Three years after inviting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak, Columbia University has invited Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia, to speak at its “World Leaders Forum.” (A better title might be the “Demagoguery from Dictators” series.) Zenawi may wind up getting billed as a “controversial choice” but he’s yet another dictator to join Columbia’s anti-democracy pavilion, as he’s listed no. 16 on Parade Magazine’s “World’s Worst Dictator” list of 2009.
A former guerrilla leader, Meles shows no signs of sharing power with anyone. In January, his government passed a law forbidding any NGO that receives more than 10% of its budget from abroad from doing human rights work in Ethiopia. Despite Meles’ excesses, the U.S. considers him an important regional ally and continues to train his military.
It’s all well and good that he is an ally for the United States, but why should Columbia honor him with a speaking engagement? In fact, Columbia’s greatest mistake may not have been the invitation, but the naive repetition of Ethiopian officials’ praise for him in the website promoting the event:
“Under the seasoned governmental leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, now in his fourth term … Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses [sic] in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.”
(It could be true that he’s just this good. He did get 99.6 percent of the vote in the last election!) Contrast that to just one of Human Rights Watch’s many complaints:
“Ethiopia’s citizens are unable to speak freely, organize political activities, and challenge their government’s policies–through peaceful protest, voting, or publishing their views–without fear of reprisal.”
Perhaps it’s because Columbia has an appreciation for totalitarian sensibilities when it comes to free speech. Check out its rating on speechcodes.org. You can be punished for “leaning over, invading a person’s space” as “sexual harassment,” and “behavior that is motivated by hostility to race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, gender identity and expression, age, or disability.” In other words, if you’re an atheist criticizing Catholics or vice versa, you can be punished.
Imagine that pitch: You too can have your freedoms limited for only $20,000 a semester. The president of the university, Lee Bollinger, might think that’s not a bad price, after all, he needs to get his $1.4 million salary from somewhere.