Human Rights Foundation

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For the New Zealand organization, see Human Rights Foundation (New Zealand).
The Human Rights Foundation
HRF Logo Flame.jpg
Founded 2005
Founder Thor Halvorssen Mendoza
Area served
Mission "To ensure that freedom is both preserved and promoted."

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a corporation that trying to promote and protect human rights in the Americas, with a focus on closed societies.[1] HRF organizes the Oslo Freedom Forum. The Human Rights Foundation was founded in 2005 by Thor Halvorssen Mendoza, a Venezuelan film producer and human rights advocate. The Foundation's head office is in New York City, New York, US.


HRF's mission is to "unite people in the common cause of defending human rights and promoting liberal democracy. Our mission is to ensure that freedom is both preserved and promoted".[1]

HRF's website states that it adheres to the definition of human rights as put forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), believing that all individuals are entitled to the right to speak freely, the right to worship in the manner of their choice, the right to freely associate with those of like mind, the right to acquire and dispose of property, the right to leave and enter their country, the right to equal treatment and due process under law, the right to be able to participate in the government of their country, freedom from arbitrary detainment or exile, freedom from slavery and torture, and freedom from interference and coercion in matters of conscience.

Human Rights Foundation is guided and endorsed by an International Council that includes former political prisoners Vladimir Bukovsky, Mutabar Tadjibaeva, Jacqueline Moudeina, Abdel Nasser Ould Ethmane, Park Sang Hak, Palden Gyatso, Elie Wiesel, and Harry Wu, as well as former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar, former president of Venezuela Ramón José Velásquez, and political commentator Álvaro Vargas Llosa.[2] Jurist and law professor Kenneth Anderson is also on HRF's International Council. Anderson was a founding director of the Human Rights Watch Arms Division and later general counsel to the Open Society Institute/Sores Foundations.[3] HRF's International Council was chaired by Václav Havel until his passing in December 2011. The Council is currently chaired by chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov.[4]


HRF states that donations are accepted "with a categorical understanding that the foundation is free to research and investigate regardless of where such investigations may lead or what conclusions HRF may reach." If an individual or foundation has contributed to HRF’s work, this does not mean that HRF necessarily endorses said individual or foundation's views or opinions.[5] HRF publishes all the names of its donors, except those that request not to be published because they fear retaliation or are concerned about being approached for donations or about their associates disagreeing with HRF.

In 2009 HRF received a $35,000 grant from the Bradley Foundation,[6] as it had in 2007.[7] In 2007, it also received a grant from the Sarah Scaife Foundation for $100,000[8] toward general operations and $20,000 from the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation. In 2009, HRF received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation for $171,600[9] toward a program called "The Nobility of the Human Spirit and the Power of Freedom", which, along with a $34,000 grant from the government of Norway in 2009, allowed HRF to organize the first Oslo Freedom Forum.

The Oslo Freedom Forum is now an annual human rights conference in Oslo, Norway, which has become HRF’s signature program and is supported yearly by several grant-giving institutions in Scandinavia and the United States, including Fritt Ord, the City of Oslo, the Thiel Foundation, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Sundt AS, theJohn Templeton Foundation, the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Fredskorpset, Amnesty International Norway, Plan Norway, The Brin Wojcicki Foundation, Human Rights House Foundation, and Ny Tid. The Oslo Freedom Forum is also endorsed by the Nobel Peace Center, the University of Oslo, the Norwegian Author's Union, and the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights. It also received financial support from the government of Norway.[10]

In 2011 the sponsors included the City of Oslo, Color Line AS, the Thiel Foundation, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Fritt Ord, the Nobel Peace Center, Helly Hansen, and Voss Water.

In 2014, HRF received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation for $1,000,000 toward a program called “Speaking Freely,” a comparative legal research project of the HRF-Center for Law and Democracy that seeks to better inform decision makers around the world and the globa[11]l public about the value of a high free speech standard.



In 2007, HRF issued several communications on the case of Mr. Amauris Samartino, a Cuban refugee who had lived in Bolivia since 2000 and was expelled after having been detained for seventeen days for criticizing the Bolivian and Cuban governments.[12][13] HRF declared Mr. Samartino a prisoner of conscience. Shortly after, Mr. Samartino was granted political asylum in Norway.[14]

HRF participated, along with a group of international observers from Argentina, Paraguay, and two other non-governmental organizations from the United States, as an international observer during the Santa Cruz autonomy referendum.[15][16] In the same year, HRF also produced a report about communal justice and lynching in Bolivia. According to this report, the lack of legislation regulating communal justice in Bolivia had resulted in a distorted interpretation of the concept, with fatal consequences for society, which had experienced an escalation of violence through lynching.[17] In October 2008, HRF published a report addressing the causes of politically motivated violence that resulted in the deaths of at least 21 people and injured hundreds more in Bolivia. The report found that the official discourse by the Bolivian government violated freedom of expression, as it provoked attacks against the media, and incited violence and racial hatred.[18]

On January 15, 2008, HRF published a report expressing concern over an apparent increase in illegal practices such as lynching, lashing, beating, stoning, hanging, and burning.[19]HRF expressed concern because these forms of torture and corporal punishment were carried out in rural areas in Bolivia under the banner of “communal justice.” HRF’s report included a recommendation to the Bolivian government that the new proposed constitution take this situation into account and carefully craft the communal justice system in such a way that due process guarantees would be respected.[20]

HRF Bolivia[edit]

An organization by the name HRF-Bolivia was established in 2007,[21] and functioned until June 2009, during which period it issued several reports and official communications denouncing violations of human rights in Bolivia which are still published on HRF-Bolivia’s website.[22][23]

According to a statement prepared by HRF for the Inter-American Human Rights Commission [24]— in 2010, Bolivian authorities formally indicted 39 Bolivian nationals for purportedly having connections with the late Eduardo Rózsa-Flores, a Hungarian-Bolivian citizen who was killed in a raid by the Bolivian police in April 2009. The 39 people indicted—many of whom have since been granted political asylum in different countries, such as Brazil [25]— were charged with crimes of separatism, and insurgency. They included Mr. Hugo Achá, a Bolivian lawyer and television commentator who was the pro bono chairman of HRF-Bolivia’s board until May 2009.[26] Achá denied any involvement, claiming that he had met Mr. Rósza a few times when the latter had approached him in his capacity as a journalist, with a request for human rights-related information. He received political asylum in the USA.

HRF-Bolivia’s board of directors resigned after making clear that there was no connection between the institution and the personal accusations being made against its board chairman and dozens of other people and organizations of Bolivian civil society.[22]


In September 2012, HRF founder Thor Halvorssen wrote an open letter to Ted Marlow, CEO of Urban Outfitters, urging him to reconsider Urban Outfitters' sale of Che Guevara emblazoned merchandise "for the sake of the thousands who perished in the Cuban revolution, and for the sake of the 11 million Cubans who still endure a totalitarian system".[27] It was reported that in October 2012 Urban Outfitters removed the merchandise in response to the outrage.[28]

In May 2013, HRF awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent to The Ladies in White (Las Damas de Blanco). In 2015, the award was given to Danilo Maldonado, El Sexto,[29] a Cuban graffiti artist and activist who was arrested in December 2014 for trying to stage a performance art piece in the center of Havana.[30]

Dominican Republic[edit]

HRF produced and provided the funding for the documentary film The Sugar Babies: The Plight of the Children of Agricultural Workers in the Sugar Industry. It was first screened at Florida International University on June 27, 2007. The documentary about human trafficking of Haitians in the Dominican Republic drew protest from the Fanjul brothers, one of the largest beneficiaries of the human trafficking depicted in the film. [31][32]


In March 2008 HRF wrote to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa asking for the release of the imprisoned, governor of the province of Orellana, Guadalupe Llori implying that the charges against her were politically motivated.[33] Later in March Amnesty International declared that governor Guadalupe Llori may be a prisoner of conscience and a political prisoner[34] and in June HRF declared they considered her both.[35] According to HRF Llori was imprisoned on trumped up terrorism charges by the government.[36] She was sent to El Inca prison where she remained for about ten months. HRF filed a communication with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, pleading that it activate its urgent action procedure and send an appeal to the government of Ecuador for the immediate release of political prisoner Guadalupe Llori.[37] HRF visited her in prison.[38] She was eventually freed after an intense international campaign and credited HRF with her release.[39] She was re-elected governor of Orellana in April 2009.[40]

On February 6, 2011, Ecuadorian Journalist Emilio Palacio published an article called "No to Lies", which was critical of the Ecuadorian government and President Correa. As a result, he, and three executives of the newspaper that published the article were sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 40 million dollars, payable to Correa himself. On October 31, 2011, HRF sent a letter to the National Court of Justice of Ecuador, asking them to overturn the decision, described as "abhorrent" by HRF president Thor Halvorssen.[41] Palacio currently resides in the United States, after being granted asylum.[42]

Equatorial Guinea[edit]

In 2012, HRF announced that they would be expanding their focus from the Americas to include Equatorial Guinea as well as Kazakhstan and Singapore, saying they "now aim to highlight abuses in three more countries whose governments enjoy shockingly good publicity, hiding their crimes with sophisticated public relations campaigns, and help from cadres of apologists."[43] In August 2012, HRF called for former US President Bill Clinton, who according to tax documents is the "honorary chairman" of the Leon H Sullivan Foundation, to revoke the foundation's decision to allow Teodoro Obiang to host their Sullivan Summit. Of Clinton, Halvorssen said "Mr Clinton's wife is US Secretary of State...It seems perplexing that he would allow himself to be so closely associated with a vile dictator."[44]


Following the 2010 earthquake that took place in Haiti, HRF began a fundraising campaign among Hollywood and sports celebrities for a food program devoted to the children of the St Clare's community of Port-au-Prince. The program was started in 2000 by American author Margaret Trost and by Gérard Jean-Juste, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who served as the priest of the St. Clare's community. The HRF campaign included actors Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, Gary Sinise, Angie Harmon, and NFL cornerback Jason Sehorn. The campaign aimed at providing 160,000 meals for children.[45]


Following the 2009 Honduran coup d'état that deposed President Manuel Zelaya, HRF requested all member states of the Organization of American States to adhere to the Inter-American Democratic Charter. HRF also advocated for the suspension of the government that ousted President Zelaya.[46] HRF chairman Armando Valladares resigned on July 2, 2009, in response to the HRF position on the Honduran coup.[47] The new chairman of the organization was poet and former Czech president Václav Havel.

In November 2009, HRF published a report called "The facts and the law behind the democratic crisis in Honduras 2009",[48] in which it concluded that the Organization of American States had acted correctly in activating the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and incorrectly in its diplomatic actions to revert the military coup. The report also concludes that the OAS behaved as an agent of Zelaya prior to the coup d'état and that Zelaya had been eroding Honduran democracy.[49]

In July 2011, the Honduran Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR-H), led by Eduardo Stein, published its final report on the events. The CVR-H based its main conclusions on HRF’s report: “The commissioners … agree with the analysis made by the Human Rights Foundation, in defining what happened in Honduras as a coup d’état, [namely that] a coup d’état would refer to a scenario with the following four concurring elements: ‘first, that the victim of the coup is the president or other civil authority with full control of executive power in that country; second, that the perpetrator of the coup has used violence or coercion to remove the victim from his post; third, that the action or actions that constitute the coup are abrupt or sudden and rapid; and fourth, that this action occurs in clear violation of the constitutional procedure to remove the president, or chief executive.’ In the case of Honduras, all of the four aforementioned elements were present.”[50]


In October 2012, HRF circulated a letter[51] to the United States congress detailing the crimes of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, namely those of the Zhanaozen Massacre on December 16, 2011. In response to this letter, HRF was threatened with a lawsuit from Kazakhstan's lobbyist.[52][53][54] In November 2012, HRF and UN Watch invited activists from Venezuela, Pakistan and Kazakhstan to speak about human rights violations in their countries.[55]

In December 2013, HRF submitted a petition to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, requesting that he commence the process of letter of allegation to the government of Kazakhstan regarding the December 2012 crackdown on independent media outlets K-plyus, Stan TV, Respublika, and Vzglyad. The petition called on the U.N. Special Rapporteur to request that the government of Kazakhstan deliver, among other things, “an official and comprehensive answer regarding the state’s violation of its international obligation under Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), specifically on the case of the court proceedings against K-plyus, Stan TV, Respublika, and Vzglyad.”[56]

Previously, HRF had published a legal report concluding that Kazakhstan courts’ decisions to ban all publications, broadcasts, and dissemination of information by the newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad and the TV stations K-plyus and Stan TV, along with all associated websites, violated the right to freedom of expression of these media outlets, as well as the rights of the individuals publishing their opinions through them and the rights of the public to receive such information and opinions.[57]

North Korea[edit]

Further information: Balloon campaigns in Korea

In 2015, the Human Rights Foundation has helped to organize and bankroll a balloon drop of 10,000 copies of an edited version of the movie The Interview over North Korea. Previously, the Human Rights Foundation "has financed balloon drops of pamphlets, TV shows, books and movies over a course of several years, though nothing as high-profile and crudely belittling to Kim Jong Un as is The Interview." [58]


In 2009, a bill that would increase discrimination against homosexuals resurfaced in Uganda and was brought before the Ugandan Parliament. The Human Rights Foundation and founder Thor Halvorssen have condemned the bill, with Halvorssen saying,

[t]here is speculation over whether the current Bill being discussed has dropped the death penalty as a punishment for aggravated homosexuality offenses. Even if that is the case, the remaining provisions of the Bill and other current laws in Uganda which promote discrimination against homosexuals are still shameful and unacceptable. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against any form of unreasonable government interference in their private lives.[59]


The Human Rights Foundation published four reports in November 2006, all case studies of human rights violations in Venezuela.[60] In January 2008, HRF researcher, Monica Fernandez, was shot and wounded in Caracas,[61] in what the police described as an armed robbery.[62] In October 2007 HRF created a "Caracas Nine" blog to highlight "the plight of nine Venezuelans who spoke their minds and paid a price";[63] by January 2010, it had chosen six Venezuelans to be part of its "Caracas Nine" campaign.[64] As part of its Caracas Nine campaign, HRF declared Francisco Usón as prisoner of conscience in December 2006.[65] In November 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Venezuela to annul the case against Francisco Usón, for violations to freedom of expression, and to due process. The court also ordered the Venezuelan State to pay +$100,000 in damages to Usón.[66]

In 2007 HRF protested the refusal to renew RCTV television station's broadcasting licence by the government. HRF created a website that features information, and a video on censorship, in connection with this.[67] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern about the failure to renew the licence.[68] The campaign against the refusal to renew the license—widely viewed by the human rights community as a "shutdown"— included Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the World Press Freedom Committee and numerous other journalism and human rights organizations, but did not achieve its goal so far against a heedless government.

In February 2014, HRF declared Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López a prisoner of conscience. HRF joined many high-profile figures and international organizations in calling for his immediate release.[69]


Oslo Freedom Forum[edit]

With support from the city of Oslo and the John Templeton Foundation,[70] in May 2009 HRF organized the Oslo Freedom Forum. During the conference democracy and human rights activists[71] told tehir stories and expressed their views about human rights in the world today. Participants included author Jung Chang, holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso, North Korea escapee Park Sang Hak,[72] former British royal Sarah, Duchess of York and Chinese activist Harry Wu. Its 2010 event was supported by the Norwegian government Foreign Ministry, Amnesty Internacional Norway, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and was endorsed by the Nobel Peace Center and Freedom House among several others.[73][74] In 2011, the forum featured panelists from Russia, Egypt, Brazil, and Denmark, covering topics such as the "progress made in the realms of civil liberties and freedoms over the past century" and "the rapidly growing movement for democracy in the Middle East." Distinguished speakers included Nobel Laureates Leymah Gbowee, Shirin Ebadi, and Jody Williams. Also speaking at the forum were American neuroscientists James Fallon and Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy.[74]

San Francisco Freedom Forum[edit]

In October 2012 the Human Rights Foundation hosted the first San Francisco Freedom Forum, which was described as "a unique convergence of-pro freedom voices." The event was supported by Peter Thiel's charitable foundation, Sergey Brin's foundation, and Anne Wojcicki. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, on her first trip to the United States since 1971, was presented with a Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. Suu Kyi discussed the motives behind human rights violations and said that they cannot be addressed unless "we know what can be done to prevent" people from dehumanizing one another.[75] The Forum brought attention to a number of human rights issues, and other attendees included Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who challenged her country’s ban on women driving by coordinating a "Women2Drive" protest via YouTube, and the spokesman of jailed Russian punk band Pussy Riot.[76][77][78]

Sime MIA[edit]

In November 2014, the Oslo Freedom Forum curated a session at the Sime MIA[79] conference in Miami. The conference featured HRF president Thor Halvorssen, Jordanian cartoonist Suleiman Bakhit, and North Korean refugee Yeonmi Park.[80]

Public perception[edit]

Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein refers to the organization as "respected",[81] while HRF – along with Human Rights Watch,[82] Freedom House, and other rights groups – has been called a CIA front by Jean Guy Allard writing for Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party.[83][84]

Writing as president of HRF in the American conservative magazine National Review, Thor Halvorssen participated in NR's symposium on the death of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and was noted as the only one of the six commentators to condemn Pinochet unequivocally, writing: "Augusto Pinochet took full control of Chile—by force. He shut down parliament, suffocated political life, banned trade unions, and made Chile his sultanate. His government disappeared 3,000 opponents, arrested 30,000 (torturing thousands of them), and controlled the country until 1990."[85][86]

After the HRF criticized the Bolivian government and specifically government minister Sacha Sergio Llorenti Soliz for alleged human rights violations in a public letter, the minister referred to HRF as "right wing".[87][88] In the same month, eighteen Latin America scholars signed an opinion piece in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten criticizing the Oslo Freedom Forum for focusing criticism only on Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, three countries with leftist governments. The scholars praised the group for putting "the spotlight on key global issues", but also stated that Cuban human rights activist Armando Valladares had defended the 2009 Honduran coup d'état while speaking at the forum.[89]

In 2014, during the inaugural lecture at Francisco Marroquín University, Thor Halvorssen stated the following regarding public perceptions associated with the organization: “HRF criticizes equally harshly the Chilean dictatorship of Pinochet as well as the Cuban dictatorship of Fidel Castro, even though the first one gave more economic freedom to his citizens than the latter. HRF criticizes equally harshly the Chinese dictatorship of Deng Xiaoping (and its current successors) as well [Mao Zedong|[Mao Tse Dong]]’s dictatorship, even though the first one gave more economic freedom to its citizens and allowed for 140 million Chinese to escape poverty in less than twenty years, while a few years before that millions had starved to death as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward… HRF criticizes just as harshly the competitive authoritarianisms in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the competitive authoritarianisms in Burma and Venezuela, even though the first two have had success promoting national and international investment, economic growth, and that, in turn, it has allowed for the free functioning of the price system, unlike the latter.”[90]


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