French National Police seized 11 luxury “supercars” in Paris this Wednesday, all belonging to the family of President Teodoro Obiang Ngeuma Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. (Some reports now say 16 cars were taken in all.)
The cars, including a Maserati, two Ferraris, a Porsche and two Bugattis, have a collective reported value of approximately $5m. They are some of the assets French investigators have been uncovering pursuant to a criminal proceeding initiated by civil society organizations Association Sherpa and Transparence International France, regarding three African heads of state, known widely as the “biens mal acquis” (or, “unjust enrichment”) case.
As French police swooped on the Obiang car collection, the Equatoguinean president was also on the agenda of Paris-based UNESCO, the UN's main scientific, educational and cultural body. Its executive board is currently reviewing a bid to revive the "UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences", a year after putting the idea of honoring the president's three decades in power on hold amid a wave of protests.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, which helped coordinate last year's campaign, believes that Unesco' board members should not forget about those cars and what they represent, as they contemplate the proposal to resuscitate the prize. In a letter this week, we and three other groups called on executive board members to halt any activity or action which would advance the Obiang prize until a full investigation into the source of the $3m in funding for it could be carried out.
For, aside from the supercars seized in the French case, there are proceedings or investigations in Spain, the United States and before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, all relating to Mr. Obiang, some of his close family and associates, and their apparent public-asset-conversion-money-laundering habits.
The groups had last year notified UNESCO Executive Board members, Secretariat staff and the organization’s Internal Oversight Service of their concerns about the receipt of the prize donation and asked for investigation into the source of the funds. (Providing over 700 pages of supporting documentation.)
UNESCO said it could not investigate.
When lawyers from the Justice Initiative and Association Sherpa met with UNESCO staff earlier this month, it became clear that UNESCO had not sufficiently vetted the incoming money, the actual donor, or that it even had adequate procedures in place to do so.
The letter, and the cars, reminded executive board members of the thin moral ice they are walking on. This multi-million donation comes from a man—or is it his foundation, or “his” government, or the government's foundation, or something in between?—whose money-moving and property-buying are, or have been, under scrutiny in three UNESCO member states—the US, France and Spain.
If the UNESCO secretariat or executive board members think the international anti-money laundering practices usually reserved for states and banks, such as the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force, aren’t for them, they might want to consider the policy its parent body, the United Nations, has promoted in the UN Convention Against Corruption: “to prevent, detect, and deter … transfers of illicitly acquired assets” in recognition of “the need to safeguard integrity and to foster a culture of rejection of corruption.”
The Global Financial Integrity Network in January reported that real growth of illegal capital outflows from the Africa region from 2000 to 2008 was 21.9%. In Equatorial Guinea, the impacts of public revenue appear abundantly clear. Several organizations, including international bodies, and civil society organizations, have reported on the widespread poverty, and lack of educational and health services affecting the population. (Notwithstanding the Equatoguinean Minister of Information’s statement reported today that “there is no poverty in Equatorial Guinea”.)
But corruption’s influence is broad, even when exercised in the name of “a gift to humanity” as the Minister, Mr. Osa Osa Ecoro, called the Obiang prize – not just in the immediate loss of services the spirited-away capital causes, but in the stripping of basic freedoms—speech, assembly, independent press, impartial, fair judicial process—and the rotting away of the rule of law required to keep the money-shuffling-machine well oiled.
The Obiang supercars are an unambiguous emblem of improper asset outflows stemming from a corrupt administration. With this in their own Paris backyard, and knowing investigators in Spain or the US might not be far behind, and when they still have the chance to do the right thing and stop this issue-fraught prize, are UNESCO delegates willing to risk instead being remembered for honoring dictatorship?