomerate international companies are rarely held accountable for violating their employees’ human rights. Topics such as international law, the kafala system, and capitalist corporations were discussed at length, given that all three of them need to be understood and reformed in order to create more just working conditions for everyone.

As the third day arrived, I felt much more comfortable interacting with the speakers and attendees of the event. I had the honor of meeting many prominent names in the field of human rights, such as Srdja Popoviç, Jamila Raqib, Leyla Hussein, and Rayma Suprani.

The person whom I most got to interact with this day, however, was none other than Laila Haidari, an Afghan drug policy reformer who runs a drug rehabilitation treatment center in Kabul. Through her work, she has been able to treat over 5,000 Afghans, employ many former addicts, and empower women. I had the honor of helping her put together her presentation for the main stage. Through this experience, I was able to familiarize myself with her story in a setting that was very intimate, which was truly breathtaking. You can hear more about her life’s work in the documentary titled Laila at the Bridge, which received great international praise after its release in 2018.

In sum, I cannot put into words how impactful this experience was. The Oslo Freedom Forum hosts activists who find themselves at the vanguard of civil rights protection—the crafters of a more just tomorrow. Talking to so many accomplished, passionate, and incredible activists made me understand that the path towards justice, although tortuous and difficult, is always worth pursuing. We discussed topics that are dense, difficult, but most importantly real. I now understand the unequivocally essential role that activists play in fighting for marginalized voices all over the world. Their righteousness and motivation are unparalleled; thus, they should be protected, heard, acknowledged, and celebrated at all costs. Although the task might seem daunting, I left the forum with an impetus to get to work and fight alongside this amazing community. I wish to emulate their impetus and motivation not only in the pursuit of human rights, but also in everything else I do in my life.

I am happy to say that this summer I will be working with Dr. Nada Dhaif, a renowned Bahrani activist dedicated to speaking out against government oppression and torture. For over a decade, she has been a prominent voice in the Arabian Peninsula who has spoken in favor of democracy and anti-violence as a strategy for regime change. I will be a research assistant for BRAVO, which is the organization that she founded. I am very grateful for this opportunity, and I am excited to work with an amazing activist who is ready to change the world for the better.

Lastly, I wanted to mention again how grateful I am for the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership, seeing that the trip and the internship would not have been possible without their assistance and coordination. This has been one of the most memorable experiences I have had in my Tufts IR career, and I owe it to the IGL and its mission of promoting global and ethical leadership in its students and abroad.