Protests As UNESCO Awards Prize Sponsored by African Dictator

By Patrick Goodenough | July 17, 2012 | 4:56am EDT

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pose for a photo during a reception at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, with President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and his wife, Constancia Mangue de Obiang, on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

( – Two years after the U.S. led a campaign to prevent UNESCO from setting up an international award in honor of one of Africa’s most disreputable dictators, the U.N. cultural agency on Tuesday will go ahead and award the prize.

While no longer carrying the name of Equatorial Guinea’s autocratic president, Teodoro Obiang, the $3-million award is still funded by him, and seven human rights groups in a joint statement Monday denounced the move.

At a ceremony at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova will hand over to three scientists from Mexico, Egypt and South Africa what is now called the “UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.”

According to UNESCO, the purpose of the prize “is to reward the projects and activities of an individual, individuals, institutions, other entities or non-governmental organizations for scientific research in the life sciences leading to improving the quality of human life.”

A weekend statement by Equatorial Guinea’s Press and Information Office confirmed that the award is “generously sponsored by H.E. Obiang Nguema Mbasogo,” the full name of the oil-rich country’s 70 year-old president.

“It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for UNESCO to award this prize, given the litany of serious legal and ethical problems surrounding it,” said Tutu Alicante, director of the Equatorial Guinea-focused human rights group, EG Justice.

“Beyond letting itself be used to polish the sullied image of Obiang, UNESCO also risks ruining its own credibility,” he added. Other groups signing the statement included Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

UNESCO first agreed to set up the “Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences” in 2008, but the move provoked strong protests from human rights advocates and scientists who drew attention to abuses and corruption under the Obiang regime.

The U.S. mission to UNESCO led efforts inside the agency to shelve the move, succeeding in October 2010.

Last year, however, Obiang held the rotating presidency of the African Union, and during an A.U. summit in Equatorial Guinea’s capital, Malabo, he secured the unanimous backing of the 53 members of the bloc. African members of UNESCO subsequently put the matter on the agenda of a meeting of the agency’s executive board.

Obiang then agreed that UNESCO could remove his name from the award, and at an meeting last March, the board voted by 33-18 to approve the move on that basis.

Most of the “no” votes came from democracies, while the resolution’s supporters included China, Cuba, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, along with other members from Africa and Asia.

Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang addresses a meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on September 21, 2011. (U.N. Photo by Eskinder Debebe)

In a statement on Sunday, the Obiang regime welcomed the decision to grant the prize, thwarting the efforts of “the enemies of our peace and development.”

It said the prize should not be viewed in isolation, but was in line with years of generous donations by Equatorial Guinea to countries hit by natural disasters. “And we have done so under the drive of the humanist spirit and solidarity of our Head of State, President Obiang Nguema Mbasoga.”

Obiang, a former military police officer, seized power in 1979 and had his predecessor tried and executed. He won “elections” in 1989 (taking 99 percent of the vote, according to official figures), 1996 (98 percent), 2002 (97 percent) and 2009 (96 percent).

In its 2011 report on the “worst of the worst” countries in the world, democracy watchdog Freedom House listed Equatorial Guinea as one of the world’s nine lowest-scoring countries for political rights and civil liberties, coming in below countries like Syria, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and China.

In Transparency International’s 2011 “Corruption Perceptions Index,” assessing 183 countries, Equatorial Guinea came in 11 places from the bottom, while in May 2012 the Committee to Protect Journalists named Equatorial Guinea as one of the world’s worst 10 countries for press censorship.

Investigations in Europe have implicated Obiang’s son and presumed heir – also named Teodoro but known as Teodorin – in cases of alleged money-laundering, and French judges last week issued an international arrest warrant against him.

Teodorin’s financial dealings in America, including alleged money-laundering, also featured in a February 2010 report by the U.S. Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations, which was probing the impact of foreign corruption in the U.S.

Equatorial Guinea comprises a small piece of territory on the African mainland as well as several islands.

Mounting controversies

The United States pulled out of UNESCO in 1984, with the Reagan administration accusing it of mismanagement and an anti-Western agenda.

Citing reforms under Bokova’s predecessor, Japan’s Koichiro Matsuura, President George W. Bush announced a return in late 2002.

UNESCO’s decision to go ahead with the award is the latest in a series of controversial steps taken by the agency in recent years. Among them:

--In Oct. 2010, UNESCO’s executive board passed five resolutions siding with Palestinian claims to heritage sites in disputed territory whose significance for Jews goes back thousands of years, including the traditional burial place of biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

--UNESCO planned to allow Iran to host its annual World Philosophy Day event in Nov. 2010. Under pressure from the U.S. and others, Bokova disassociated the agency from the Tehran event.

--In October 2011, UNESCO member states by a large margin voted to give membership to “Palestine,” becoming the first U.N. agency to do so. U.S. law compelled the Obama administration to withdraw funding, although it is seeking a waiver that would enable it to resume contributions. (U.S. taxpayers accounted for 22 percent of UNESCO’s operating budget.)

--A month later, UNESCO reappointed Syria to a committee dealing with human rights. A U.S.-led effort to expel Syria from the committee failed, and the Obama administration voted for a watered-down resolution that criticized the Assad regime for abuses but did not call for its removal.

--Last May, UNESCO hosted three days of meetings on the “question of Palestine,” which critics called an “Israel-bashing” event.

--A fortnight ago, a UNESCO committee voted for an “emergency” application by the Palestinian Authority to have Jesus’ traditional birthplace in Bethelem recognized as an endangered World Heritage site – overruling the advice of independent experts and the wishes of local church leaders.

--Last week, Israel protested a UNESCO decision to establish a chair at the Islamic University of Gaza, an institution closely associated with the Hamas terrrorist group.

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