Oslo Freedom Forum

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Oslo Freedom Forum
Oslo freedom forum.jpg
Official Logo
Founded 2009 (Oslo, Norway)
Organised by Human rights foundation

Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF) is a series of global conferences run by the New York-based non-profit Human Rights Foundation under the slogan “Challenging Power.”[1] OFF was founded in 2009 as a one-time event and has taken place annually ever since. One of the key objectives of the conferences is to bring together notable people, including former heads of state, winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, prisoners of conscience, as well as of other public figures in order to network and exchange ideas about human rights and exposing dictatorships.

The main OFF conference is held annually in central Oslo, Norway while satellite events have been held in San Francisco and on college campuses in the United States. OFF talks are live-streamed and consist of lectures and panel discussions taking place in front of a live audience.[2]

According to Wired Magazine, "If the global human-rights movement were to create its own unified representative body, it would look something like this." They also later wrote, "The power of the event -- whose sponsors include Sergey Brin's and Peter Thiel's charitable foundations -- lies in the seamless mix of grassroots activists, many of whom have risked their lives to speak out, and the top-level policymakers and influencers who can act on what they learn."[3]

OFF was founded by human rights activist Thor Halvorssen.



The inaugural Oslo Freedom Forum, titled “The Nobility of the Human Spirit and the Power of Freedom,” featured more than 30 speakers with an emphasis on the importance of literature in advancing the cause of freedom. Participants included Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel; Czech playwright and politician Václav Havel; Kurdish rights advocate Leyla Zana; and Tibetan former political prisoner Palden Gyatso.[1]

Norwegian daily Klassekampen called the conference an “impressive assembly of people.”[3] The Wall Street Journal described OFF as “unlike any other human-rights conference,”[4] the emphasis was on promoting basic rights in all nations at all times."


The 2010 Oslo Freedom Forum, organized around the theme “From Tragedy to Triumph,” featured participants from more than 40 countries and six continents. The event focused on the progress made in the realms of civil liberties and freedoms over the past century, while highlighting the innovation of modern-day advocates—activists, policy makers, world leaders, and media entrepreneurs.

Speakers at the 2010 forum included Rebiya Kadeer, Kang Chol-Hwan, Clara Rojas, and Lubna al-Hussein, Lech Walesa, Anwar Ibrahim, Mart Laar presented, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Other notable speakers included Russian democracy advocate and chess master Garry Kasparov, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, abolitionist and explorer Benjamin Skinner, former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares, and Chechen lawyer Lidia Yusupova, hailed as the bravest woman in Europe.[5]

The Economist described the 2010 forum as “A spectacular human-rights festival… on its way to becoming a human right equivalent of the Davos economic forum.”[6]


The 2011 Oslo Freedom Forum took place under the theme “Spark of Change,” and featured speakers from across the world who gave presentations on an array of topics, from an analysis of some of the world's most prominent dictatorships, to a look at the impact that a single individual can have on the world.

Speakers at the 2011 conference included Iranian Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, Ghanaian economist George Ayittey, former president of Colombia Belisario Betancur, North Korea expert and journalist Barbara Demick, Egyptian analyst Mona Eltahawy, American neuroscientist James Fallon, Chinese dissident Yang Jianli, Harvard political theorist Steven Levitsky, Canadian free speech champion John Ralston Saul, Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Jody Williams, and Bahraini rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja.[5] Bahraini activist Ali Abdulemam was invited to speak and had confirmed his attendance in the forum, but went missing in Bahrain a month beforehand and was unable to participate.[7][8] Egyptian internet activist and Tahrir Square protest organizer Wael Ghonim gave his presentation live from Cairo via satellite.[5]

The Economist described the 2011 OFF as “a glittering gathering of veterans of human-rights struggles.”[9] Peter Thiel (of Facebook, PayPal, and LinkedIn) praised the Oslo Freedom Forum “because [its] focus on dissidents engages the intellectual debate as well as the moral cause.”


Titled “Out of Darkness, Into Light,” the fourth annual Oslo Freedom Forum explored numerous topics, including a spotlight on the many forms of modern-day slavery; exposés on how Western public relations agencies, IT firms, and arms companies support dictatorships; the drug war’s impact on human rights; a focus on the burgeoning democracy movement in Russia; perspectives on fighting poverty through individual rights; an examination of global censorship; and a discussion on the state of the Arab uprisings. Supporters included the City of Oslo, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Amnesty International, the Thiel Foundation, Fritt Ord, the Nobel Peace Center, and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

Some of the speakers at the 2012 conference included Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif, Tunisian activist Lina Ben Mhenni, Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi, Singapore Democratic Party leader Chee Soon Juan, British journalist and author Nick Cohen, former South African politician Andrew Feinstein, Zimbabwean human rights activist Jestina Mukoko, Cambodian author and human rights activist Somaly Mam, leading Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir, and former Canadian Minister of Justice and Attorney General Irwin Cotler.

The inaugural Václav Havel Prizes for Creative Dissent were awarded in a special ceremony during the forum. An HRF initiative, the prize was awarded to three individuals who "With bravery and ingenuity, unmask the lie of dictatorship by living in truth," said Havlova, Havel's widow, and a member of the prize committee. The three recipients were Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Saudi women’s rights advocate Manal al-Sharif, and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.[10]

The Daily Beast described the forum as a conference of “do-gooders conspiring to stir up trouble,”[11] while The Guardian called it “a Davos for Revolutionaries.”[12]


The 2013 Oslo Freedom Forum was themed “Challenging Power” and centered on a range of topics, such as the art of dissent, asymmetric activism, new tools for rights advocates, the power of media, women under Islamic law, and the threat of authoritarian regimes with façade capitalism.

2013 speakers included Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng; recently escaped blogger Bahraini Ali Abdulemam; Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa; Zimbabwean artist Owen Maseko; Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay; creator of the Magnitsky Act Bill Browder; Palestinian journalist Asmaa al-Ghoul; Malaysian lawyer and democracy advocate Ambiga Sreenevasan; and Serbian nonviolent resistance leader Srdja Popovic.[13]

The conference culminated with the presentation of the Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent. The 2013 laureates were Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, North Korean democracy activist Park Sang Hak, and Cuban civil society group Ladies in White—represented by their leader Berta Soler.

The conference was chronicled in VICE, BuzzFeed, El País, El Mundo, Aftenposten, and Verdens Gang. Speakers were profiled in The Atlantic, CNN, The Economist, The New York Times, CNET, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, Dagens Næringsliv, and Finansavisen. BuzzFeed described the conference as “an internationalist networking party where dissidents trade tips on overthrowing authoritarian regimes,” while Al Jazeera characterized it as “an annual conference that gives the people who challenge repressive regimes a platform to speak.”

The forum ended with the presentation of the second Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent to Ali Ferzat, a Syrian political cartoonist, the Ladies in White (from Cuba) and Park Sang Hak, a North Korean democracy advocate.


The 2014 Oslo Freedom Forum included Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef; Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker; Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez; American actor Jeffrey Wright; Ukrainian pro-democracy activist Yulia Marushevska; iconic Turkish protestor Erdem Gunduz1, as well as Marcela Turati Muñoz, Yeonmi Park, Hyeonseo Lee, Iyad El-Baghdadi, Ti-Anna Wang, Suleiman Bakhit, Julia Marusjevska, Jamila Raqib, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Aljokhina and Mikhail Khodorkovskij.[14]

The New York Times called the Oslo Freedom Forum the place where “the world’s dissidents have their say.”[15]


The 2015 Oslo Freedom Forum took place on May 25–27 and was described by The Financial Times as a “Davos for dissidents.”[16] Speakers included Charlie Hebdo columnist Zineb El Rhazoui, North Korean Ji Seong-ho, Afghan entrepreneur Saad Mohseni, and Twitter vice president Colin Crowell.[17]


The 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum is scheduled for May 23–25, 2016.[18] Speakers included Afghan entrepreneur Roya Mahboob.[19]



The Forum is criticized mostly by international supporters of competitive authoritarianisms in Latin America, who condemn the attention paid by OFF about the human rights violations committed by the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.[20]

Media coverage[edit]

The Oslo Freedom Forum has been praised for bringing together some of the world’s most influential activists. In a 6-minute video produced by the BBC for its flagship evening show Newsnight, OFF was profiled as a “school for revolutionaries” where “pro-democracy activists share ideas and learn about agitating for positive change.”[21]

Norwegian daily Klassekampen declared the conference as "an impressive assembly of people."[22]

VICE News has described the event as “a bit like Comic-Con, only the heroes are real,” while Wired Magazine has suggested that, "If the global human-rights movement were to create its own unified representative body, it would look something like this." Wired also wrote that, "The power of the event—whose sponsors include Sergey Brin's and Peter Thiel's charitable foundations—lies in the seamless mix of grassroots activists, many of whom have risked their lives to speak out,[23] and the top-level policymakers and influencers who can act on what they learn." The New York Times focused on how OFF’s community draws “strength from one another,” and that it showcased how the conference goes beyond networking, by providing attendees with “broader exposure” and connecting them with “prominent financiers and technologists.”[24]

The Economist described it as "on its way to becoming a human-rights equivalent of the Davos economic forum." Standpoint magazine says that the Oslo Freedom Forum "provides an intimate space for dissidents and human rights defenders from around the world to meet each other, to talk to internet entrepreneurs, academics, politicians, journalists and to draw inspiration and encouragement."[9]

San Francisco Freedom Forum[edit]

Iconic Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi headlined the San Francisco event, which featured talks exploring various paths to freedom. Other speakers included: Saudi women’s rights pioneer Manal al-Sharif; conflict psychologist Justine Hardy; Iranian author and former prisoner of conscience Marina Nemat; Slate editor and author William J. Dobson; drug policy reformer Ethan Nadelmann; Chinese scholar and former political prisoner Yang Jianli; Ghanaian economist George Ayittey; Moroccan journalist Ahmed Benchemsi; and Kazakhstani theater director Bolat Atabayev.[25]

As part of her first trip to the United States after more than 20 years under house arrest in Burma, Suu Kyi accepted the 2012 Václav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent.

College Freedom Forum[edit]

The first College Freedom Forum took place at Tufts University on November 5, 2013. Speakers included Iranian author and former prisoner of conscience Marina Nemat; Moroccan journalist and media entrepreneur Ahmed Benchemsi; Equatoguinean human rights lawyer Tutu Alicante; president and CEO of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) Hannah Song; and Egyptian journalist Abeer Allam.

The second College Freedom Forum took place at the University of Colorado Boulder on March 11, 2014. Speakers included Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng; Ugandan LGBT rights advocate Kasha Jacqueline; Bahraini human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja; and North Korean defector and democracy advocate Park Sang Hak. Talks were followed by a moderated question and answer session with the audience. The event was a joint initiative of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) and the University of Colorado Boulder Distinguished Speakers Board and Cultural Events Board.

The third College Freedom Forum took place at Yale University on March 26, 2015. Speakers included Iranian author and former prisoner of conscience Marina Nemat; North Korean defector Yeonmi Park; American journalist William Dobson; and Serbian expert on nonviolent resistance Srđa Popović. Talks were followed by a question and answer session with the audience. The event was a joint initiative of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) and Yale ThiNK (There is Hope in North Korea).[26]

Sponsorships and endorsements[edit]

The Oslo Freedom Forum is supported by Fritt Ord, the City of Oslo, the Thiel Foundation, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, Sundt AS, the John 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. It is endorsed by several groups including the Nobel Peace Center, the University of Oslo, the Norwegian Author's Union, and the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights.[27] It also received financial support from the government of Norway.[28]

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.[27]


  1. ^ a b "Official website". Oslo Freedom Forum. Retrieved December 18, 2012. 
  2. ^ ""Human Rights Beyond Ideology," about the JTF-funded Oslo Freedom Forum News". John Templeton Foundation. Retrieved December 18, 2012. 
  3. ^ a b Rowan, David (14 May 2012). "Oslo Freedom Forum brings together the global human rights movement". Wired UK. Retrieved 20 May 2012. 
  4. ^ Fund, John (5 June 2009). "Human Rights Beyond Ideology". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 19 June 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c "Oslo Freedom Forum video". Youtube. Retrieved December 18, 2012. 
  6. ^ "A crowded field". The Economist. May 27, 2010. 
  7. ^ "Ali Abdulemam profile". Oslo Freedom Forum official website. Retrieved December 18, 2012. 
  8. ^ "Huffington Post"
  9. ^ a b "Nothing new under the sun". The Economist. May 12, 2011. 
  10. ^ "Inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent Awarded to Ai Weiwei, Manal al-Sharif, and Aung San Suu Kyi". The Human Rights Foundation. Retrieved March 3, 2013. 
  11. ^ Lake, Eli (11 May 2012). "Oslo Freedom Forum: The Davos For Do-Gooding Dissidents". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 20 May 2012. 
  12. ^ Cohen, Nick (May 12, 2012). "Autocrats step in as the west's money runs out". The Guardian. 
  13. ^ "Program" (PDF). Oslo Freedom Forum. Retrieved May 29, 2013. 
  14. ^ Kronikk: De har blitt torturert, voldtatt, kuttet til blods, truet og banket opp
  15. ^ Hakim, Danny (Oct 25, 2014). "The World's Dissidents Have Their Say". New York Times. 
  16. ^ "Fighting the Crisis of Liberalism One Suicide Bomber Joke at a Time". Financial Times. Retrieved November 24, 2015. 
  17. ^ "2015 Oslo Freedom Forum". Oslo Freedom Forum. Retrieved November 24, 2015. 
  18. ^ "Oslo Freedom Forum". Oslo Freedom Forum. Retrieved November 24, 2015. 
  19. ^ http://www.vg.no/nyheter/meninger/afghanistan/afghanistan-krigen-ga-roya-friheten/a/23689299/
  20. ^ Frihetsforum med politisk slagside - Aftenposten. Aftenposten.no (1970-01-01). Retrieved on 2013-10-23.
  21. ^ "Oslo Freedom Forum: The 'school for revolutionaries'". BBC. Nov 1, 2014. 
  22. ^ Fund, John. "Human Rights Beyond ideology". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved December 18, 2012. 
  23. ^ Hakim, Danny (Oct 25, 2014). "The World’s Dissidents Have Their Say". New York Times. 
  24. ^ Lubbock, John (May 21, 2013). "Hanging Out with Human Rights Heroes at the Oslo Freedom Forum". VICE News. 
  25. ^ https://oslofreedomforum.com/events/san-francisco-freedom-forum
  26. ^ http://www.tuftsgloballeadership.org/calendar/oslo-scholars-presents-college-freedom-forum
  27. ^ a b "Official website, supporters section". Oslo Freedom Forum. Retrieved December 18, 2012. 
  28. ^ Berg, Thomas (11 March 2010). "Ytringshelter samles i Norge". Ny Tid (in Norwegian). Retrieved 19 June 2010. 

External links[edit]