UNESCO puts controversial Obiang prize on hold, again

The prize has caused much controversy because of Obiang's human rights record Copyright: Flickr/Embassy of Equatorial Guinea

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A research prize named after Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo — and funded by him to the tune of US$3 million — will remain suspended, following the latest decision in a saga, made at a UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) board meeting in France yesterday (4 October).

"The UNESCO board decided to put together a working group that will continue to consult on the prize, with a view to getting a final decision by April next year," a source at the organisation told SciDev.Net.

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".

The prize was first suspended in January 2010, just a few weeks before its inaugural winner was to be announced, following concerns over the human rights record of Obiang’s regime. The African Union (AU) considered taking over the prize in August 2010, and UNESCO put it on hold indefinitely in October 2010.

The prize has been backed by African and Arab representatives at UNESCO, and Obiang secured a resolution in favour of the prize at an AU summit in June, which he hosted in in Equatorial Guinea, which currently holds the rotating AU chair.

A Paris-based diplomat said that by April, Obiang will no longer hold the AU chair, which will make it easier to break down the Africa consensus and reject the prize. Had the vote been taken this week, its proponents might have won, UNESCO diplomats said.

A number of African delegates said they were only supporting the prize because they did not want to be seen to be bullied by the UN system and Western states.

In her address to the board last week (30 September), UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova called on Equatorial Guinea to withdraw the prize as a way of protecting and preserving the organisation’s reputation and its good relations with the scientific community, which does not support the prize.

But Kenneth Hurwitz, a senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, in New York, which organised a signatory campaign of eminent writers and activists against the prize, including many from Africa, described the deferment as "timid".

"UNESCO continues to drag its feet when it comes to taking a principled stance against creating a prize that honours a dictator," Hurwitz told SciDev.Net.

"The proper response to Obiang’s shameless attempt at self-glorification is to abolish the prize once and for all, with the money to be used for high quality, affordable hospitals and schools for Equatorial Guinea’s people."

Tutu Alicante, exiled from Equatorial Guinea and executive director of EG Justice, a non-governmental organisation, said "the UNESCO board needs to end this debate once and for all by rejecting this prize outright".