The image most people have of a human rights activist does not usually include personal experience of how a loss of human rights can affect family members. Thor Halvorssen has spent the majority of his teenage and adult life handling the fact members of his own family have been stripped of their human rights purely because of their political beliefs; coming from one of the best-known political families in both Norway and Venezuela has been no guarantee of safety for members of the Halvorssen family.
The issues surrounding human rights began for Thor when he was studying at the University of Pennsylvania and saw his own father imprisoned and tortured by Venezuelan law enforcement officials. Thor’s father had earlier been appointed to diplomatic status as he investigated rumors of corruption within law enforcement agencies and Venezuelan drug gangs; the illegal act of imprisoning the elder Halvorssen lasted 74 days and resulted in bringing Thor closer to human rights groups when he began working to free his father with the aid of Amnesty International. Although the best-known incident surrounding the Halvorssen family may have been the imprisonment of Thor’s father the New York-based activist was also affected when his mother was shot by Venezuelan officials when she attended a protest against then-Socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
In becoming involved in the human rights community Thor Halvorssen has continued a long family tradition of looking to protect others from the issues they may face with human rights abuses. An incident of World War II is well known among the members of the Halvorssen family when Thor’s grandfather was working as the head of the Norwegian Merchant Navy and hoped to keep ships out of the hands of the occupying Nazi forces by sending them to Venezuelan ports following a physical fight with German officials. Thor himself has placed his own body on the line in the name of human rights when his interview with a Vietnamese political prisoner held under house arrest was discovered by local authorities; in order to protect the video of the interview held with the Vietnamese religious leader Thor and his camera operator refused to hand over a copy despite a severe physical assault.