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UNESCO supports prize backed by African dictator

UNESCO has decided to support a prize backed by Teodoro Obiang Nguema (above), President of Equatorial Guinea and Africa’s
UNESCO has decided to support a prize backed by Teodoro Obiang Nguema (above), President of Equatorial Guinea and Africa’s "longest-serving dictator"

UN via Human Rights Watch

After nearly two years of debate, the executive board of UNESCO last week approved a life sciences prize sponsored by Africa's longest-serving dictator, despite intense lobbying by IFEX members and other international and African rights groups, as well as findings from UNESCO itself that the prize violates the organisation's own rules.

There was one significant change. While the prize originally was named after the sponsor, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979, the award was renamed the UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the decision is "a blow to the credibility of the organisation."

"The purpose of this prize is to whitewash the image of one of Africa's most repressive leaders, and no one is fooled by the name change," CPJ Africa advocacy coordinator Mohamed Keita said. "The 33 states who voted in favour have chosen to promote the image of Obiang rather than uphold basic standards of human rights. They should be ashamed."

IFEX members have consistently voiced their opposition to the prize, saying that Equatorial Guinea's record on human rights, including press freedom, makes it incompatible with UNESCO's mission. Due to the international outcry, the prize has never been awarded since its launch four years ago.

CPJ, along with six other rights groups including Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the vote "put the President's interests above UNESCO's basic principles of human rights and good governance."

Meanwhile, UNESCO found that the US$3 million prize would violate the organisation's own rules, reports Human Rights Watch. UNESCO's legal advisor concluded that the prize is "no longer implementable" due to a "material discrepancy" between its stated and actual funding source.

While the official statutes of the award say that the money came from a foundation bearing Obiang's name and dedicated to "the preservation of life," Equatorial Guinea informed UNESCO last month that the money had in fact been drawn from the country's public treasury, according to an internal UNESCO document provided to reporters.

UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said she would seek further legal counsel. Last year, Bokova asked Obiang to withdraw the prize and spare UNESCO a diplomatic nightmare that would damage its reputation. Right before the vote, she told the board's 58 members, "It is my responsibility to alert you to risks that might do harm to that reputation."

IFEX members have long accused Obiang of using state money to pay for his family's extravagant lifestyle. He and his family are being investigated for corruption and money laundering in France, Spain and the United States.

According to "The New York Times", as part of the France case, the police have twice raided the stately Paris residence of Obiang's son - a government minister and the recently appointed permanent assistant delegate to UNESCO - seizing assets reportedly worth several tens of millions of dollars, including a fleet of luxury sports cars.

The prize was approved by a vote of 33 to 18, with seven abstentions. African nations, joined by delegations from Arab states as well as China, India, Brazil, Russia and others, supported the award. Most Caribbean and European members opposed it, along with the United States, Afghanistan and Peru.

According to Human Rights Watch, Equatorial Guinea restricts and controls news so severely that journalists working inside the country are not able to freely report about the corruption allegations or the concerns raised about the prize.

Freedom House listed Equatorial Guinea as one of the "Worst of the Worst" countries in 2011 for its abysmal record of civil liberties and political rights.

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