The Convergence of Activism and Academia at the Oslo Freedom Forum

By Lillian Hussong, Contributor

Thor Halvorssen, founder of the Olso Freedom Forum, presenting opening remarks at the 2018 annual Oslo Freedom Forum.

“Once people begin to believe, at least in principle, in human equality, there is no logical limit to the expansion of human rights and self-determination.” —Martha Finnemore

I was one of six graduate students from the Rutgers University Division of Global Affairs who travelled to Norway to attend the 10th annual Oslo Freedom Forum from May 26 – 31, 2018.  Organized by the Human Rights Foundation, the Oslo Freedom Forum brings together human rights activists, politicians, political dissidents, lawyers, NGO workers, artists, and technology experts from around the world to share stories of political oppression and brainstorm ways to promote and expand democracy.  Guest speakers discuss an array of topics, such as the violation of human rights based on gender, ethnicity, or culture, the restriction of political freedom, the suppression of journalistic freedom, creative artistic dissent, and more.

Attending the Oslo Freedom Forum was transformative; it presented me with a new perspective on the ways in which people come together to address local and global problems.  Since I graduated college in 2012, I have lived the academic life: I obtained two Master’s degrees, taught for one year at the university and high school levels, and enrolled in a PhD program where I am currently working on my dissertation.  Thus, while I have attended numerous conferences, workshops, and lectures in the academe, I have had far less engagement with people whose lives exist outside of classrooms and libraries.  Attending this trip helped me gain two valuable insights.

My first observation was about how people identify and think about problems.  Within academia there is a certain rigidity to which students learn about the causal mechanisms of conflict.  The paradigmatic assumptions of structural realism in international relations, for example, may emphasize the nature of the international system—whether one, two, or several countries ostensibly exercise power over the rest of the globe—and how this configuration of power may lead to discord among nations.  In economics, the distribution of wealth among domestic groups or the historical development of market economies in different societies may explain conflict or economic decline.  Each discipline offers a “slice” of understanding the puzzle, but also reminds us that there are many ways in which we can view a problem.

Lillian received a book about censorship in China for her participation in Firewall Internet Cafe’s workshop on search engine censorship in China!

Attending the Oslo Freedom Forum upended the rigidity to which I have become accustomed in academia.  For some invited speakers, how the violation of human rights could be theoretically explained was irrelevant; what mattered was that they suffered, often violently, from the real-world consequences of state-sponsored oppression.  Other speakers readily identified the roots of conflict in their countries, yet they were not necessarily the traditional explanations that might be considered in the classroom.    This multiplicity of understanding is important—it reminds us that we must consider every perspective, every “slice,” in order to put together a bigger picture.

During the forum I attended a workshop hosted by a design company that was in the process of creating a digital memorial to victims of genocide.  I was keen to participate because I have a Master of Arts in Holocaust & Genocide Studies from Stockton University, and helped to co-found the Genocide & Atrocity Prevention Project at Rutgers University with Dr. Alexander Hinton.  While I have taught several classes on genocide to undergraduate and high school students, this was my first experience sitting amongst human rights activists, lawyers, and data analysts to brainstorm effective ways in which to raise awareness about the effects of systematic violence for the planned memorial.  This brings me to a second point I learned during my trip.

When I spoke to the workshop hosts about the definitions of genocide and asked which definition they intended to use, they mentioned my comments and my background to the rest of the workshop participants.  Suddenly I was seen as an expert amongst groups of people with whom I had had little previous interaction, and my “slice” of understanding mattered.  While I was seeing firsthand how important it was to hear the perspectives of activists, activists were learning about the importance of scholarly inquiry from me.

DGA Group
A group of DGA students at the Oslo Freedom Forum, 2017.

There are scholars in academia who have debated the merits of cross-disciplinary, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary research.  These three definitions suggest that several academic disciplines come together to investigate a problem in varying degrees.  While I have heard of the term “transdisciplinary” research—research that moves beyond the borders of disciplinarity—I have not seen enough emphasis of it in international relations research.   Attending the Oslo Freedom Forum afforded me that perspective: to solve a problem, we need to consider perspectives both in and out of the classroom.


Lillian Hussong is a PhD candidate at the Rutgers University Division of Global Affairs where she holds The Simon Reich Fellowship for Research in Global Governance and serves as a Graduate Fellow. She previously earned a Master of Arts in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Stockton University.  Hussong’s professional experience in the field of genocide studies includes serving as an adjunct faculty member at Stockton University, an editor for H-Genocide, and as a co-founder of the Genocide & Atrocity Prevention Program at Rutgers University. She also gives public lectures on Holocaust and genocide studies for the South Jersey community.

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