Oslo Freedom Forum: Gender and Human Rights

By: Abigail Elsbree

Among the many new concepts that I learned during my three days at the Oslo Freedom Forum, I was particularly interested in the term “gender apartheid.” I first heard it used during an afternoon panel on the first day titled “Iran: The Final Revolution?” Human rights attorney Gissou Nia defined gender apartheid by reminding the audience that an apartheid is “the domination of one group over another in order to cement power relations,” and then adding that in the context of gender, an apartheid is “sex segregation to maintain a regime.” Unfortunately, gender apartheid is currently not criminalized under international law, even though racial apartheid is. However, Nia shared that the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Humanity is currently occurring, and with enough advocacy and education, gender apartheid could get included in the convention, and then be used to hold Iran accountable for their heavy repression of Iranian women. 

Another mention of gender apartheid came on day three of the conference, during a conversation between Afghan activist and Hazara woman, Soomaya Javadi, and BBC commentator Suzanne Kianpour. Javadi built the case of an ongoing gender apartheid by providing many examples of the Taliban’s violence and mistreatment toward women, such as the 2020 attack at a maternity hospital in the majority Hazara area of West Kabul, where 16 mothers were killed. Javadi also brought light to a 2022 suicide bombing in a West Kabul classroom that killed 35 Hazara women and girls, as well as her personal experiences being forced to wear a veil. When asked why the Taliban goes after women specifically, Javadi explained that women pose a threat to the Taliban should they gain education and a platform in society to where their voices are heard. In this way, the actions of the Taliban line right up with Nia’s definition of gender apartheid, as the Taliban subjugates women in order to ensure the success of the regime.

After learning about the term gender apartheid, I could not help but consider what other stories from OFF 2023 could possibly fall under the definition as well. In addition to being a racial apartheid and genocide, the Chinese government’s treatment of its Uyghur peoples has put the Uyghur women at the disposal of the CCP. In her remarks on the main stage, Uyghur woman and camp survivor Gulbahar Haitiwaji painfully shared that many Uyghur women are forced to sexually entertain male “Han relatives” who come to Uyghur women’s houses when the men of the family are detained in the camps. This sexual exchange is an example of the Chinese government dominating Uyghurs, and specifically Uyghur women, by forcing them into relations.

Another potential example of gender apartheid may be found in some of the African state where women are not granted property rights. Speaking on a panel about the issue, Atlas group member and Sudanese woman Magatte Wade shared that “if you are about human rights, you must be about property rights,” since disallowing women financial freedoms such as the opportunity to build independent wealth has been demonstrated to keep them in abusive relationships, and push women into deep poverty if they become widowed. Also on the panel, Aimable Manirakiza shared that before his group’s efforts, it was written into Burundi law that women did not have property rights, effectively rendering them second class citizens. In the aftermath of OFF, I plan to look more into the potential for gender apartheid being added into the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Humanity. While simply labelling a situation a “gender apartheid” does not automatically push regimes towards equality, it may be a crucial first step toward accountability and justice among the international community.

Stories and Connections at the Oslo Freedom Forum

By: Michaela Weinstein

Everyone I spoke to this weekend had a story. Some stories were about the innovative, impactful organizations they ran. Some were about how they got there in the first place. Some were the stories they were able to capture on their media platforms, or the stories they were able to support through their international alliances. These captivating stories came to life not only through panels and keynote speeches but also in intimate one-on-one conversations. This quickly became one of the highlights of the conference. What truly stood out was the abundant opportunity we had throughout the event to cultivate personal connections with a multitude of inspiring activists. 

People from all over the human rights spectrum attended; lawyers defending political prisoners, journalists covering war zones and revolutions, tech developers creating innovative solutions for disrupting dictatorial control, heads of opposition parties fighting against tyrannical leaders, researchers exposing human traffickers, and so many other inspiring people. As an Oslo Scholar, these activists were so accessible to learn from and connect with. Merely attending the conference is an amazing experience, but being in the Oslo Scholars program became a platform to connect with other activists while there.  

I also loved spending so much time with the other Oslo Scholars, both from my year and those from previous years. We explored Oslo, swam in the fjords, tried Norwegian snacks  and attempted(and failed miserably) to pronounce Norwegian words on street signs or menus. Having a group to come back to at the end of the day to recuperate and laugh with made the conference that much better, and I’m so excited to see all of them back at Tufts in the fall! 

ALLIES JRP: Departing Singapore and Reflecting on the Trip

Members of the Joint Research Project in Singapore

By: Caroline Koon

JRP 2023 has come to a close after two and a half weeks abroad. We have said our goodbyes and are now scattered all across the world. But the work is not over—from here, we have weeks of brainstorming, Zoom calls, research coordination, and, of course, writing ahead of us. The final product for JRP is typically a research paper written collaboratively between the three universities, somewhere between 20 and 60 pages. We will at once reflect on our experiences in our host countries and draw conclusions from our research.  

Though the travel aspect of our trip may be over, I am eager to comb through my memories (and notes!) and consider what I have learned. Our group of students have had access to some of the smartest and most experienced people in their respective fields, thanks to the planning, resources, and networks that Tufts, USNA, and USMA furnish. It has been such a privilege to meet and work with these individuals over the past few weeks; I know that, even when our paper has finished and JRP 2023 is wrapped for good, my experiences will continue to inform my perspective, thoughts, and curiosity.  

Oslo Freedom Forum Day 3

A group of people sitting on a stage

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By: Chasya Cohen

Today is the third and final day of the 2023 Oslo Freedom Forum. Though the past couple days have been filled with an abundance of new experiences, today definitely felt the most unique.

During yesterday’s theatre session it was announced that the final day of OFF would be different this year: the forum would take over a festival venue called SALT located on the beautiful Oslo waterfront. The day would be filled not only with OFF’s regular panels and discussions, but also art, food-trucks, music, and saunas. This was not what I had in mind when picturing a prominent human rights conference, but it was definitely intriguing.

When we arrived at SALT the set-up was exactly as they had described, like a human rights festival. Some rooms were filled with art-installation while others had interactive booths, food, or drinks. At first it seemed odd to me that a human rights conference could be so casual and lively. But I quickly realised that OFF’s purpose is to bring human rights defenders from all corners of the world together so that they can support one another, and the best way to bring people together is through celebration. In effect, this joyful environment fostered the most profound and productive conversations about human rights and cemented long-lasting bonds between all attendees. Plus, it was fun!

During my day at SALT I attended a panel on Property Rights for Women in Africa as well as a panel on Rethinking ESG: Prioritising Human Rights and Democracy in Corporate Ratings.

The first panel on property rights was particularly striking to me because I learned from Senegalese activist Magatte Wade that women are denied land in Africa because they are considered minors under law. This ultimately affects women’s treatment in society, how their families treat them, their ability to work, and more. The panel emphasised the importance of both cultural change, through educating women on their constitutional rights, as well as policy change, through advocating for new laws. Possibly the most memorable point made during this panel was that alleviating poverty cannot just mean giving individuals more money, but it must mean building long-term prosperity, as these activists are doing for women in Africa.

The other panel about the human rights approach to ESGs, was much less suited to my knowledge. However I did learn from prominent economist Marcos Buscaglia that democracies are proven to be much more prone to long-term economic growth than autocracies, which is why it is better to invest in democracies. Towards the end of the panel Jianli Yang powerfully declared that if human rights are not adhered to by autocracies the ‘S’ in ESG must be dropped. Ultimately the panel called for a divestment of autocratic nations in the name of human rights.

Other than attending panels, my mentor Pema Doma from Students from a Free Tibet spent a lot of time introducing me to some of the leaders of the human rights world. Most notably she introduced me to many allies from the cross-cultural movement, including Uyghur, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese activists. As someone who experienced China’s brutal lawfare and human rights abuse in Hong Kong, I found it energising to be in a group of people who were all so passionately fighting against the same authoritarian regime. I had some amazing conversations and was really able to connect with people over our shared goals and priorities in the human rights field. This was a truly fulfilling final day at OFF.

Oslo Freedom Forum, Day 2

By: Meg Grieve

The second day of the Oslo Freedom Forum started with keynote talks on the main stage, bringing about emotions throughout, ranging from devastation and defeat to hope and pure joy. Journalist Abraham Jaménez Enoa admitted that he will likely never be able to go back to his home country of Cuba. But he also reminisced on the weight lifted off his shoulders when he arrived in Spain and was able to walk freely down the street for the first time. American born Iranian singer Rana Mansour sang a Farsi song that she translated into English, “For Woman, Life, Liberty,” saying that she sings for all the women inside of Iran who are not able to. Sanaa Seif brought me to tears explaining the pain of knowing her brother’s, Alaa abd al-Fattah, suffering in an Egyptian prison. When she lands in Cairo she doesn’t know if she will go to her house or to jail. Mzwandile Masuku spoke from the exact same stage as his dear friend, Thulani Maseko, at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2016. This year the Swazi police brutally murdered Thulani in his own living room. But even then, Mzwandile was still cracking jokes bringing light to the room.  

A common message throughout the speeches was that if we want to achieve anything we must be united in our efforts. The keynote talks ended with a performance from Scandinavian singer Zara Larson, who showed us what it means to put this into action. Through song and dance, she was able to bring the entire audience, made up of people of all ages from all around the world, to their feet, clapping, swaying, and humming along, restoring the life, energy, and optimism to the crowd after a morning of heavy speeches.  

That energy took us into lunch, which was such a special experience because the speakers who had just been standing on stage in front of us were now eating with us giving us the opportunity to get to know them. This allowed me to realize that seeing the speakers on stage and hearing their stories humanizes the conflicts that flood our news screens and Twitter feeds as statistics and breaking news alerts. But what humanizes those people standing on stage sharing experiences unlike anything that I have ever gone through is being able to talk to them afterward and seeing that they really are just like you and me. That means debating with Omar Alshogre about what constitutes as a refreshment or celebrating the Nuggets win with Srdja Popovic. Beyond the stories we are all human, and at the end of the day we are all fighting for our very humanity. And that is what the Oslo Freedom Forum allows you to see, to feel, to do – in Celebrating Our Solidarity.   

Reflection on the First Day of the Oslo Freedom Forum

Tufts students at the Oslo Freedom Forum

By: Sam Sullivan

Prior to the first day of the Oslo Freedom Forum, I heard from previous attendees that it is one of the most important human rights conferences in the world. Only after a few theater sessions and a couple talks with attending human rights advocates was I able confirm this for myself. Starting off the Freedom Forum with the first theater session, Professor Francis Fukuyama’s comprehensive and academic overview of the weakness of authoritarian regimes stood out. He highlighted that although modern autocrats are generally referred to as “strong” dictators, there is little accountability for making wrong decisions and subsequently little chance for fixing mistakes that might result in massive popular threats to the regime (see Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine). To Francis Fukuyama, and to the democratic world, the limited possibilities for dynamic responses to threats appears, in fact, incredibly weak and something pro-democracy advocates should pounce on when given the opportunity. 

Also in the first theater session was Félix Maradiaga, a Nicaraguan activist and critic of President Ortega, who was arrested in 2021 for purely political purposes. Although he was not able to see his wife and daughter for two years and was tortured in solitary confinement, Félix Maradiaga emphasized that truly effective human rights advocates push for justice, not revenge. This powerful statement from someone who has undergone unimaginable injustice was underlined as he invited his daughter on stage to share his sentiment; only having been reunited in February. 

In the intermission between the first theater session and the second, I was able to meet with my mentor at Defiende Venezuela, Genesís Dávila, who introduced me to the founding Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. Being face-to-face with one of the most forefront advocates of human rights in the last couple decades was an immense privilege and one I hope to look back on in future opportunities related to international human rights law. 

Fast-forwarding to the afternoon’s panel session on Iran, titled “Iran: The Final Revolution?”, I was able to listen to the passionate women’s rights and pro-democracy advocate Masih Alinejad, who insists that there is in fact a light at the end of the tunnel, regardless of where Iran lies in the tunnel. She highlighted, along with the other panel members, that Western countries and pro-democracy advocates should be doing the work to pressure the Islamic Republic regardless of the catalyst of senseless killings of Iranian citizens. Just because the media does not show Iranians being killed after the mass protests seemingly died down does not mean the West has forgone its responsibility to fight against blatant crimes against humanity. And even still, an absence of mass protests does not absolve the Islamic Republic of its atrocities. Work needs to be done and privilege needs to be turned into power, such that victims will no longer have to plead into the void of a response from democratic governments.