NEW YORK—The decision by UNESCO’s governing Executive Board on October 4, 2011 to defer any action on a highly controversial life sciences prize named after and funded by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea blocked a move to reinstate the prize immediately, but UNESCO should eliminate the prize permanently, six civil society organizations said today.
At a meeting of the 58-member board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the government delegations decided to continue the suspension of the $3 million UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences and to form a committee to try to reach consensus on a way forward. African countries on the board had attempted to resurrect the stalled prize at Equatorial Guinea’s request. The issue is now due to be decided at the board’s next meeting, in spring 2012.
“Concerned diplomats prevented this latest effort to grant President Obiang the undeserved distinction of an international prize in his name,” said Tutu Alicante, executive director of the non-governmental group EG Justice and an exile of Equatorial Guinea.
“But the UNESCO Board needs to end this debate once and for all by rejecting this prize outright. UNESCO delegates should not let themselves be bullied into backing a public relations campaign by President Obiang.”
The groups calling for the prize’s cancellation, in addition to EG Justice, are Association SHERPA, Committee to Protect Journalists, Global Witness, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Justice Initiative.
The prize was created by a decision of the board in October 2008 but has never been awarded. In the wake of a global campaign against the prize, in June 2010 the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, asked the organization’s board to take up the matter again. She expressed her “alarm and anxiety” at the grave risk awarding such a prize would pose to UNESCO’s reputation. UNESCO’s mission includes the promotion of human rights and press freedom. In October 2010, the Executive Board suspended the prize indefinitely, citing a lack of consensus.
President Obiang nevertheless has pushed vigorously to reinstate the prize. A May 2011 effort by the government of Equatorial Guinea to proceed with the award did not make it onto the agenda of the following board meeting. But President Obiang had hoped to prevail this time with the nominal support of African countries represented on UNESCO’s board. President Obiang secured a resolution in favor of the UNESO prize at an African Union summit in June 2011, which he hosted in Malabo as that organization’s rotating chair.
Yet opposition to the prize surged from governments, civil society and leading public figures. In just the past week alone, human rights groups issued a statement opposing the prize, free-expression groups sent a letter to Bokova, and several groups called on the board to refrain from taking any action on the prize until questions about the suspicious nature of the prize’s funding could be resolved.
On September 30, UNESCO director-general Bokova called on delegations to resolve the heated controversy and warned that proceeding with the prize could put the organization at “war against the scientific community.” “The stakes are very high here,” she was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “I believe that sometimes we have to take courageous decisions." Bokova also appealed to President Obiang to withdraw the prize.
In a statement on October 3, the government of Equatorial Guinea said that it would continue to press for the UNESCO-Obiang award to be issued.
On October 3, 36 prominent scientists, authors, journalists and other public figures made an additional appeal to UNESCO not to honor President Obiang, now Africa’s longest-serving ruler. The signatories, who include the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Nobel Literature Prize Laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, the celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, and the poet and former ambassador from Mexico to UNESCO Homero Aridjis, said in the letter that they were “deeply troubled by the well-documented record of human rights abuse, repression of press freedom, and official corruption that have marked [Obiang’s] rule.”
The signatories also called for the prize to be cancelled permanently.
President Obiang suffered two other setbacks in the past week in Paris. The police seized 11 of his eldest son’s luxury cars outside President Obiang’s posh residence on Avenue Foch as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into properties President Obiang and his family and close associates hold.
Separately, a French court ruled against President Obiang’s claims of defamation against the French non-governmental organization CCFD-Terre Solidaire for a 2009 report it published that detailed the ill-gotten gains of public officials, including President Obiang. In its decision in the defamation case, the court said that “a politician of the highest level, and particularly a head of state, must learn to suffer criticism.”
“UNESCO made a major mistake in 2008 when it first agreed to this prize,” Alicante said. “Now that the organization has been put on notice about Obiang’s record of misrule, it would be unthinkable for the organization to proceed with this award, especially in light of recent events, and especially given that President Obiang’s Paris estate is at the center of a major French anticorruption inquiry.”
The civil society organizations call on UNESCO to halt any action that would make use of the funding for the prize, given ongoing criminal investigations in France and Spain, until it can provide credible assurances that the funds are not tainted by corruption. They also urge UNESCO to establish rigorous prize and donation policies to provide for thorough review of all past and future prizes.