Over the past week, Ethiopian, East African, and human rights organizations all over the world have published a flurry of open letters, condemning Columbia's decision to host Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi at this week's World Leaders Forum. The letters reopen the old, rankling, and unsettled debates raised by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 2007 visit, questions about whether it is in line with the University's mission and stature to invite controversial—some would say dictatorial—world leaders to speak to students and faculty members on campus. As these questions reemerge, the Columbia Political Union wishes to express its position that the invitation of Zenawi, and all events fostering political dialogue and awareness, are both in tune with our own mission and that of the University as a whole. Yet, such events may only be beneficial to students and the world when the University serves as a neutral and critical moderator. In this light, the previous inclusion of an unedited quote from the Ethiopian government's mission on the WLF's online event description must be described as an unfortunate and sullying gaff. The unqualified statement implied University support for Zenawi and his government. The retraction of the quote and the reaffirmation in a statement by Columbia's Director of Media Relations, Robert Hornsby, that the University remains a neutral party and that Zenawi's speech will be followed by an open question-and-answer period, have done much to assure that the event will, in line with the goal of WLF, "advance lively, uninhibited dialogue." Still, the mishap has raised reasonable doubts. CPU maintains that this event can prove beneficial, especially in exploring the criticisms of Zenawi used to urge Columbia to reconsider its invitation. Detractors accuse Americans of viewing Zenawi, an American ally in Africa, without scrutiny—and this is fair. His is not a name to make the major news cycles, not a name to enter daily conversation like Ahmadinejad's. Profiles of the man in the West are a mixed bag—questioning his two-decade tenure and his treatment of opposition parties and the press, but applauding his push for stability, economic growth, and self-sovereignty. Most Americans could not tell their East African counterparts whether they consider the man a dictator, or a democrat in the throes of difficult national transitions. Giving such a man a podium does not mean endorsing his ideas, as has been argued. It does, however, mean drawing attention to the man. And as long as we are true to our spirit—and Hornsby holds his word that a free and robust questioning of Zenawi occurs, possibly forcing him to confront with candor the questions he may be able to avoid in his own nation—that attention will hopefully lead to reflection and investigation in the news cycle, and among individuals at Columbia and beyond, which will benefit the world. True, if Zenawi is a dictator, he may spin the event any way he likes at home, casting this as an endorsement. But spin is spin, and a dictator seeking self-legitimation will find it somewhere. Weighing the benefit of awareness, dialogue, pressure from our corner, and the manipulation of that dialogue by outside sources is a complex calculation. But to shy from controversy, to avoid engaging with a tricky situation, to cease even trying to support uninhibited and fruitful dialogue in the world, would be misguided and out of line with our mission as a group, and Columbia's as an institution. As long as the exchange is truly free, spirited, and critical, it is wise to err on the side of engagement. Sara Jacobs is the general manager. Emily Tamkin is the director of operations and the Spectator editorial page editor. Alex Frouman is the treasurer. Mishaal Khan is the events coordinator. Alisa Lu is the director of communications. Samuel Roth is the publisher and a member of the Spectator editorial board. Tim Lam is the CubPub.org blog editor-in-chief. Chris Chan is the technical director. Iman Nanji is the publisher of the Columbia Political Review. Mark Hay is the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Political Review.
Columbia Spectator Staff