Freedom fighter

Latin America | He may not look like one, but Thor Halvorssen is a warrior when it comes to human rights

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

NEW YORK-Try pigeon-holing Thor Halvorssen, 32, as a conservative and he'll fly the coop. Try counting him among liberal elites and he'll break rank. In fact, try putting any politically charged label on him and nothing will stick. Should you ever meet him, there's only one nametag that he would like to wear: Hello, my name is freedom fighter.

As the founder, president, and CEO of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), Halvorssen is particularly concerned about the "heartbreaking lack of interest in what is going on in Latin America. There are hundreds of millions living under governments that don't care about human freedom." He learned that while a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, when his dad, who had exposed international drug trafficking by high-ranking Venezuelan government and banking officials, was arrested and spent 74 days in jail before the government released him.

Though Halvorssen's grandfather hailed from Norway before settling in Venezuela, Thor is not one to greet his guests with a sheep's horn helmet and a Viking sword. Books, not Norseman artifacts or miniature dragon boats, sit on the glass coffee table in his Empire State Building office. Nor does Halvorssen look warlike. His brown hair dips below his forehead and tickles his eyebrows like a Southern California surfer, and he's traded the deer skin shawls and boots of his ancestors for a blue, pin-striped suit and black leather shoes.

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Still, the name "Thor" fits in some ways-his emphasis on freedom means he'll go to war against anyone who tries to curtail it. When Halvorssen says HRF is a "brass-knuckled fighting machine when it comes to our mission," he means it. He and his staff-an Obama supporter who graduated from Harvard, a McCain supporter from Duke, and others-do not back down from a fight.

Last year HRF stumbled on the story of Guadalupe Llori, an Ecuadorian official imprisoned in December 2007 for speaking out against that country's left-wing strongman, Rafael Correa. By February HRF had completed a full investigation and concluded she was innocent of any real wrongdoing. By July, Halvorssen and his staff published full-page ads in Washington, D.C., newspapers detailing Llori's story. They timed their freedom campaign to coincide with visits from senior Ecuadorian officials to optimize the pressure. Correa eventually gave in, but he dubbed HRF's leaders "scoundrels" on national television.

That probably wasn't a good idea-the move only emboldened HRF, and Halvorssen seems to wear the term with reserved pride. Still, he wishes HRF could do more. "We are completely overwhelmed here," he admitted. "We could expand by a factor of 10 and still not have enough to deal with how many human rights violations are occurring in just a couple of these [Latin American] countries."

Halvorssen has also tried to protect rights of free speech on U.S. college campuses. While at Penn he founded FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has become the most visible and successful defender in the United States of free speech in the face of academic liberal bias. In 2007 he helped to produce Indoctrinate U, a documentary that Halvorssen rightly calls "a broadside against the overwhelming assault on individual rights on college campuses."

This spring the Moving Picture Institute (MPI), an organization Halvorssen created in 2005 to promote freedom through film and "nurture a rising generation of filmmakers," will release 2081, a short film based on Kurt Vonnegut's short story, "Harrison Bergeron." Halvorssen calls it "a dystopian tale of a government that handicaps its overachievers and tries to make us all equal." This summer MPI plans to release U.N. Me, a full-length exposé of the United Nations.

Halvorssen believes strongly in the power of film: "If you believe in freedom and you're focused exclusively on politics or exclusively on writing books, or journalism, you've written off the most important element of our culture, which is film."

Jonathon M. Seidl
Jonathon M. Seidl


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