UNESCO Must Abolish Obiang Prize

NEW YORK—UNESCO’s governing executive board should abolish a prize named after and funded by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea at its upcoming meeting, seven civil society groups said today. The board is set to make a final decision on the fate of the prize at its session scheduled for February 27 to March 10, 2012, in Paris.

UNESCO has repeatedly postponed action on the prize in the face of global protest against President Obiang, who has presided over high levels of official corruption, repression and poverty in Equatorial Guinea. In September 2011, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova appealed to President Obiang to withdraw the prize as “proof of generosity” toward the organization. In November, Equatorial Guinea’s government instead announced that President Obiang was willing to “concede” that the prize for research in the life sciences, created in 2008, would “not bear his name.” The civil society groups said UNESCO should firmly reject that proposal.

“The UNESCO-Obiang prize is irreversibly tainted by its association with the repression and high-level corruption of President Obiang’s government,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Laureate who has repeatedly condemned the prize. “Giving the prize a different name does nothing to answer these concerns or remove doubts about the origins of the funds that finance the award.”

Civil society groups and prominent individuals who have rallied against the UNESCO-Obiang prize emphasized that the global campaign to overturn the prize was about more than just its name. Past winners of the Cano World Press Freedom Prize, for example, came out against the UNESCO-Obiang prize, saying that President Obiang’s heavy-handed rule is inconsistent with UNESCO’s own work to advance freedom of expression. The government of Equatorial Guinea does not allow journalists from state-owned media to report on criticisms of President Obiang so many citizens have not have access to news about the concerns raised about the prize.

Ongoing corruption investigations in France, Spain, and the United States against President Obiang, members of his family, or his close associates highlight concerns about high-level corruption in the Equatoguinean government. In September, French authorities seized 11 high-end luxury automobiles valued at more than US$5 million belonging to President Obiang’s eldest son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang (“Teodorín”), from a mansion in an upscale neighborhood of Paris where the son resides during his stays in France. The seizure occurred a short distance from UNESCO’s headquarters, where days later delegates reiterated an earlier decision to suspend the controversial award.

On February 14, French authorities began a second raid on the Obiang residence in Paris as part of their investigation into alleged embezzlement. During the raid, which ended on February 23, police reportedly seized at least two truckloads of high-priced antiquities and artwork purchased by Teodorín. According to press accounts, the items are believed to be worth at least 40 million Euros.

In October, the US Department of Justice moved to seize more than $70 million in US assets belonging to Teodorín, alleging he purchased the items using money obtained from “extortion and/or the misappropriation, theft, or embezzlement of public funds.”

Teodorín’s lawyers in France and the US have disputed the claims against their client.

On October 13, just days after UNESCO agreed to continue the suspension of his prize, President Obiang appointed Teodorín as the country’s permanent assistant delegate to UNESCO. The move has been widely viewed as an effort to provide him diplomatic immunity in France.

“President Obiang is trying to misuse UNESCO to improve his own image and to shield his son from legal troubles,” said Tutu Alicante, an exile of Equatorial Guinea who leads the nongovernmental group EG Justice. “UNESCO should revoke the Obiang prize and send a strong message that its name is not for sale.”

Hundreds of individuals and dozens of organizations, many of them from African countries, have opposed the controversial award and called for the $3 million endowment for the prize to be used instead to alleviate widespread poverty in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

According to the United Nations’ 2011 Human Development Report, Equatorial Guinea’s per-capita gross domestic product (GDP), at $31,779, is on par with that of Japan and Italy and only $2,000 less than that of France. Yet poor living standards placed it at 136 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index, resulting in Equatorial Guinea having by far the largest gap of all the countries between its wealth ranking and its human development score.

The seven groups issuing today’s statement repeating their call on UNESCO to end the Obiang prize are:

Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España
Association Sherpa
Committee to Protect Journalists
EG Justice
Global Witness
Human Rights Watch
Open Society Justice Initiative