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.

ALLIES JRP: Research and Food Diplomacy in Singapore

By: John McIntyre

Welcome back to Singapore–the “Lion City” (fun fact: it was named the “Lion City” after a Sumatran Prince believed he saw a Lion on the shore of the island nation)! Our time in Singapore has been truly exceptional, but it is also remarkably different from Kuala Lumpur.

A Hawker Center in Singapore

Kuala Lumpur gives you the city-rush feeling when you’re in the heart of everything, but if you walk 10 blocks in any direction–you’re likely to be in a calmer neighborhood. However, in Singapore, it seems like no matter where you turn, something is going on. That may be because the entire country is slightly smaller than New York City. In addition, we are experiencing a higher cost of living – our USD no longer buys us the same luxuries it did in Malaysia, as the exchange rate is far less favorable. Although the trip is beginning to wind down, we still have plenty of time to enjoy and learn about Singapore and how it navigates challenges between the U.S. and China.

So far in Singapore, we have immersed ourselves in the local culture primarily through the country’s incredible food at “Hawker Centers.” Hawker Centers are small food hubs all around the city that house local vendors serving the most incredible, cheap delicacies money can buy. When not engaging in food diplomacy, we are visiting Singapore’s premier think tanks, companies, and U.S. representatives in the region. These meetings are giving us insight into the Singaporean take on U.S. Foreign Policy in the region, as well as the different strategies Singapore uses to ensure that it remains relevant in the global community. Due to its small size, Singapore relies heavily on its role as an economic force and its role as a mediator between the Great Powers. It plays this part through coordinating summits (like the Trump-Kim meeting) and the Shangri-La Dialogue. I look forward to continuing to get the Singaporean perspective on the Great Power rivalry (and the food)!

ALLIES JRP: A Day in the Life on the Research Trail

By: Nicholas Marusic

For this blog post, I’ve decided to switch up the format a bit and document what a day in the life looks like while researching on the ground in Singapore.  Our central research question asks how the US-China power competition influences the national security economics of both Malaysia and Singapore with the end goal of publishing a peer-reviewed journal article on the subject. Our research interviews are centered around this question.  

Friday, June 9th, 2023 

7:30am – Rise and shine.  Today is our first full day in Singapore after spending a week in Kuala Lumpur.  Quick iron for the dress shirt because it got pretty wrinkled en route yesterday, and then a quick shower while listening to some Malaysian pop music (highly recommended). 

8:15am – Head down to the tenth floor for hotel breakfast, highlights included passionfruit, roti, and some aloe vera yogurt.  We sat with the rest of the team (Tufts + Army + Navy) and made sure we were all on the same page for our interview questions.   

9:30am – Get in the Grab (local version of Uber) and head to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) – Asia.  We zoom up to their 49th office, which is noticeably a bit emptier after just having hosted the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, the continent’s premier security conference.  Hence, our questions are more focused on security topics, including Singapore’s role as a mediator between negotiation parties, as well as ways in which backchannel diplomacy spontaneously takes place at such a big conference.   

12:00pm – Quick lunch in the bustling basement food court of this skyscraper, where we learned (the hard way) that even placing just a tissue pack on a table means you’ve reserved it. 

12:30pm – Take a Grab across the city (and in this case, also across the country) to the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), a graduate school and think tank.  Here, we were honored to speak with a group of nine different professors, so we split up into groups to better narrow in on topics.  My specific group focused on economics, so we went in-depth on Singapore’s trade flows, political economy, and role as a financial hub for so many multinational corporations, all amidst the backdrop of US-China great power competition.  This was all followed by a detailed hour-long presentation on China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Southeast Asia, which helped illustrate the more nuanced reality of the strategy and how its implementation has varied widely by country.  

4:00pm – Head back across town to the hotel for a bit of downtime.  Got a quick lift in and then changed into some more casual clothes for a dinner with the local Navy League.   

6:30pm – Hop on the Northeast Line and head three stops south to Lau Pa Sat, the downtown district’s trademark Hawker Center.  The Navy League treated us to Chinese BBQ skewers, which included both chicken and prawn.  Despite the more laid-back setting, we still kept our research question in the back of our mind and got to hear an American perspective on the topic. 

ALLIES JRP: Reaching the Halfway Point on the Last Day in Kuala Lumpur

By: Caroline Koon

We are officially over halfway through JRP 2023—one country down, one to go. Our week in Malaysia was fantastic; we met with so many incredible individuals and got to have some very interesting discussions. A particular highlight for me was our visit to the Malaysian Ministry of Defense. We had the privilege of talking with some high-ranking officials about maritime security and the 10-year plan laid out in the Defense White Paper. The comprehensive breakdown of Malaysia’s security strategy was great and we learned a lot. We wrapped up our time in Kuala Lumpur with a visit to the U.S. Embassy and then headed to Singapore. 

Though we’ve only been here for a day, Singapore has exceeded our expectations. We were graciously greeted by several Singaporean USNA and USMA alumni for dinner. The food was good but, at risk of sounding cliché, the company was even better. Tufts, USNA, and USMA students chatted with these alumni, all currently serving in the Singaporean Armed Forces, about everything from public housing to how to be a global citizen. I know I speak for us all when I say we are grateful for such a warm welcome. 

Looking forward, we’ve got a packed schedule. I’m writing this from a Grab (Southeast Asia’s Uber equivalent) as we head to our second meeting today (out of four!). It’s a busy trip, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m so thankful for the opportunities we have had so far and can’t wait for what the next week holds.