Leiden International Studies Blog

Word from the Chair: Everyone is a gamechanger

Word from the Chair: Everyone is a gamechanger

On 21 April the Four Freedoms Awards were presented in Middelburg. Four what? I hear you say. The ‘thinking person’s Oscars’, or the ‘poor person’s Nobel’, the FFs draw their inspiration from Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms speech’ on 6 January 1941.

The USA was still neutral at that point, but FDR outlined a vision of a peaceful future based on the fundamentals of Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Since 1982 awards have been given to international recipients who through their work epitomize the values expressed in that speech. And why Middelburg? Because the Roosevelts originally came from Zeeland, emigrating to then New Amsterdam in the mid-17th century.

Winner of the main award was Svetlana Tikanovskaya, the Belorussian democracy activist who’s husband is in prison and who continues her struggle from exile in Lithuania. She spoke of the ongoing underground resistance in Belarus, including the actions of ‘partizans’ (her term) who had sabotaged parts of the railway system to disrupt the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One wonders what the conversation was like during lunch, she being sat next to Mark Rutte and Willem Alexander. All of the winners were – as with every Four Freedoms – powerful and inspiring, making you feel very small (and overly comfortable) when confronted with their daily battles (often literally) for basic freedoms around the world. Previous winners who for me have really stood out were Emmanuel de Merode (2018), defending the Virunga National Park and its gorilla population as civil war rages in the Congo, and Al Jazeera (2012), whose spokesperson delivered a remarkably hard-hitting speech criticizing the US military for targeting their journalists in Afghanistan and Iraq. You can find more at www.fourfreedoms.nl

The award for Freedom of Speech this year went to the Vietnamese cultural phenomenon Mai Khoi. Originally a pop star seeking nothing more than fame and wealth, over the past decade Mai Khoi has become the most prominent public intellectual critic of the one-party communist state of Vietnam. Wanting to expand her musical repertoire, she soon ran into trouble with the state censors, triggering an escalation of her protests to take on corruption, political repression, environmental damage, and internet surveillance. The excellent documentary ‘Mai Khoi and the Dissidents’ charts her transition from pop star to protestor, including a painful moment in 2016 when she risked imprisonment to meet Obama only to find the US President prepared to place strategic rapprochement with the regime ahead of human rights. This disillusionment led her to remarkable acts of defiance, as during President Trump’s visit to Vietnam in 2017 when she staged a one-person protest by holding a banner with ‘Piss on Trump’ along the route of the motorcade. Only her continuing fame among Vietnamese youth offered any kind of protection from a regime that was less and less tolerant of such acts of dissent, but by 2019 that was no longer enough, and exile was the only option to secure her safety. Since then she has relocated to Pittsburgh and has been working on her next multi-media show, ‘Bad Activist’. With any luck, she’ll bring the show to Europe in the future. You can read more about her work here.

The Four Freedoms give recognition every two years to individuals around the globe who are prepared to put everything on the line for the sake of a humanitarian cause. It’s a small gesture, but an important one. For a short time, rebels mix with royalty in a seemingly shared campaign for a better world. It’s a reminder that, behind the norms of political and economic activity, there’s a culture of irrepressible humanitarian dissent challenging those norms every day, regardless of the circumstances. As Mai Khoi said, ‘everyone can be a game-changer’.