May. 01, 2024 |

The Oslo connection. Despite all the partisan malice that might seem to be consuming the democratic world, there’s a widespread, enduring consensus on the indispensability of democracy itself—and the ideas of human freedom it’s built on. That consensus may be fractured, but it’s deep and still resilient.

You can see it in the global response to the invasion of Ukraine, broadly understood as an attack by a powerful autocracy not on an emerging democracy only but on democracy as such.

You can see it in the global response to other assaults on human freedom when they break into the news—whether it’s Tehran’s crackdown on Iranian women protesting after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the regime’s morality police; Moscow’s cynical, ultimately fatal imprisonment of Alexei Navalny; or Beijing’s Wild West–style cash bounties on dissidents from Hong Kong.

The Signal isn’t just part of this consensus; we’re actively committed to it. It’s central to our mission and underlies some of the most vital questions we explore. Which is why we’re delighted to partner with the Human Rights Foundation on this, the first Signal extra.

In 2009, HRF inaugurated the Oslo Freedom Forum to pay tribute to survivors of Nazism and Soviet communism. They’ve since developed it into an annual event that gives an international platform to democratic dissidents from around the world; cultivates an international network that supports them throughout the year; and in all of it, raises international awareness of what’s at stake in the global clash between dictatorship and democratic life.

And what’s at stake isn’t always so easy to see from the vantage ground of the West. What would the casual shopping choices of European consumers have to do with almost unimaginable political repression in a place like China’s Uyghur region?

Why would such phenomenally generous sums of money be coursing into prestigious American institutions from the autocracies of the Persian Gulf? Or how would ethically minded investments made with the best of intentions end up supporting authoritarian economies?

Once in a while, the news might include the innocuous-looking citizen of a democratic country arrested and jailed in an autocratic one, only for us to wonder, what did she do to find herself in that kind of trouble? It can be hard to recognize a pawn when we don’t see the board.

To get at these stakes in a new way, we met with activists and analysts from HRF’s network, all speakers at the 15th anniversary of the Oslo Freedom Forum last June. Six of our conversations are collected here.

—John Jamesen Gould