Thor Halvorsen at the press conference of the 2018 Oslo Freedom Forum. Photo: Wikipedia
Thor Halvorsen at the press conference of the 2018 Oslo Freedom Forum. Photo: Wikipedia

As Beijing continues its assault on the legitimacy of Taiwan’s de facto independence, Taipei is punching back through the hosting of international events. This coming weekend, Taiwan will play host to the Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), the first Asian country to do so, in a telling reminder of just how far this island democracy has come as a regional haven for human rights and democracy.  

The forum, scheduled for November 10, is organized by the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, whose founder, Thor Halvorssen, started HRF in 2005 after his mother was shot and wounded in the street while protesting corruption by the Venezuelan government. The current chairman is Garry Kasparov, a world-renowned chess player, and Russian human-rights activist.

HRF defines itself as “a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies,” and the forum in Taipei will bring together leaders in academia, advocacy, arts, business, media, philanthropy, policy and technology “to share their experiences and brainstorm ways to expand freedom and unleash human potential across the globe.”

Speakers at the forum in Taiwan will include Cambodian human-rights activist and exiled opposition politician Mu Sochua, North Korean defector and activist Ji Seong-ho, Vietnamese pop star and political activist Mai Khoi, Egyptian actor, model and LGBT rights activist Omar Sharif Jr, China bureau chief and Asia correspondent for BuzzFeed News Megha Rajagopalan, Eritrean free-speech activist Vanessa Berhe, Sarawak-born investigative journalist and founder of the Sarawak Report Clare Rewcastle-Brown, and Russian democracy activist and coordinator of Open Russia Vladimir Kara-Murza.

Previous Oslo Freedom Forums have been held in Oslo, New York and Johannesburg, and the choice of Taiwan as the first Asian host was a fairly easy decision, according to Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer for HRF. He told The New York Times that Taiwan was selected for its role as a regional leader in democracy and human rights and that “There aren’t that many fully fledged, multiparty democratic countries in East Asia.”

Across the Taiwan Strait, Beijing continues its crackdown on the freedom of its citizens to practice religion, travel, and access information. China is once again the worst abuser of Internet freedom this year, according to a recently released study by Freedom House, a nonprofit organization advocating democracy and human rights.

Beijing has also been busy applying pressure on Taipei’s diplomatic allies to switch allegiances, successfully poaching Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama and El Salvador since Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen came to office in 2016.  

In hosting such events as the Oslo Freedom Forum, Taipei is not only sharply contrasting the freedoms its citizens enjoy with those of more authoritarian states, but also asserting its de facto independent right to pick and choose its friends.

Gary Sands is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, US News and World Report, Newsweek, The Diplomat, The National Interest, EurasiaNet, and the South China Morning Post. He spent six years in Shanghai, four years in Ho Chi Minh City, and is now based in Taipei.

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