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UNESCO is suspending a life sciences prize sponsored by Equatorial Guinea, and is to review procedures for prizes it endorses, following bitter protests about the US$3 million endowment.

The UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was agreed by the organisation's member states in November 2008 "in recognition of scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life".

This was despite strong lobbying against the award by Spain — a former colonial power in Equatorial Guinea — and France, the only European Union (EU) countries with embassies in the West African state. EU member states wrote to UNESCO (the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2008, dissociating themselves from the prize, and US delegates also voiced reservations.

Now, just a few weeks before the inaugural winner of the prize was due to be announced, new UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, has suspended it along with other new prizes, until a review has taken place.

UNESCO insiders said that opposition to the prize had been growing within the Paris-based agency because of the association the awarding of the prize would confer between the agency and the Obiang regime.

Sue Williams, a UNESCO spokesperson, told SciDev.Net that the organisation would set up a task force by the end of January, with plans to report in April. It will define the terms of reference of prizes more precisely.

"The director-general would like prizes to have the unanimous support of member states," Williams said.

The UNESCO-Obiang prize will not be awarded until after the review, Williams confirmed.

Two other new prizes will be suspended until the review has taken place. But Williams stressed that many UNESCO prizes continued to function well and will be awarded as before, including the Women in Science Prize.

Human rights groups including the Open Society Institute and Human Rights Watch, and anti-corruption groups such as Transparency International, have in the past criticised oil-rich Equatorial Guinea for corruption and a poor human rights record.

Last month international nongovernmental organisation Global Witness stepped up pressure for the US$300,000 a year prize to be "cancelled without delay". In an open letter to the UNESCO board, it asked for the US$3 million endowed by Equatorial Guinea to instead be deployed to improve life for the country's people.

Global Witness spokesperson Amy Barry said UNESCO should "place concern for human rights at the centre of its mission on education and culture rather than, as currently, offering its services as the 'blue rinse reputation launderers of choice' for the world's despots".

Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness, welcomed the review but said member states "should make an effort to insist the prize is removed as it is a blatant abuse of UNESCO's name in the most cynical way".

SciDev.Net was not able to reach Equatorial Guinea's delegation to UNESCO.