From the moment his dead-of-night emails, texts, and encrypted Wickr messages start flooding my inboxes like a storm surge, it’s clear that Thor Halvorssen, who keeps vampire hours, is not your average clock-punching do-goodnik.
The 39-year-old Halvorssen is president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF), which he launched in 2005. Half-Norwegian, half-Venezuelan (born and raised in Caracas, he speaks accentless American English), he descends from assorted swashbucklers and heads of state. His paternal grandfather Øystein, who was the Norwegian king’s consul in Venezuela during World War II, diverted all of Norway’s merchant fleet to Venezuelan ports when the Germans invaded his homeland, then had a fistfight with a couple Nazis when they stopped by to object. His mother is descended from the first president of Venezuela, Cristóbal Mendoza, as well as from Simón “The Liberator” Bolívar, the statesman/military leader who helped win Latin America’s independence from Spain. For Thor, as for his forebears, human rights and individual liberty are not something that should be on the table in any discussion, they are the table upon which all other discussions rest.
His knowledge of the subject is not theoretical. After exposing government corruption while working as Venezuela’s drug czar, his father was tortured in a Caracas prison. His mother was shot in an anti-Hugo Chávez demonstration. His first cousin Leopoldo López—a perpetual challenger of the Chavista regime that failed to die with its namesake—is currently gutting it out as a political prisoner in a Venezuelan jail. But unlike many in the human-rights racket, Thor spends no time playing the stereotypical activist sad-sack. He doesn’t emit sour world-weariness, or cluck over the evils of American hegemony, or adopt the default gloomy-Gus disposition of one who loves humanity and hates people.
“I love people!” Thor says, as he says most things: emphatically. Those he loves most are dissidents and defectors, freedom’s troublemakers who blow spitballs at authoritarians while standing up against tyranny. Thor had Václav Havel serve as HRF’s chairman until he died in 2011, only to replace him with Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster and political activist/Vladimir Putin scourge. It’s not a ceremonial title, either. By 2012, Kasparov was carried off and repeatedly punched by Russian police while protesting the guilty verdict of Pussy Riot, the Moscow punk band sentenced to two years in prison for the crime of singing an anti-Putin song.
Thor himself has been beaten black-and-blue for the cause. In 2010, he and a cameraman traveled to Ho Chi Minh City to interview the patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Thich Quang Do, whose church had been banned, and who’d spent 28 years under house arrest. After Thor snuck into his monastery, they taped an interview. On the way out, Vietnamese authorities decided to use Thor as a heavy bag. He was arrested and detained until convincing police he was a Buddhist seeker. (He’s actually a lapsed Catholic.) His cameraman snuck out a side door with the video card hidden in his rectum. “Someone else had to download that one,” Thor grimaces. HRF’s unofficial motto, it seems, is don’t just talk about human rights, roll up your sleeves and get dirty.
In some quarters, Halvorssen is thought of as a right-winger for his serial criticism of left-wing Latin American dictatorships and receipt of some funding from traditionally conservative foundations. He admits one progressive deep-pockets philanthropist, Sigrid Rausing, walked out of their meeting in a huff when she found out HRF had received a check from the conservative Bradley Foundation. “A sense of intolerance that was almost crippling,” he says, still chapped. “No concern for our track record, achievements, political prisoners freed. All that waved away based on perceived politics. Meanwhile, Bradley doesn’t even fund us anymore.”
Thor adamantly rejects the conservative label, considering himself a “classical liberal” in the John Stuart Mill tradition and pointing out that he’s pilloried Chile’s right-wing Pinochet (in the pages of National Review, no less), just as he has Venezuela’s left-wing Chávez. He stands against dictators of any stripe. “Why discriminate?” he says. He doesn’t even ask about the political inclinations of anyone who works for him, so long as they’re on the same mission: to rid the world of tyranny. HRF staffers tend to range from dishwater democrats to the legal brains behind the operation, a Bolivian attorney named Javier El-Hage who grew up a Che-worshipping Marxist, but who eventually realized that “Cuba’s dictatorship was just as despicable as any other Communist or anti-Communist dictatorship around the world.”