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A Gift For Trouble, At A Terrible Personal Price

If you would never work a day again in your life, work on something you’re passionate about. It’s a stock piece of self improvement advice, and it applies to Thor Halvorssen of the Human Rights Foundation in the extreme.

Most things about Halvorssen are extreme. A man of dual Venezualan and Norwegian heritage, Halvorssen is the antithesis of the typical human rights hashtag hero. Where they stay in countries where they’re safe, and build up hashtag campaigns trying to build awareness and sympathy, Thor Halvorssen goes out into the world, and fights directly. He’s been beaten by secret police; he’s gone into countries where only his high profile would keep him from being “vanished” like the people he’s trying to help.

He doesn’t just tell sob stories about the dissidents and the political prisoners, he arranges media events — like the Oslo Freedom Forum — and gives those dissidents the spotlight. In his own words “People who’ve been through this, people who’ve lost family members, years of their lives, their health, their wealth and even their limbs, are far more eloquent than I am.”

Halvorssen comes by this passion honestly. It’s more than just abstraction to him, it’s personal. His grandfather punched Nazis to give Norwegian shipping a safe harbor in Venezuala during World War II. His father, appointed to a government position in that same country to clean up the drug trade, was jailed for 74 days on trumped up corruption accusations, made by a man who later recanted and told how he was tortured for his confession. His grandmother, from an old Venezualan family, was shot and killed by Hugo Chavez’ thugs in a rally, his mother was shot and wounded in the same rally. His cousin Lopez has been in a Venezualan prison for over a year, with food smuggled in by his family, because the prison won’t feed him.

Halvorssen, bluntly, has no patience for people who come in, get glad-handed by dictators and then go home to the triumphal procession. He’d rather spend his time sneaking into contact with a prisoner and getting an exclusive interview, or making gestures that offend dictators, or even bouncing around schemes to send USB drives loaded with ‘forbidden’ material over the North Korean border by balloon drop.

Halvorssen is a man of action, and he’s ecumenical in his willingness to take help. He takes money from right wing and left wing advocacy groups, and he focuses his work not on the safe topics, like Guantanamo Bay, but on the harder ones, like the nature of African dictatorships, Russian treatment of dissidents like Pussy Riot; Garry Kasparov works with the Human Rights Foundation, as do other high profile people in the community. Halvorssen has a knack for theatricality and production values; like most good producers and directors, he’d rather direct the spotlight on the people delivering the message, even when it’s not himself. This has garnered him donations from high level philanthropists, such as Sergey Brin of Google.

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