Fighting for Your Rights 

Historic conference outlines problems and promises of human rights

At the 1999 Human Rights Conference last weekend, Leonard Zeskin asked participants in the packed room at the Holiday Inn Parkside to describe the way they see the world today.

“Self-centered” was one answer.

“Global in-fight” was another.

Zeskin, who is the president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, next asked those assembled for discussion how they felt the world has changed in the past 20 years.

“The ‘haves’ have relatively so much more,” one woman said. “The gap has really increased.”

These kinds of sentiments were often heard at the conference, titled “Human Rights: Organizing for Justice in the New Millennium.” It was held jointly by the Montana Human Rights Network and the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which merged with another human rights group this weekend and changed its name to the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity, making the conference the first of its kind.

As the world has gotten smaller, thanks to the Internet and other modern modes of communication, workshop presenters agreed that the issues are more universal than ever. Overall, the message of the conference seemed to be: Broaden the scope. Anti-racists should form alliances with groups fighting global economic injustice in the interest of promoting human rights as a whole. Activists need to let go of the idea of individual activism and get back to working as communities. Regional human rights groups should also forge affiliations with tribal nations and lend official support in their struggle for sovereignty.

In describing the challenges modern human rights activists face, Zeskin said that the end of the Cold War and the globalization of the economy have contributed to the devolution of nation-states, leading people to take on their own governments and neighbors as enemies more often now that they lack an “external” nemesis. Zeskin pointed out that this movement has manifested itself in militias, through the public outrage over immigration and affirmative action, and in the way white supremacy has found its way into mainstream society and politics.

“Globalization plus fractionalization has led to the emergence of a group who claims the ‘real American’ label, meaning white and Christian like them.” Zeskin noted. “And they are opposed to the state because the state is multi-cultural. They feel under attack because they have to share.”

Echoing many at the conference, Zeskin warned that politicians like Pat Buchanan and Washington Senator Slade Gordon are promoting bigoted agendas, often under the guise of nationalism.

“We have to get the message out that there aren’t two Pat Buchanans,” Zeskin stressed. “He knows the race stuff is poison, so he’ll play up globalization. He didn’t drop racism when he became anti-NAFTA.”

Robert Crawford of the Coalition for Human Dignity sees white supremacist tenets in the “wise use” movement, which he describes as being opposed to tribal sovereignty in all of its forms. Commonly, Crawford said, members are non-tribal landowners who live on reservations and complain of living under “tribal tyranny.” What wise use proponents don’t understand, Crawford explained, is that treaty rights aren’t “special” rights, they are the law of the land and an agreement between two nations.

Crawford advised conference participants to be wary of “property rights” groups using the media to perpetuate anti-Indian rhetoric, which he said was done in Seattle in conjunction with the Makah tribe’s restored right to hunt whales. In that situation, animal rights groups joined anti-sovereignty groups in widely publicized protests.

Bill Wassmuth, who just stepped down as the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment’s executive director, is concerned about the mainstreaming of white supremacy as well, because he said it doesn’t take much to motivate a believer into action.

“They believe they’re in a war of survival with people of color,” he said. “They’re already committed to the ideology, so all it takes is something to push them into action.”

Wassmuth predicted that while we won’t see armed hate groups marching down city streets anytime soon, there will be a continued spattering of violent crimes connected with the supremacist movement in the near future.

“We’re not talking about millions of people, but maybe a handful or dozens,” he added. “But it only takes one person to cause serious damage.”

Wassmuth envisions a future where people have equal access to justice and diversity is respected. He calls himself a product of 1960s idealism, and said he believes we all have the ability to build a better world.

“In the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of that hope was suppressed,” he noted. “There is an attitude of despair. We tend to put significance on dates, such as the upcoming end of the decade, century and millennium. I’m hoping we hear a collective sigh of relief after the new year, and then we pull together and see what we can do.”

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