Middle East studies in the News
Kadhafi speaks to democracy panel in New York
Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi promoted himself as a champion of democracy during an extraordinary live interchange with a mixed US-Libyan audience at New York's Columbia University.
During an event that the organisers acknowledged would have been "impossible" just a few years ago, Kadhafi answered questions via a live video feed from Libya for more than one hour.
The dialogue wrapped up the first major meeting in decades between US and Libyan academics and officials at a two-day panel discussion, hosted by Columbia, on the theme of "Prospects for Democracy" in Libya.
"We honestly didn't know what to expect," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"This was totally unprecedented -- a live interchange with no questions given in advance," said Alterman who, with Lisa Anderson, the dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, posed the questions to the Libyan leader.
Some 45 Libyan scholars and policy analysts attended the conference, along with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch.
The event and Kadhafi's participation were signs of the growing rapprochement between Tripoli and Washington, which had for years demonised Libya as a rogue state that sponsored global terrorism.
The two countries ended a 24-year rupture in diplomatic relations in June 2004, six months after Kadhafi's surprise announcement that he was giving up the quest for weapons of mass destruction.
Three months later, President George W. Bush lifted trade, commercial and travel sanctions on Libya.
Despite the warming of ties, Kadhafi's remarks on Thursday were typically combative as he lauded Libya as the only true democracy in the world and labelled the US political system as "a failure."
Questioned about his regime's human rights record, Kadhafi insisted that "everything is open to discussion" in Libya and criticised the United States for "eavesdropping" on its own people and "creating another state of terror."
"Human rights means being protected from ... harassment by the government," he said.
Asked several times to reflect on any mistakes he might have made and to comment on the particular challenges Libya faces in the future, Kadhafi was evasive, responding at one point that he didn't understand "the thrust" of the question.
"I thought that was a telling remark," commented Fred Abrahams, who attended the conference as a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Though clearly frustrated by some of Kadhafi's responses, Alterman said the exchange was, in itself, a valuable exercise.
"I don't know how many converts he won today, but we had a dialogue," he said.
US public opinion towards Kadhafi is still largely coloured by the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am plane over the Scottish village of Lockerbie that killed 270 people.
Some relatives of the victims of the bombing, for which a Libyan man was convicted in 2001 by a special court in the Netherlands, said they approved of the Columbia dialogue.
"You have to talk," said John Zwynenburg, whose son was killed on the Pan Am flight. "We have to understand their point of view and they to understand our point of view."
Anderson said Kadhafi's involvement was initially suggested by the Libyan co-organisers of the conference.
"It was an opportunity one didn't want to pass up," she said, adding that inviting the Libyan leader to take part was not an endorsement of his regime.
"As a university, we just feel it's important to have access to people of various political persuasions," she said.
Abrahams said he heard nothing new in Kadhafi's remarks but stressed that his participation had lent important weight to the two-day meeting.
"The most important thing was that they came," he said of the Libyan delegation, "even if there are still a lot of differences, especially on the issue of human rights."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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