The Ailing Human Rights Industry
At this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum, even the most sanguine activists struggled to overcome a sense of drift and impotence
OSLO FREEDOM FORUM/JAN KHUR
The message emanates from the untroubled green hills, the unremarkable fjord, the pristine and car-free downtown, the silent trams, the colorless streets where there is no trash, no crime, no visible suffering of any kind: All is well here, for you are in a boring place. Dullness is Oslo’s great asset—only somewhere with total confidence in its solutions to all of modern society’s problems could fail to see the obvious absurdity of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, which takes place at City Hall every year. Maybe the Oslo Freedom Forum, the Human Rights Foundation’s (HRF) annual convention of political dissidents, could only happen in a place characterized by a sense of post-historical languor.
In two prior trips to the forum I have met an activist from the famously rebellious Syrian city of Kafr Nabl who was murdered by an al-Qaida affiliate a little over a year later, overheard the embittered mutterings of the exiled former president of the Maldives while we killed time in a hotel lobby, and looked into the eyes of a secularist Bangladeshi blogger who was then near the top of a jihadi death list, glimpsing a mad imbalance of resignation and mortal fear. These and a hundred other interactions too inspiring and unsettling to convey in any single piece of writing all happened without my having to leave the Norwegian capital, where the convenience stores all close before 12, as if to punish you for even having an appetite.
The forum, which I attended this year for the first time since 2017, is based on a simple premise that no one would have disputed five years ago—namely that knowledge, publicity, technical know-how, and networking could free the oppressed from their shackles. The main programming is a series of TED-style 10-to-15-minute presentations from people who have fought autocratic regimes or nonstate groups, alongside similar talks from journalists, scholars, or technologists aiding the activists in their fight against tyranny. In between these sessions are hours’ worth of subtly curated workshops, dinners, and other quasi-structured schmoozing opportunities. These are all of astoundingly high quality because of the range of backgrounds and outlooks on hand. The forum is an experiment in discovering what anti-drug war activists, cypherpunks, Islamists, North Korean defectors, National Review staffers, Syrian torture survivors, and the CEO of Tumblr can learn from one another. In Oslo, relationships would be built and awareness would be raised, seeding some kind of future positive change for the billions who toil under dictatorship.
HRF was founded in 2006 by Thor Halvorssen, the libertarian-minded scion of a prominent family in his native Venezuela who had previously headed the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (since renamed the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), the leading group advocating for free speech on U.S. college campuses. HRF has a very different approach than Human Rights Watch (HRW) or Amnesty International. The latter groups seek to leverage their activist and donor networks, along with the waning illusion of moral authority, in order to accrue power within governments and multilateral organizations like the United Nations or the International Criminal Court, globe-spanning entities that the ideologists of the Western human rights industry believe to be legitimate, effective, and extremely important. In contrast, HRF avoids the incumbent human rights community’s lust for high politics, instead foregrounding the activists themselves, getting the advocates in front of people from a range of professional and ideological backgrounds who are capable of promoting their stories and advancing their work. Just as crucially, HRF exclusively focuses its attention on the denial of civil and political rights. The legacy human rights community gets much of its profile and fundraising from attacks on democracies like the United States, whose openness ensures that there is never any shortage of good- and bad-faith internal criticism. HRF cares only about dictatorships, predatory governments, and authoritarian militant groups, none of which handle dissent all that well.
Has either approach—the elite self-seriousness and sanctimony of Big Human Rights, contrasted with the freewheeling and heterodox HRF—really accomplished much? The world of 2022 is a nightmare compared to that of five years ago, the last time I was in Oslo for the forum. The list of things that have gotten worse is long and sobering. Any remaining hope that the Twitter and Facebook-driven revolutions of the Arab Spring would usher in an era of freedom and democracy in the Middle East has evaporated. Bashar Assad and his Iranian allies slaughtered their way to control over nearly all of Syria, Yemen became the site of an ever more violent and intractable proxy war, and even Tunisia devolved into a soft autocracy. The Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan; Nicholas Maduro held on in Venezuela, sending over 5 million of his subjects fleeing for their lives. Russia invaded Ukraine and became a full-on police state. Social media and the internet became an easy conduit for nearly any government in the world, democratic as well as autocratic, to track and manipulate just about anyone under their rule. China sent its Uyghur minority to concentration camps and dismantled democratic self-rule in Hong Kong, in defiance of international legal obligations, which of course counted for nothing in the end. The Chinese Communist Party might have created and accidentally leaked a pathogen that’s killed some 20 million people, a disease that proved to be a once-in-a-century boon for unfreedom the world over, in Sydney as well as Shanghai. The autocrats have grown more confident and more dangerous as democracies’ sense of weakness and drift settles into an indefinite and comfortable malaise.
Powerful bad people are defeating powerless good people, just as they have for millennia.
“Speaking personally,” said the exiled pro-democracy Hong Kong activist Glacier Kwong during her presentation on the final day of this year’s forum, “the last year has been an incredibly dark period for me, beset by shadows and the torments of my own thoughts.” She had seen an authoritarian regime destroy her society and jail her friends without suffering any consequences. “I’m sorry to say the international community has not honored our sacrifices,” said Kwong. She closed with a statement that, by virtue of its vagueness, might be the most realistic call to action possible in the face of the Chinese communist leviathan: “Honor the sacrifice Hong Kong has made for you.”
None of the world’s recent tragedies can be laid at the feet of HRF, and even HRW and Amnesty are relatively blameless. But in Oslo it was clear that the post-World War II human rights paradigm was crumbling under realities that are both current and also somehow premodern. Powerful bad people are defeating powerless good people, just as they have for millennia. Laws, values, and idealism are less immediately tangible than bullets and poison gas. Citizens of the major democracies have demanded their governments turn inward, such that from an American vantage point the atrocities of Aleppo or Xinjiang look like they’re happening farther and farther away from us. The modern world’s various channels of idealism—multilateral organizations, NGOs, democratic governments, technological innovators—are some combination of impotent, cravenly self-interested, or complicit in the broader decline.
When the rebels of the human rights world survey the wreckage, the most honest of them now see a landscape where victory isn’t inevitable, old dreams have been replaced, former certainties no longer hold, and idealism’s very survival requires a retreat into cold reality.
The forum opened on May 23rd at the Oslo Konserthus, a hulking concrete shed of Nordic modularity, with at least twice the capacity of the Oslo Nye Teater, where the event had been held in 2017. “The world has changed so much since we were last here three years ago,” opened HRF President Celine Assaf Boustani, alluding to the COVID cancellations of the past two forums. The pandemic, war, and democratic decline all plagued humankind. “Each of these,” she alleged to the roughly 1,000 people on hand, “is the result of authoritarians.”
Halvorssen then spoke briefly. He wore red sneakers and an olive jacket without a tie. Halvorssen’s youthful round face competes with the unblinking focus suggested in his sharp hairline. The 46-year-old has the intense self-possession of someone waging a lonely, longshot war against nothing less than evil itself. When I spoke with him later that day, he rattled off his family’s history with the regime in Venezuela, the country of his birth: His father had been a political prisoner, his family’s property was expropriated, his mother was shot by regime agents; his cousin Leopoldo Lopez, a leading opposition politician, spent seven years either in prison or under house arrest or holed up in the Spanish Embassy in Caracas. Halvorssen is the producer of The Dissident, a 2020 documentary about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
“More than half of humanity lives under the boot of authoritarianism,” Halvorssen announced onstage. “We have to keep repeating that number.” Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and various regimes’ desperate attempts to influence election outcomes and change minds proved that the mere existence of unfreedom was a danger to democratic societies. “If we don’t end dictatorships,” cautioned Halvorssen, “dictatorships will end us.”
HRF, and Halvorssen in particular, want their production to look good, marking another difference with more traditional human rights groups. The aesthetics in Oslo are not an afterthought; HRF aims for particular moments, images, and people to reach virality. The first striking image of the conference was of Evgenia Kara-Murza, wife of the imprisoned Russian democracy activist and former forum speaker Vladimir Kara-Murza, sitting on a spotlit high stool in a dour black jacket, facing the crowd in profile, reading a letter her husband had written to her from Moscow’s Fifth Pre-Trial Detention Facility. “The price of freedom is high,” Kara-Murza wrote, quoting his mentor, Boris Nemtsov, an anti-Putin figure murdered just outside the Kremlin walls in 2015. A fate more permanent than prison might be coming, Kara-Murza seemed to warn, lightly hinting at his own survival of two previous attempts to poison him. But, the jailed man continued, “I have no doubts and no regrets.”
Kara-Murza, we learned, had once said that the worst thing for a political prisoner is to be forgotten. At its best the forum was a three-day revolt against forgetting, even if it often had the unintended effect of reinforcing just how impotent memory can be. During his talk, Omar Alshogre, director of detainee affairs for the Syrian Emergency Task Force, dramatically acted out his cousin’s death in his arms in an Assadist dungeon in Syria. In the midst of trying and failing to imagine what Alshogre’s ordeal must have actually been like, it dawned on me that most Syrians like him—genuine liberals with English fluency and a bravery that democratic citizens can scarcely comprehend, a courage that to us looks almost like suicide—had been killed or exiled over the past 11 years of war.
The exhortations continued throughout the week. “I ask you to keep Belarus on the agenda,” pleaded one of the exiled leaders of that country’s pro-democracy movement, whose husband languished in prison for the crime of heading an opposition political party. “Help us internally in Eritrea so that we don’t have to choose between dictatorship and human trafficking,” urged Filmon Debru, who endured unspeakable torture, and the mutilation of his hands, when Bedouins kidnapped him in the Sinai during his escape from the hyperstrict Eritrean dictatorship. “My father is not doing well,” warned Carine Kanimba, adopted daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, the Hotel Rwanda hero now serving a 25-year prison sentence after being kidnapped to the country of his birth.
“Kazakhstan’s disappeared from the headlines already,” fretted one questioner during a panel discussion. Was it ever in the headlines? I thought. For someone who lives in Kazakhstan there might be few things more important than the state of political rights in that vast yet remote-seeming Central Asian country—remote to me, that is. Alas, the front pages, and the attention of the average democratic citizen, can only hold so much faraway suffering at once. One’s reserves of attention and emotion are preciously limited. Time grows shorter with every passing second.
In the shadow of these hard and ever hardening realities, the forum could feel like a series of attempts to either salvage or bury leftover and potentially discredited visions of human progress. The U.N.-led international system, said Ukrainian activist Oleksandra Matviichuk, was “in ruins like Mariupol,” a cutting reference to the Black Sea city that the Russian invaders had recently destroyed. On the more optimistic end of the spectrum, Tawakkol Karman, the “mother of the revolution” in Yemen and a winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, insisted that the chaos in her nearly destroyed country was not the fault of the protest movement that unseated the country’s long-ruling dictator. There had been, Tawakkol insisted, “a successful national dialogue that brought all of Yemenis together … We wrote a great constitution.” Awesome as that document undoubtedly was, it proved no match for “the forces of the counterrevolution,” namely the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, which had all sabotaged Yemen’s future. She took no responsibility for the post-Arab Spring chaos, and said nothing about what her movement could have done differently or what democratic activists could learn from her revolution’s failure. Karman’s speech, and Yemen’s plunge into chaos since the 2011 uprising, suggested a paradox that was uncomfortable to reflect upon at any gathering of political dissidents: A botched democratic revolution can ultimately turn out worse for human freedom than the regime it replaced.
Karmon was, as she noted, a member of the Facebook and Instagram oversight boards, a merging of Big Tech and human rights activism that also reflected the naivete of an earlier time. The tech giants had a conspicuous presence in Oslo: Twitter, Meta, and Jigsaw, which describes itself as “a unit within Google that explores threats to open societies,” each had displays and workshop rooms on the Konserthus’ ground floor. That these companies could themselves be threats to freedom, and that they are in an open and very often indecisive self-reckoning with the implications of their own vast power, are facts that are now too obvious to hide. “We can predict what the next conspiracy theory is going to be,” said Beth Goldberg, a research program manager at Jigsaw, during a panel discussion. “How do we boost people’s immunity?”
Google controls more information about more people than nearly any nonstate entity in history (I am typing this very article on a Chromebook, in Google Docs). The line between well-intentioned defense of the information space and a quasi-Orwellian campaign to manipulate hundreds of millions of minds in the service of a preferred corporate or political vision might be thinner than most people at Google or its peers seem to realize, even at this late stage. Goldberg spoke of “pre-bunking at the level of meta-narrative or a rhetorical technique” in response to future conspiracy theories, a form of subtle content manipulation that, she assures us, is “not even political. It’s way more cerebral.” To prevail against disinformation, she said, it was necessary to “tap into people’s deep-seated identities and beliefs.”
Scott Carpenter, Jigsaw’s director of policy, assured me that there’s nothing to worry about here, and insomuch as there is something to worry about, Google worries about it too. “The first principle has to be, ‘do no harm,’” he said of the ideal anti-disinformation content regime. “There’s a lot of harm out there already, so you’re balancing harms.” A counterproductive way to balance harms, he said, would be for Google to act as chief censor and force users to adapt to its heavy hand. “We want to get beyond the idea that the only response you have is to take things down,” he said. When lies proliferate on Google’s platforms, there can perhaps be “speed bumps so there’s a little bit of friction. People can push through them if they want.”
A speed bump isn’t a wall or a force field. That’s pretty reassuring. But could any web giant advance freedom in any meaningful sense if it held so much unaccountable power? I noted to Carpenter that his employer probably had the ability to read my email, and to read over my article drafts at the moment I was writing them—although I caught myself and admitted this is a power I continue to willingly give to Google. His reply pointed toward a fundamental dilemma of existence in the modern world, where people understand very little of the systems and technologies that allow them to live connected and relatively frictionless lives. “In the world in which we live,” Carpenter said, “ultimately you have to trust someone. Over the years in working for Google, I find that, in my experience, the commitment to security and protection for our users is really, really high.”
“Big Tech was never set up to be civil liberty-oriented,” Thor Halvorssen explained to me at the end of an emotionally draining first day of programming. “They’re set up to make money.” We met in the M.C. Escher-like entanglement of interlocking passageways that formed the Konserthus’ lower lobby as attendees filed out of the complex, catching a couple hours of decompression before dinner. Halvorssen is eminently capable of being funny but almost never laughs in public. He evinced no outward sense of accomplishment after a successful day of his organization’s premier event. The scope of the work ahead of him was just too daunting, work that extended even to the tech firms that sponsored the forum. “Big Tech needs to have a thorough education in authoritarian government and what it means. So many Big Tech companies have unwittingly become the tools of dictatorships,” he said. “Social media is not a place to share photos and opinions. It has become [like] weapons—their weapons.”
Twitter, Google, and Meta were all here, I observed. In fact the companies’ displays and seminar rooms were just down the hall. “Yes,” he said, “they’re not just here, they’re actually supporters of the Human Rights Foundation, and they are sponsors of the Oslo Freedom Forum. And obviously I’m speaking honestly. We’re grateful for their support. That does not mean that we are going to be oblivious and turn a blind eye to what these companies should do and are not doing.”
The 30-minute interview was a barrage of righteous accusation. “The billionaire who runs Apple” should declare himself an agent of China under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, Halvorssen charged. Fusion GPS, compilers of the debunked Steele dossier, “has been a criminal enterprise” because of its work smearing human rights defenders on behalf of the Russian and Venezuelan regimes. “Now,” he said, “we are a small conference that essentially stands in contrast to the world’s largest gathering of dictators.” Davos? I asked. No, Halvorssen corrected me: “The United Nations.”
I came to Oslo wondering if HRF had succumbed to the usual corruption-by-inertia, and if the NGO industrial complex, Big Tech, and politically minded corporate donors had nudged it toward the institutional progressivism that is now the monoculture of the educated West, conquering by attrition until everything looks and sounds like an episode of Pod Save America, except duller. Halvorssen is a big part of the reason this hadn’t happened. The founder and CEO of HRF was out to please nobody; he made no pretense toward any self-interest and made no obvious concessions to institutionalism, even in the case of the organization he’d built over 16 years. Maybe this was just the appearance of edginess, a kind of madman theory of human rights activism in the service of fairly conventional aims. Still, there was a plausible case for change that seemed to be organizing everything, one anchored in a certain realism about the sources of unfreedom and the difficulty of overcoming them.
“The world has been sliding in the wrong direction now for more than a decade,” he explained. “That has everything to do with the West being compromised or the West being cowardly.” Tech companies chased giant paydays in China; Tony Blair lived in a mansion paid for in part by a lobbying deal with the government of Kazakhstan. Held beside the flagrant corruption infecting the upper reaches of Western societies, human rights advocacy could be something countercultural, a way of exposing a dishonest elite and a redoubt of honesty in a world of lies. But those claiming liberal democracy could bring paradise on Earth no longer sounded credible, and those who did often sound credible, like Halvorssen, knew better than to make any sweeping utopian claims.
What next, after utopia? Many of the liberating hopes of the 20th and 21st centuries have taken a pretty awful beating lately. The dream of de facto global governance under a multilateral liberal regime has proven delusional or worse. Only an idealogue still argues that freer markets automatically result in freer societies. These days, no one talks about the emancipatory potential of social media unless they work for a social media company. The internet might spread ideas and connect activists to one another, but it’s also a means to surveil and manipulate people on an unprecedented scale, as well as a medium through which young children get hooked on Chinese government-owned spy apps and slightly older children get hooked on porn. By now we know that liberal democracy is a superior way to organize society while also being as potentially dangerous as most other messianic ideas.
The former modes of progress were premised on grand centralities, vast organizations standing for immutable universal truths and governed by virtuous administrators. Forget all that, the very large Bitcoin contingent at the forum seemed to say, and forget every other big idea to fix all the world’s problems—the administrators are mostly getting in the way of things. In Oslo, the Bitcoiners sought to progress beyond existing frameworks without anyone’s help or permission.
The Bitcoiners were easy to spot: The guy in the Pikachu hat and the cartoon Bitcoin gold chain was a Bitcoiner, as was the guy in the Long Bitcoin sweater. The guy in the Bitcoin is Dead sweater offered a more complicated case. Both presenters who went on the main stage in face-shadowing baseball caps were Bitcoiners. The crypto folks were cliquish and tended to be oblivious to the business casual and formal dress codes, like they’d achieved some new level of being in which our rules no longer applied to them. I get it, I thought to myself: The old level of being, the one I’m stuck in, is terrible a lot of the time. In this terribleness lies the optimistic long-term case for Bitcoin, namely that it could serve as a platform for solving problems that have never been solved before, and thus has both the velocity and the permanence of any other unkillable idea.
“In Nigeria everyone is governing themselves,” explained Bernard Parah, a 23-year-old from the Middle Belt city of Jos and the founder and CEO of a Bitcoin platform called Bitnob. “Even the government doesn’t trust itself,” a friend and fellow countryman chimed in from across our lunch table. In Nigeria, Parah explained, food prices were skyrocketing, and the national government’s dysfunction had made the currency practically useless. Parah knew a woman who was able to start a laundry business and pay her kids’ school fees just from a bump in Bitcoin prices after 2020.
“If you can rationally explain something about Nigeria,” Parah said, “you do not understand it.” In many parts of the world, in places where the cruelest and most capricious actor is the state itself, Bitcoin can actually be a hedge against the irrational. “In the next few years, Bitcoin will be more common in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world,” Parah promised.
Bitcoin, explained HRF Chief Strategy Officer Alex Gladstein during a main-stage presentation, is “an open and neutral new kind of currency,” one that could sneak behind barriers to financial autonomy, evading the reach of autocrats who “relentlessly persecute their critics with the weapon of money.”
“What makes Bitcoin so incredibly powerful is that no one controls it,” said Elizabeth Stark, CEO of Lightning Labs during a panel discussion. “In Africa, banks are like a luxury brand,” noted Fode Diop, the Senegalese founder of the Bitcoin Developers Academy, who during his time on the main stage recalled his family’s savings being cut in half when the West African franc was devalued in the 2000s. “The future of banking is an Android device connected to the Bitcoin network itself,” he predicted. Jack Mallers, the CEO of Strike, explained in a tone of blissed-out evenness that Bitcoin could “escrow value anywhere on the planet … at the speed of light, across oceans … across regimes.” It didn’t matter that the digital currency was plunging in value at the time, as it periodically does. “This illustration works if Bitcoin’s at $10,000 or $1,000.”
“I’m a philosopher,” said Reed College professor Troy Cross during a panel, remembering when he’d first learned about Bitcoin in the early 2010s. “I thought, this is one of the most beautiful ideas I’ve ever encountered.”
The next day, Cross and I found ourselves seated in the same bank of couches. Since he is a philosopher enchanted with the idea of Bitcoin, he seemed like exactly the person to ask about the technology’s potential dark side. Perhaps, I suggested, the people convinced that Bitcoin is the key to securing financial rights beyond the reach of autocrats and kleptocrats were repeating the mistake of early internet or social media enthusiasts high on the hypothetically democratizing power of a new technology. Cross, it turned out, wasn’t a starry-eyed crypto dreamer, but an intellectually curious man—a lover of long walks in the Oregon woods, I imagined—who wanted to explore the implications of something that seemed genuinely revolutionary. “I bought two dozen pairs of socks for five Bitcoin each from an Alpaca farmer in New Hampshire in 2011,” he recalled. “I thought it was probably gonna fail. Most of us did.”
Over the following decade, Cross watched as the value of Bitcoin rose, as crypto turned from the realm of oddball hobbyists into a series of exotic financial products, the true nature of which was poorly understood even among its biggest boosters. “It’s not gonna improve humanity,” Cross explained, referring to both the idea and the reality of an ungovernable global network for holding and transferring value. “It’s not gonna make us better. It’s a tool, like the internet. Even more than the internet, it’s gonna be like electricity itself. Imagine saying electricity is aligned with a philosophical mission—it’s a force of nature.” By this interpretation, Bitcoin is a system beyond all systems, outside of anyone’s real control, of a kind that would be built as soon as the technology existed. It would find its purpose, however beneficial or malign, once the old consolidating projects were exposed as inefficient or oppressive.
I realized that Bitcoin is useful to Nigerian peasants or Ukrainian defense militias or drug traffickers because it is in tension with the old and familiar human rights idea, which depended on state power, moral authority, and coercion. States, the source of fiat currency, appear less stable and less trustworthy; the forces of good are getting harder to identify, and outside pressure has very real limits when applied to oppressive governments. Bitcoin’s “use cases,” to borrow the ‘coiner jargon, spring from a myriad of failures.
“It’s not debt, it’s not a unit of account, it’s not a means of exchange, it’s not a good store of value in the short term,” Cross said of Bitcoin, meaning it fits none of the usual criteria to even be considered “money.” Bitcoin was, Cross explained, “part of nondeal political philosophy … In a perfect world it’s not viable. Its value is in the imperfection of our world.”
Bitcoin is almost a banality, or maybe a futile last gasp at agency against the world’s wrongdoers, when held beside someone like Carine Kanimba, adopted daughter of Paul Rusesabagina, who Don Cheadle played in Hotel Rwanda. Rusesabagina’s continuing imprisonment in Rwanda seems an insult aimed at a specifically American view of human progress and of reality itself. If a beloved actor gets an Oscar nomination for playing you in a movie, a movie that millions of people saw and that became a sociopolitical event unto itself, then nothing bad can possibly happen to you, according to the American faith in the metaphysical grandeur of entertainment and fame. You are untouchable, and the power of popular culture has taken you beyond the realm of the merely human.
Carine KanimbaOSLO FREEDOM FORUM/JULIE HRNCIROVA
In the case of the Hotel Rwanda rescuer, who saved the lives of 1,268 Tutsis and their sympathizers at the Mille Collines hotel in Kigali in the spring of 1994, it was force that mattered in the end. In September of 2020, Rusesabagina, a U.S. green card holder, was lured from his home in San Antonio, Texas, onto a private jet in Dubai, which he believed was taking him to a speaking engagement in Burundi. He was drugged onboard, and the plane landed in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. The forum, with its presentations from family members of the dead and imprisoned, could be an unintended reminder of the pathetic limits of awareness-raising and the puny dimensions of thought. The Uyghurs remain in concentration camps and Assad still rules Syria, neither of which are particularly obscure facts these days. Rusesabagina was tortured and sentenced to 25 years in prison by the regime of Paul Kagame, a former darling of the international development human rights industrial complex—the harsh sentence being an especially flagrant attack on the idea that publicity can advance the work of human rights activists and protect them against harm.
As Kanimba explained when I interviewed her in Oslo, Rusesabagina is her uncle by marriage. Her parents were slaughtered in the opening days of the genocide; amid the chaos Rusesabagina made sure that Kanimba and her sister, both little older than toddlers at the time, were rescued from a displaced persons camp and taken to safety at the Mille Collines. She is now in her late 20s, a poised and elegant spokeswoman for her father’s cause and someone whose years living in Belgium and the United States mean she can plead his case on different continents and in multiple languages. She does not remember the genocide, or her biological parents. “I think they waited until we were 6 or 7 to tell us that we were adopted because as kids they didn’t want to scare us,” she said of Rusesabagina and his wife, Tatiana. “And so watching the movie, it was also a way for me to learn about my life, what our family went through. And it was a way for them to be able to explain it to us in a way that we could understand.”
In a place like Kigali in the mid-’90s, a luxury hotel manager such as Rusesabagina was a person whose social and political clout went beyond his job title. He met Paul Kagame when he allowed the Mille Collines to be used for meetings of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi militia group that ended the genocide before transforming itself into one of the most durable and sophisticated dictatorships in Africa. As an ethnic Hutu, Rusesabagina was too admired by Tutsis as a hero to be safe under a leader as jealous of admiration as Kagame. “Also,” Kanimba alleged, “they wanted to eliminate the influential Hutus,” which described Rusesabagina.
Rusesabagina moved his family to Belgium after the civil war. Kagame’s regime often sent representatives to ask him to return, dangling the prospect of high-level government employment. Rusesabagina realized this was a ploy to either imprison him or win his public loyalty. Then came Hotel Rwanda, released in 2004, in time for the 10th anniversary of the genocide. Rusesabagina felt he was in too much danger to attend a special screening at the national stadium in Kigali. Tatiana went instead, and watched from the same box as Kagame. “He stood up afterward and noticed how people were crying and people were admiring my father in the stadium,” Kanimba said of Kagame. Her adoptive mother had enough awareness of her country to know it was time to get out, more or less right that second. “She immediately left for the airport,” Kanimba recalled.
The serious threats didn’t begin until Rusesabagina’s two visits to the White House of George W. Bush after the release of Hotel Rwanda, once to meet the president, and then again to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Over the years, Kagame’s henchmen fabricated receipts connecting Rusesabagina to a rebel movement in the Congo and attempted to plant child pornography on his computer. The family moved to San Antonio, where Kanimba is certain Rwandan regime agents continued to surveil her father. Now in prison, Rusesabagina joins the annals of wartime heroes whose lives became haunted by their own heroism: Soviet agents murdered both Gareth Jones and Raoul Wallenberg, Oscar Schindler died poor, Varian Fry descended into alcoholism and obscurity and bitterness. One key difference in Rusesabagina’s case is that the worst of his suffering happened after he became a global symbol of human decency.
What does one even do in response to something like Rusesabagina’s imprisonment, grim evidence of what dictators can achieve when they gamble—often correctly—that their public image, and reality itself, can be discarded and reconstructed at will? The question of how to shame, pressure, or remove dictators, which animates the forum and its work, can sometimes only be answered one murder or prison sentence at a time. Hopefully it will be answered through the work of people like Kanimba, too. When her father was kidnapped, Kanimba quit her job at a New York-based impact investing firm. The campaign for Rusesabagina’s freedom has notched one significant policy win: In May, the U.S. government declared he was being “wrongly detained,” notable given that Kagame-era Rwanda and the United States have had generally friendly relations. With the help of her sister, Kanimba began filing lawsuits wherever she could to prove their father’s imprisonment was a state-sponsored hostage-taking. “I can send you the transcript of his torture and this kidnapping,” she said, the bitter fruits of one such legal expedition. She knows that her father was kidnapped using a private jet leased from a Greek company for $120,000. “We have the receipt,” she explained, “and it’s paid to the Office of the President.”
When Rusesabagina arrived in Kigali, Kanimba told me, “they held him in solitary confinement.” We were meeting in a modest dressing room behind the Konserthus stage. “I cannot imagine the pain that he felt because the room was smaller than this. The only lights that he had were between the door and the bottom.”
For Kanimba, the question of moral action in the face of an immovable dictator isn’t abstract—it’s not some metaphorical needle to be threaded between the figurative gaps in something called “human nature,” but an oppressive fact of existence filling every second of every day, aimed at destroying whomever it touches. The fight to change the mind of Paul Kagame hasn’t destroyed Kanimba, though. It is her privilege, she believes, to be able to carry such an immense burden on her father’s behalf, and perhaps on everyone else’s behalf too. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “Both my biological parents were slaughtered with machetes. My life was spared for a reason. And I was adopted by Paul Rusesabagina for a reason, and I’m grateful to be alive and I’m grateful to be able to stand up for him today. And so I think this is why I was saved.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.