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The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a non-profit organization that describes itself as promoting and protecting human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.[1] HRF organizes the Oslo Freedom Forum. The Human Rights Foundation was founded in 2005 by Thor Halvorssen Mendoza, a Venezuelan film producer and human rights advocate. The current chairman is Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, and Javier El-Hage is the current chief legal officer. The foundation's head office is in New York City.[2][3][4]

Human Rights Foundation
HRF Logo Flame.jpg
Founded2005; 14 years ago (2005)
FounderThor Halvorssen Mendoza
Area served
Garry Kasparov



HRF's mission is to "unite people in the common cause of defending human rights and promoting liberal democracy, to ensure that freedom is both preserved and promoted".[1]

HRF's website states that it adheres to the definition of human rights as put forth in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), believing that all individuals are entitled to the right to speak freely, the right to worship in the manner of their choice, the right to freely associate with those of like mind, the right to acquire and dispose of property, the right to leave and enter their country, the right to equal treatment and due process under law, the right to be able to participate in the government of their country, freedom from arbitrary detainment or exile, freedom from slavery and torture, and freedom from interference and coercion in matters of conscience.

According to the New York Times, HRF "has helped smuggle activists out of repressive countries, provided many with broader exposure and connected others with prominent financiers and technologists".[5]

The Council is currently chaired by chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov.[6]


According to financial disclosures on its website, HRF donors include DNC Treasurer Andrew Tobias, actor Kelsey Grammer, human rights campaigner Bill Browder, actress Anne Archer, Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, Blockhain founder Brock Pierce, actor Gary Sinise, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, technology investor Peter Thiel, and fashion designer Zang Toi. HRF has also received funds from numerous foundations including the Arcus Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Community Foundation of Wyoming, the Combined Federal Campaign, the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Foundation for Democracy in Russia, the John Templeton Foundation, the Roger Firestone Foundation, and the Vanguard Charitable Endowment.[non-primary source needed] HRF is also supported by the Brin Wojcicki Foundation, which was created by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and biotechnology analyst Anne Wojcicki.[7]

Oslo Freedom Forum

The Oslo Freedom Forum is an annual HRF conference in Oslo, Norway, supported by several grant-giving institutions in Scandinavia and the United States through HRF. Donors include Fritt Ord, the City of Oslo, the Thiel Foundation, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Amnesty International Norway, Plan Norway, The Brin Wojcicki Foundation, Human Rights House Foundation, and Ny Tid.[8] The forum is funded in part by the municipality of Oslo, the Norwegian Ministry of affairs, and the Fritt ord Foundation.[9]

HRF advocacy campaigns by country


In 2011, HRF announced its membership in the International Committee to Support Liu Xiaobo. The committee consists of a "coalition composed of six Nobel Peace Prize winners and 15 non-governmental organizations," formed to defend, and advocate for the release of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, both detained in China.[10]


In September 2012, HRF founder Thor Halvorssen wrote an open letter to Ted Marlow, CEO of Urban Outfitters, urging him to reconsider Urban Outfitters' sale of Che Guevara emblazoned merchandise "for the sake of the thousands who perished in the Cuban revolution, and for the sake of the 11 million Cubans who still endure a totalitarian system".[11][12] It was reported that in October 2012 Urban Outfitters removed the merchandise in response to the outrage.[13]

In May 2013, HRF awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent to The Ladies in White (Las Damas de Blanco). In 2015, the award was given to Danilo Maldonado, El Sexto,[14] a Cuban graffiti artist and activist who was arrested in December 2014 for trying to stage a performance art piece in the center of Havana.[15]

In July 2014, HRF submitted a petition to the UN Special Rapporteur requesting an appeal to the government of Cuba on the assault of Roberto de Jesus Guerra Perez, a Cuban journalist and founder of Centro de Informacion Hablemos Press.[16]

Dominican Republic

The Sugar Babies (2007) is a feature-length documentary film about exploitation in the sugar plantations of the Dominican Republic. The film, narrated by Edwidge Danticat, suggests that the descendants of African slaves, brought over from Haiti, live and work in unfair conditions akin to "modern day slavery." HRF produced and provided the funding for the documentary film The Sugar Babies: The Plight of the Children of Agricultural Workers in the Sugar Industry. It was first screened at Florida International University on June 27, 2007. The documentary about human trafficking of Haitians in the Dominican Republic drew protest from the Fanjul brothers, one of the largest beneficiaries of the human trafficking depicted in the film.[17]


In March 2008 HRF wrote to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa asking for the release of the imprisoned, governor of the province of Orellana, Guadalupe Llori implying that the charges against her were politically motivated.[18] Later in March Amnesty International declared that governor Guadalupe Llori may be a prisoner of conscience and a political prisoner[19] According to HRF Llori was imprisoned on trumped up terrorism charges by the government.[20] She was sent to El Inca prison where she remained for about ten months. HRF filed a communication with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, pleading that it activate its urgent action procedure and send an appeal to the government of Ecuador for the immediate release of political prisoner Guadalupe Llori.[21] HRF visited her in prison.[22] She was eventually freed after an intense international campaign and credited HRF with her release.[23]

Equatorial Guinea

In August 2012, HRF called for former US President Bill Clinton, who according to tax documents is the "honorary chairman" of the Leon H Sullivan Foundation, to revoke the foundation's decision to allow Teodoro Obiang to host their Sullivan Summit. Of Clinton, Halvorssen said "Mr Clinton's wife is US Secretary of State...It seems perplexing that he would allow himself to be so closely associated with a vile dictator."[24]


Following the 2010 earthquake that took place in Haiti, HRF began a fundraising campaign for a food program devoted to the children of the St Clare's community of Port-au-Prince. The program was started in 2000 by American author Margaret Trost and by Gérard Jean-Juste, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who served as the priest of the St. Clare's community. The campaign aimed at providing 160,000 meals for children.[25][26][27]


In October 2012, HRF circulated a letter[28][non-primary source needed] to the United States congress detailing the crimes of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, namely those of the Zhanaozen Massacre on December 16, 2011. In response to this letter, HRF was threatened with a lawsuit from Kazakhstan's lobbyist.[29][30][31][non-primary source needed][dead link] In November 2012, HRF and UN Watch invited activists from Venezuela, Pakistan and Kazakhstan to speak about human rights violations in their countries.[32][non-primary source needed][dead link]

In December 2013, HRF submitted a petition to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, requesting that he commence the process of letter of allegation to the government of Kazakhstan regarding the December 2012 crackdown on independent media outlets K-plyus, Stan TV, Respublika, and Vzglyad. The petition called on the U.N. Special Rapporteur to request that the government of Kazakhstan deliver, among other things, "an official and comprehensive answer regarding the state's violation of its international obligation under Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), specifically on the case of the court proceedings against K-plyus, Stan TV, Respublika, and Vzglyad."[33][non-primary source needed]

Previously, HRF had published a legal report concluding that Kazakhstan courts' decisions to ban all publications, broadcasts, and dissemination of information by the newspapers Respublika and Vzglyad and the TV stations K-plyus and Stan TV, along with all associated websites, violated the right to freedom of expression of these media outlets, as well as the rights of the individuals publishing their opinions through them and the rights of the public to receive such information and opinions.[34][non-primary source needed]

North Korea

In 2015, the Human Rights Foundation has helped to organize and bankroll a balloon drop of 10,000 copies of an edited version of the movie The Interview over North Korea. Previously, the Human Rights Foundation "has financed balloon drops of pamphlets, TV shows, books and movies over a course of several years, though nothing as high-profile and crudely belittling to Kim Jong Un as is The Interview."[35]

According to Wired, HRF's North Korea program is "an initiative that unites activists in Korea with technologists and campaigners in the West."[36] In 2014, HRF hosted the world's first hackathon for North Korea at Code For America's offices in San Francisco. According to the Wall Street Journal, "about 100 hackers, coders and engineers gathered in San Francisco to brainstorm ways to pierce the information divide that separates North Korea from the rest of the world."[37]

In 2016, the HRF smuggled USB flash drives with US films and television shows to spread pro-Western sentiment there.[38][39] The flash drives were called "flash drives for freedom".[38]


In February 2011, Francisco Gómez Nadal and María Pilar Chato – both journalists and volunteers at the human rights organization, Human Rights Everywhere (HREV) – were arrested while monitoring a small demonstration of the Ngäbe and Buglé indigenous peoples protesting against reforms made to the Mineral Resources Code of Panama.[40][not in citation given]

In its report on the case HRF established that the "voluntary repatriation" of Gómez Nadal and Pilar Chato took place without due process guarantees and violated the prohibition of arbitrary expulsion of aliens, established in Article 22.6 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 13 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[41][non-primary source needed]


In December 2011, HRF submitted a legal report to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women that examined Pakistan's shortcomings in meeting its obligation to prevent violence against women. HRF's legal report concluded that Pakistan must make a significant effort to ensure that legislation to prevent violence and discrimination against women is enforced at all levels; that government and civil society programs are effectively implemented, with an important focus on rural areas; and that education about universal rights and equal protection under the law reaches men and women alike.[42][non-primary source needed]

In September 2012, HRF submitted a petition and legal report to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women requesting that she send an allegation letter to the government of Pakistan regarding its failure to exercise due diligence in the case of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani human rights activist and victim of a violent gang rape in 2002.


In February 2012, three members of Pussy Riot performed a "Punk Prayer" in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in protest of the Russian Orthodox Church, which openly endorsed Putin as he campaigned for presidential reelection.[43][irrelevant citation]

As a result, in March 2012, the three women – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich – were arrested and charged with the crime of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred."[44][irrelevant citation] On August 17, 2012, they were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.[45][irrelevant citation]

On August 16, 2012, HRF published a legal report concluding that "Russia failed to establish that its interference with [Pussy Riot's] freedom of expression – the arrest, confinement, criminal trial, conviction and two-year prison sentence – was prescribed by law, pursued a legitimate aim, and was necessary to achieve that aim." The report concluded: "Russia has violated the European standard of freedom of expression that it is required to comply with under the European Convention on Human Rights."[46][non-primary source needed] On August 17, 2012, HRF's chairman Garry Kasparov was arrested by police outside the courthouse in Moscow where the trial against three members of Pussy Riot was taking place.[47][irrelevant citation]


In 2014 HRF invited Swazi human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum. He was later jailed for defaming the King's justice system.[48]

After a sustained media international campaign, Maseko was eventually freed.[49]


In 2009, a bill that would increase discrimination against homosexuals resurfaced in Uganda and was brought before the Ugandan Parliament. The Human Rights Foundation and founder Thor Halvorssen have condemned the bill, with Halvorssen saying,[non-primary source needed]

[t]here is speculation over whether the current Bill being discussed has dropped the death penalty as a punishment for aggravated homosexuality offenses. Even if that is the case, the remaining provisions of the Bill and other current laws in Uganda which promote discrimination against homosexuals are still shameful and unacceptable. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against any form of unreasonable government interference in their private lives.[50]


According to HRF's website, the "Caracas Nine campaign focuses on the plight of nine Venezuelans who spoke their minds and paid a price."[51][non-primary source needed] In November 2007, HRF launched a video campaign showcasing the case of Francisco Usón, a retired Venezuelan army general and former cabinet minister in the government of President Hugo Chávez who was sentenced to five and a half years in a maximum-security prison for making a statement expressing concern for human rights.[52][irrelevant citation] In November 2009, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Venezuela to annul the case against Francisco Usón, for violations to freedom of expression, and to due process. The court also ordered the Venezuelan State to pay +$100,000 in damages to Usó[unreliable source]n.[53][irrelevant citation] The nine cases exposed through the Caracas Nine campaign were:

  1. Francisco Usón
  2. Yon Goicoechea
  3. Alberto Federico Ravell
  4. Marta Colomina
  5. José Humberto Quintero
  6. Gustavo Azócar Alcalá
  7. Rubén González
  8. María Lourdes Afiuni
  9. Miguel Hernández Souquett

In 2007 HRF protested the refusal to renew RCTV television station's broadcasting licence by the government. HRF created a website that features information, and a video on censorship, in connection with this.[54][non-primary source needed] The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern about the failure to renew the licence.[55][unreliable source] The campaign against the refusal to renew the license – widely viewed by the human rights community as a "shutdown" – included Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the World Press Freedom Committee and numerous other journalism and human rights organizations, but did not achieve its goal so far against a heedless government. In February 2011, HRF filed an amicus curiae brief with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Leopoldo López Mendoza v. the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. López, a popularly elected mayor, was disqualified without due process from rerunning for office.[56][non-primary source needed]

In February 2014, HRF declared Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López a prisoner of conscience. HRF joined many high-profile figures and international organizations in calling for his immediate release.[57][non-primary source needed]

Conferences and events

Hack North Korea

In 2014, HRF hosted Hack North Korea, a gathering of Bay Area technologists, investors, engineers, designers, activists and North Korean defectors that aimed to spark new ideas for getting information into North Korea.[58][59][60]

College Freedom Forum 2017 in Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala City

College Freedom Forum

The College Freedom Forum (CFF) is a series of one-day events designed to educate and enlighten students about individual rights and democracy around the world. Each CFF features presentations and an opportunity for students and audience members to interact with the speakers one-on-one and during a question and answer session.[61]

U.N. Human Rights Council Member Elections

In November 2012 and 2013, HRF co-hosted an event at the United Nations headquarters in New York with the Geneva-based organization UN Watch. The events focused on raising awareness of the election of competitive authoritarian and fully authoritarian regimes to the UN Human Rights Council. HRF brought human rights activists from different countries to testify about the abuses committed by their respective governments.[62]

Oslo Freedom Forum

With support from the city of Oslo and the John Templeton Foundation,[63] in May 2009 HRF organized the Oslo Freedom Forum. During the conference democracy and human rights activists[64] told their stories and expressed their views about human rights in the world today. Participants included author Jung Chang, holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, Buddhist monk Palden Gyatso, North Korea escapee Park Sang Hak,[65][irrelevant citation] former British royal Sarah, Duchess of York and Chinese activist Harry Wu. Its 2010 event was supported by the Norwegian government Foreign Ministry, Amnesty Internacional Norway, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and was endorsed by the Nobel Peace Center and Freedom House among several others.[66][non-primary source needed][67][non-primary source needed] In 2011, the forum featured panelists from Russia, Egypt, Brazil, and Denmark, covering topics such as the "progress made in the realms of civil liberties and freedoms over the past century" and "the rapidly growing movement for democracy in the Middle East." Distinguished speakers included Nobel Laureates Leymah Gbowee, Shirin Ebadi, and Jody Williams. Also speaking at the forum were American neuroscientists James Fallon and Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy.[67][non-primary source needed]

In recent years speakers included Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, Twitter vice president Colin Crowell, Malaysian opposition leader Nurul Izzah Anwar, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, and former Russian political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky.[68][non-primary source needed]

San Francisco Freedom Forum

In October 2012 the Human Rights Foundation hosted the first San Francisco Freedom Forum, which was described as "a unique convergence of-pro freedom voices." The event was supported by Peter Thiel's charitable foundation, Sergey Brin's foundation, and Anne Wojcicki. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, on her first trip to the United States since 1971, was presented with a Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. Suu Kyi discussed the motives behind human rights violations and said that they cannot be addressed unless "we know what can be done to prevent" people from dehumanizing one another.[69] The Forum brought attention to a number of human rights issues, and other attendees included Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who challenged her country's ban on women driving by coordinating a "Women2Drive" protest via YouTube, and the spokesman of jailed Russian punk band Pussy Riot.[70][71][72]

Sime MIA

In November 2014, the Oslo Freedom Forum curated a session at the Sime MIA[73][non-primary source needed] conference in Miami. The conference featured HRF president Thor Halvorssen, Jordanian cartoonist Suleiman Bakhit, and North Korean refugee Yeonmi Park.[74]

Center for Law and Democracy

Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

In November 2011, HRF announced the publication of The Responsibility to Protect: The Promise of Stopping Mass Atrocities in Our Time, published by the Oxford University Press and co-sponsored by HRF-CLD.[75][non-primary source needed] Prefaced by HRF then-chairman Václav Havel and Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Responsibility to Protect is a collection of articles by scholars, diplomats, and human rights activists.[76][non-primary source needed]

Honduran Democracy Crisis

Following the 2009 Honduran coup d'état that deposed President Manuel Zelaya, HRF requested all member states of the Organization of American States to adhere to the Inter-American Democratic Charter. HRF also advocated for the suspension of the government that ousted President Zelaya.[77] HRF chairman Armando Valladares resigned on July 2, 2009, in response to the HRF position on the Honduran coup.[78] The new chairman of the organization was poet and former Czech president Václav Havel.

In November 2009, HRF published a report called "The facts and the law behind the democratic crisis in Honduras 2009",[79][non-primary source needed] in which it concluded that the Organization of American States had acted correctly in activating the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and incorrectly in its diplomatic actions to revert the military coup. The report also concludes that the OAS behaved as an agent of Zelaya prior to the coup d'état and that Zelaya had been eroding Honduran democracy.[80]

In July 2011, the Honduran Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR-H), led by Eduardo Stein, published its final report on the events. The CVR-H based its main conclusions on HRF's report: "The commissioners … agree with the analysis made by the Human Rights Foundation, in defining what happened in Honduras as a coup d'état, [namely that] a coup d'état would refer to a scenario with the following four concurring elements: 'first, that the victim of the coup is the president or other civil authority with full control of executive power in that country; second, that the perpetrator of the coup has used violence or coercion to remove the victim from his post; third, that the action or actions that constitute the coup are abrupt or sudden and rapid; and fourth, that this action occurs in clear violation of the constitutional procedure to remove the president, or chief executive.' In the case of Honduras, all of the four aforementioned elements were present."[81]

Promoting a More Protective Standard for Freedom of Speech

"Speaking Freely" is a comparative legal research project of the HRF-Center for Law and Democracy that seeks to better inform decision makers around the world and the global public about the value of a high free speech standard. According to HRF's website, "[t]he research project will first track the ancient origins of the offenses of "incitement" and "defamation of public officials," their evolution in the Middle Ages, and their adoption as legal provisions by European nations and their former colonies. Then, the project will study the evolution of the U.S. First Amendment free speech standard and the rationales behind it, while charting the pervasive misuse of incitement and official defamation laws by democratic and non-democratic governments around the world.

The project will study, compare, and disseminate landmark U.S. court opinions in the evolution of the broad protections guaranteed under the First Amendment juxtaposed with different speech-restricting laws enforced in both modern-day authoritarian states and liberal democracies around the world."[82][non-primary source needed]

Public perceptions and criticism

Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Goldstein refers to the organization as "respected",[83] while HRF – along with Human Rights Watch,[84] Freedom House, and other rights groups – has been called a CIA front by Jean Guy Allard writing for Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party.[85][86]

Writing as president of HRF in the American conservative magazine National Review, Thor Halvorssen participated in NR's symposium on the death of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and was noted as the only one of the six commentators to condemn Pinochet unequivocally, writing: "Augusto Pinochet took full control of Chile – by force. He shut down parliament, suffocated political life, banned trade unions, and made Chile his sultanate. His government disappeared 3,000 opponents, arrested 30,000 (torturing thousands of them), and controlled the country until 1990."[87][irrelevant citation][88]

After the HRF criticized the Bolivian government and specifically government minister Sacha Sergio Llorenti Soliz for alleged human rights violations in a public letter, the minister referred to HRF as "right wing".[89][90][non-primary source needed] In the same month, eighteen Latin America scholars signed an opinion piece in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten criticizing the Oslo Freedom Forum for focusing criticism only on Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, three countries with leftist governments. The scholars praised the group for putting "the spotlight on key global issues", but also stated that Cuban human rights activist Armando Valladares had defended the 2009 Honduran coup d'état while speaking at the forum.[91]

In 2014, during the inaugural lecture at Francisco Marroquín University, Thor Halvorssen stated the following regarding public perceptions associated with the organization: "HRF criticizes equally harshly the Chilean dictatorship of Pinochet as well as the Cuban dictatorship of Fidel Castro, even though the first one gave more economic freedom to his citizens than the latter. HRF criticizes equally harshly the Chinese dictatorship of Deng Xiaoping (and its current successors) as well Mao Tse Dong's dictatorship, even though the first one gave more economic freedom to its citizens and allowed for 140 million Chinese to escape poverty in less than twenty years, while a few years before that millions had starved to death as a result of Mao's Great Leap Forward… HRF criticizes just as harshly the competitive authoritarianisms in Malaysia and Singapore, as well as the competitive authoritarianisms in Burma and Venezuela, even though the first two have had success promoting national and international investment, economic growth, and that, in turn, it has allowed for the free functioning of the price system, unlike the latter."[92][non-primary source needed]


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