'The U.N. Is a Massive Club for Dictators'

The Human Rights Foundation is mobilizing a global band of activists to fight authoritarianism in China, Iran, Russia, and beyond.


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"The United Nations is a massive club for dictators," says Thor Halvorssen, the founder and CEO of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a nonprofit founded in 2005. "The rich, powerful, and corrupt get together in Davos. Well, some of the world's bravest people get together at the Oslo Freedom Forum."

On October 3, 2022, the HRF convened the Oslo Freedom Forum, a one-day conference at Manhattan's Town Hall, bringing together political activists from around the world to call attention to rising authoritarianism in China, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, and other countries.

There were no wonkish policy panels or PowerPoint slides cluttered with data and footnotes. The conference featured instead a series of TED Talk–style speeches, delivered without notes and designed to forge an emotional connection between the audience and the presenters.

Among the speakers: Anna Kwok, who worked as an anonymous online organizer during Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests of 2019, which took place as China consolidated power over the once-free city; Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human rights activist and lawyer based in Kyiv; Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan human rights activist who spent five years in prison after organizing massive protests against the government in 2014; and Masih Alinejad, an exiled Iranian journalist and activist who helped bring attention to protests against mandatory hijab laws in her home country even before the murder of Mahsa Amini drew international outrage.

HRF's chairman, former World Chess Champion and arch-critic of Vladimir Putin, Garry Kasparov, also addressed the gathering, telling the audience that Ukraine "is not just a battlefield but a frontline of the total war against freedom and tyranny."

Reason spent the day backstage talking to the participants and organizers about the Human Rights Foundation's mission of building a united community to counter rising authoritarianism around the globe. The speakers argued for a range of actions from free nations to expand human rights, ranging from heightened diplomatic pressure to increased military aid to sanction regimes that would cut countries such as China and Saudi Arabia off from the global economy.

"People say, 'You oppose dictatorships, you are a neocon, you want to go to war with these dictatorships,'" says HRF's Halvorssen. "I'm not asking for boots on the ground, I'm not asking for an invasion of any country. The problems of Venezuela will be solved by Venezuelans. The problems of Russia will be solved by Russians. What we should do is at least encourage them." He continues, "What always occurs, there comes a point when the men holding guns at the people decide, 'I'm not going to do this anymore.'"

Produced by Jim Epstein and Nick Gillespie; narrated by Gillespie; written and shot by Epstein; edited by Danielle Thompson; post-production assistance by John Osterhoudt; audio post-production by Ian Keyser. 

Photos: Cao Sanchez/Polaris/Newscom; Yury Martyanov/Kommersant Photo / Polaris/Newscom; Kommersant Photo Agency/Kommersant/Newscom; Katherine Li/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Katherine Li/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Human Rights Foundation; Human Rights Foundation; Polaris/Newscom; Lan Hongguang / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; UPPA/ZUMApress/Newscom; Abaca Press/Balkis Press/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom; HO/Newscom; LONG WEI/FEATURECHINA/Newscom; TOM WALKER/UPI/Newscom; Ernesto Mastrascusa/EFE/Newscom; CRISTIAN HERNANDEZ / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; MIGUEL GUTIERREZ/EFE/Newscom; Boris Vergara / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Ukraine Presidency/SIPA/Newscom; MIGUEL GUTIERREZ/EFE/Newscom; Valentin Yegorshin/TASS/Newscom; Genin-Hahn-Marechal/ABACA/Newscom; Abaca Press/SalamPix/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom; Farnood/SIPA/Newscom; Stringer/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Jaap Arriens/Sipa USA/Newscom; Social Media/ZUMA press/Newscom; Rouzbeh Fouladi/ZUMA Press/Newscom; PRESIDENT.IR/UPI/Newscom; Panoramic/ZUMA Press/Newscom; April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy, CC by 2.0, via Flickr; Depo Photos/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Saudi press Agency/UPI/Newscom; Abaca Press/Balkis Press/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom; State Department/Sipa USA/Newscom; Rayner Pena/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom; Pavel Golovkin/Pool/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Footage: Hong Kong footage by Edwin Lee

Music: "Seeking Truth" by The David Roy Collective via Artlist; "Passion" by ANBR via Artlist; "Take Up Your Cross" by The David Roy Collective via Artlist; "Come Back Home" by Ardie Son via Artlist; "A Perfect Storm" by Ardie Son via Artlist; "Intrepid" by Brianna Tam via Artlist; "The New World" by Ardie Son via Artlist; "A Tender Heart" by The David Roy Collective via Artlist