OSLO—Not often is one caught between the president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, and his nemeses—opposition leader Garry Kasparov, legendary Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, and Chechen activist Lidia Yusupova. Yet this is what happened to those of us who gathered last month for the Oslo Freedom Forum. All shared the same hotel, and all were hosted by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.

Conspiracy theories abounded. Had the Norwegian government wanted to subject Medvedev—in Oslo for a state visit—to the humiliation of facing the devil in the halls of the Grand Hotel? Was the government trying to promote peaceful dialogue, being as how Oslo is the seat of the Nobel Peace Prize? Or was this a diplomatic blunder for which Moscow will make Norway pay dearly, perhaps by stirring trouble in the disputed Barents Sea?

The delegates to the forum organized by Thor Halvorssen’s Human Rights Foundation (of whose International Council I am a nonactive member) were unable to persuade Medvedev to engage with Kasparov and company. But the eerie coincidence at least brought extra attention to the forum, which featured Sophal Ear, a survivor of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge genocide; Lubna Hussein, the Sudanese journalist prosecuted for wearing trousers; Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister of Malaysia placed in solitary confinement for six years for denouncing corruption; Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur entrepreneur first hailed by Beijing as a model for her country and then incarcerated for denouncing Chinese oppression; Kang Chol-Hwan, the North Korean defector who survived 10 years in a concentration camp; Marina Nemat, the Iranian author thrown in jail at 16 for criticizing the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban blogger routinely beaten up in the streets of Havana and prevented from traveling (she sent a video), among others.

Their energy is badly needed in a world in which the issue of “human rights” suffers fatigue for various reasons.

First, because the cause has been politicized by organizations more interested only in human rights depending on the ideology of the perpetrators and the victims, it has become associated with left-wing activism. Second, the United Nations Human Rights Commission had become a platform for bloodthirsty demagogues until it was dissolved in 2006. Third, the rise of emerging nations through the embrace of globalization has lessened the gravity of some regimes’ daily assaults on human dignity. Finally, some confuse the Obama administration’s keenness to no longer have the United States be perceived as a world policeman with a moral relativism that makes it unfashionable to take issue with governments that kill, incarcerate or silence critics.

Not to diminish the lesson in courage that the dissidents of the Cold War gave us, but there is something different in being a human rights champion today. Back then, if you were a dissident Soviet or Hungarian or Romanian or Cuban writer, activist, politician or scientist, you were assured a certain international cover as soon as your case was known. The international support system conferred prestige on the victims and raised the cost of human rights violations for the dictators. Today, the echo of the victims’ voices is much more tenuous.

Heroes such as Ear, desperately trying to make people understand that the culprits of Cambodia’s genocide have not been tried, or Nemat, keen to let us know that women are subjected to sexual abuse by husbands they did not choose and that children go to prison for criticizing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or Yusupova, intent on explaining that the Chechens massacred by Russia have nothing to do with Islamic terrorism, are condemned to a more solitary fight.

During the Cold War, there were two camps. Today’s fragmentation isolates activists from each other and from centers of international opinion, facilitating the work of even puny dictators. A good proof is Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who despite being indicted for genocide has just validated his rule in a grotesque election, or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, whose racist rule is supported by nations that suffered racism themselves. An additional difficulty is that Islamic terrorism has given nationalist dictatorships in Russia, the Middle East and North Africa carte blanche to commit brutalities.

I asked Bukovsky about the differences between the cause of human rights in the Cold War era and today. His simple reply is good beyond Russia: “None of them change the fact that this cause is one and only one, no matter what period or what ideology.”