Why Did UNESCO Name a Prize After a Notorious Dictator?


UNITED NATIONS, May 13 (IPS) -- Human rights groups are expressing outrage over a decision to proceed with the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, named after and funded by the controversial president of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

Obiang first suggested the award to the Paris-based U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's executive board in a speech in 2007, promising three million dollars to UNESCO over the next five years, which would come from the Obiang Nguema Foundation for the Preservation of Life. It was approved by UNESCO's executive board in 2008.

In a joint letter to UNESCO's Director General Irina Bokova on Monday, signatories representing 30 human rights groups from across the globe condemned Obiang as "one of the world's most infamous dictators", describing the alliance between UNESCO and Obiang as "ill-conceived" and threatening to overshadow UNESCO's "valuable work."

The letter calls instead for the three million dollars donated by President Obiang to be applied to social welfare programs for Equatoguineans.

"UNESCO's credibility is irreparably harmed when it disregards the dire conditions faced by the people of Equatorial Guinea and permits an autocrat to use the organisation to launder his image," reads the letter.

"The grim irony of awarding a prize recognizing 'scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life,' while naming it for a president whose thirty-year rule has been marked by the brutal poverty and fear of his people and a global reputation for governmental corruption, would bring shame on UNESCO," it says.

In a 2009 report, Amnesty International accused the Equatorial Guinea government of engaging in arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, torture, forced evictions, and assaults on freedom of expression.

Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, has echoed these charges.

Wrapping up a nine-day fact-finding mission to the country in November 2008, Nowak concluded that "the context that allows torture to continue unabatedly is characterized by the non-functioning of the administration of justice and, therefore, the absence of the rule of law."

"In Equatorial Guinea, I found a systematic practice of torture, extremely inhuman conditions of detention in police custody and a certain lack of cooperation by the government," he said.

This week's joint letter regarding the prize sent to Bokova, and circulated to member states of the executive board, is not the first correspondence on the issue.

At the beginning of May, Bokova responded to another letter sent by the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth. In it, she addressed criticisms about the UNESCO-Obiang prize, shifting the responsibility for the establishment and acceptance of the prize onto the shoulders of the executive board.

"Having heard the strong support of the African Member States of the Executive Board, the formal decision to establish the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for the Research in the Life Sciences was taken by the Executive Board of UNESCO by consensus at its 180th session in September, 2008," wrote Bokova.

"It is thus an obligation of the Secretariat to implement the Executive Board's decision, and my duty is to ensure credibility, integrity and professionalism of this process," she said, reiterating a statement she issued at the 184th session of the executive board at the beginning of last month.

"I have myself received criticism about this prize, which I immediately communicated to the Board, as decisions about prizes are the prerogative of the Member States," she said.

"I have done my best, as Director-General, to fulfil my role, which is to ensure the credibility of the process," she added.

Lisa Misol, a senior researcher on business and human rights at Human Rights Watch, told IPS, "The short answer is that the board does have important power and we've contacted them too, but so far no party at UNESCO has been willing to take the necessary action to stop the prize."

"The DG [Bokova] could and should have specifically asked the board to review the matter and instead sent totally confused signals. Also, she could have delayed it again till the next board meeting if need be. Finally, we don't have any new reply since our Monday letter," she said.

"The back story is that she came in as a reform candidate last year, and she doesn't want to upset the large contingent of the UNESCO membership," Misol said. "It was really badly managed at a minimum."

The first prize is expected to be awarded at the end the June. Under its terms, after a period of five years, "the Director-General of UNESCO together with the donor will undertake a review of all aspects of the Prize and decide about its continuation or termination."

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