NEW YORK/PARIS—The Open Society Justice Initiative and its partners welcomed UNESCO’s decision today to suspend, indefinitely, the prize funded by and named after President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. The groups reaffirmed their call for UNESCO to ultimately abolish the award.
“Teodoro Obiang’s regime undermines everything UNESCO stands for,” said Tutu Alicante, executive director of the organization EG Justice. “We are pleased the Executive Board has acted to protect the organization’s integrity but we will continue working for the prize’s cancellation.”
The $3 million UNESCO Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was set up in 2008 but suspended pending further discussion in June 2010. The decision to postpone the prize indefinitely came through an agreement brokered at UNESCO’s executive board meeting this month. According to these terms, the prize cannot be awarded unless supported by all member states.
Prominent African leaders, Latin American literary figures, Nobel laureates, scientists and public health professionals, press freedom groups, Cano prize winners, and rights organizations from around the world came together in an unprecedented effort to challenge the prize, citing serious concerns about President Obiang’s record of corruption and abuse. Public figures involved in the campaign included: Nobel laureates Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Wole Soyinka, Mario Vargas Llosa, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, and John Polanyi; author Chinua Achebe; human rights advocate Graça Machel; and over sixty professionals from Equatorial Guinea.
“The Obiang family is facing ongoing allegations of corruption with cases in Europe, Africa, and North America. Why weren’t red flags triggered when UNESCO first agreed to accept Obiang’s millions?” said Ken Hurwitz, senior legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative. “Now that the prize has been suspended, UNESCO should implement proper safeguards to address the systemic gaps in oversight revealed by this controversy.”
Equatorial Guinea’s vast oil wealth gives it the highest per-capita GDP in sub-Saharan Africa, yet its health and development indicators are on par with the poorest countries in the world. UNESCO currently has no procedures in place to screen private donations and prevent money laundering.