Nov. 7, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 4

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    Activist Fellows Roundtable: Influential human rights advocates gather to develop policy solutions

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Jaime Miranda of Guatemala, and Armando Bartra of Mexico, talk with Susan Gzesh, Director of the University’s Human Rights Program. The two human rights activists participated in the recent roundtable sponsored on the University campus.

    Earlier this fall, U.S., Mexican and Central American activists who work on human rights, migration and economic development met at the University to network with faculty and each other in the kind of informal, high-powered meeting usually restricted to business and government.

    The event, the University Human Rights Program’s first Activist Fellows Roundtable, was convened to deal with urgent realities: as the flow of people across national boundaries continues and the region struggles with a deepening economic recession, both security and human rights concerns increase. The meeting was a pioneering attempt to bring together a range of people who can confront the problem as a whole.

    Recent census data documents the tremendous growth in Mexican and Central American immigrant populations in the Chicago area, evidence that this international issue is having a local impact. According to Human Rights Program Director Susan Gzesh, unauthorized immigration raises several issues.

    “With increasing border security concerns in the wake of 9/11, human rights advocates are very concerned that rights not be sacrificed to security. At the same time, the development decisions made in new trade agreements will have implications for both economics and human rights.

    “We still don’t fully understand the economic and political forces that cause immigration, nor have changes in law and policy aimed at stemming unauthorized migration succeeded.” This, said Gzesh, is why “there’s a need for academics who analyze these trends and activists who work on policy proposals for policy-makers to talk to each other. And the University is an ideal place for it because we bring faculty from law, sociology, history, political science and anthropology together with activists who can put their findings into action.

    “We wanted to help everybody get new ideas they can take back to their day-to-day work,” Gzesh said, and the roundtable provided access to such ideas. “People who work on human rights and migration policy issues in Guatemala who hadn’t talked with each other at home began to have discussions about how they could coordinate. People in all the countries who work on migration policy in their regions ended up talking about migration policy in the whole hemisphere. This wasn’t even an official topic, but it was definitely one we’d call an ‘intended collateral consequence.’

    Saskia Sassen, the Ralph Lewis Professor in Sociology and the College, Alan Kolata, Chairman of Anthropology and the Neukom Family Professor in Anthropology and the College, and Emilio Kouri, Assistant Professor in History and the College, sit on a panel during the recent Activist Fellows Roundtable at the University.

    “These are the kinds of seminars that people in the corporate world go to all the time, and we want to do it for human rights activists,” Gzesh added. “Most countries don’t have an Aspen Institute. These people are not beginners, these are advocates and directors, senior people in their countries, people who work with agricultural cooperatives, who provide legal assistance for refugees, but they rarely get the chance to have the time and resources for intellectual exchange and reflection on ‘big picture’ issues. The human dimension of these meetings is important, too; we had people who hadn’t talked to each other in their own country dancing together at the party afterward.”

    Chicago faculty attending the event ranged across disciplines, including Saskia Sassen, the Ralph Lewis Professor in Sociology and the College, Emilio Kouri, Assistant Professor in History and the College, and Alan Kolata, Chairman of Anthropology and the Neukom Family Professor in Anthropology and the College.

    Anthony Chase, a Human Rights Program post-doctoral fellow, presented his experience of working with the government of Yemen to create an economic development policy based on a human rights framework. This means that when Yemen decides what industries or crops to promote, it also will consider what public services are needed to guarantee rights to education and health care as well.

    “When you’re talking about economic development, you’re not just talking about how to maximize profits for investors,” said Gzesh. “You’re talking about how to maximize the well-being of the population.”

    Activists focused on the United States and Latin America are not necessarily familiar with economic development politics of the Middle East and enjoyed the comparison between regions, she said.

    They also appreciated the opportunity for exchange with Richard Epstein, the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School, who presented a more typically Chicago philosophy of economics. “The University is well known throughout Latin America for its economic policies; any group of Latin Americans visiting the University would be interested in hearing from one of the real ‘Chicago Boys,’ as they are called in the region,” said Gzesh.