Founded in 2009 on the premise that all human beings have a natural right to live free of political oppression, the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), originally a one–off event, has now been staged every year since. And it is where an unlikely mix of individuals, from entrepreneurs and freedom fighters to heads of state and political dissidents, come together to encourage freedom of expression and drive reform, many at the risk of their lives.
Usually held in Norway over the course of three days, chosen for its neutrality, the OFF was brought to New York this year for a special one-day conference. And in a statement-making move, Tuesday’s event, at the Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, was timed to take place in the midst of the UN General Assembly.
Among those who were given a platform to share their stories this year were activists from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Somalia and Eritrea. Joining them was Venezuelan activist and violinist Wuilly Arteaga, who became known for playing his violin at protests against the country’s President, Nicolas Maduro, while being attacked with tear gas and beaten. “Even though we have lost more than 120 people, the music is still playing,” Arteaga said at a press conference on Monday.
The OFF was conceived by Thor Halvorssen, a Venezuelan of Norwegian heritage. His father was a political prisoner in Venezuela in the early 1990s, and his mother shot at a protest against Chavez’s re-election in 2004, which, he has said, led him to set up the New York-based non-profit Human Rights Foundation, which in turn launched the Oslo Freedom Forum.
Speaking in New York at the start of Tuesday’s event, Halvorssen explained, “Despite the overwhelming amount of proof that authoritarianism is bad for human beings, there is very little global resistance, and so the burden has fallen on individuals.” He intends to continue to pressure leaders to enact change, and to this end went on to say, “If dictatorships are going to be properly challenged, those on the front line, they need resources, technical training, attention, coverage and, of course, solidarity.”