Legal Questions, Human Rights Concerns Surround Obiang Prize
It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for UNESCO to award this prize, given the litany of serious legal and ethical problems surrounding it. Beyond letting itself be used to polish the sullied image of Obiang, UNESCO also risks ruining its own credibility.
(Paris) – UNESCO’s decision to issue a controversial prize sponsored by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea is disappointing and irresponsible, seven civil society groups said today. A ceremony to award the prize is scheduled for July 17, 2012, in Paris. Obiang, in power for 33 years, leads a government known for corruption and repression.
In a divisive 33-18 vote with 6 abstentions, UNESCO’s governing Executive Board approved a renamed prize on March 8 under the name UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences and pressed UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, to move quickly to award it. That vote disregarded the advice of UNESCO’s legal office, which said that the prize could not be implemented, according to the organization’s own rules, due to discrepancies surrounding the source of the funding.
“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 human rights group EG Justice. “Beyond letting itself be used to polish the sullied image of Obiang, UNESCO also risks ruining its own credibility.”
In a July 12 letter to delegates opposed to the prize, Bokova said that a legal opinion issued following the Board vote concluded that concerns remained but that she is nevertheless required to adhere to the Executive Board’s decision and implement the prize. In a July 13 response, the delegates protested that “UNESCO has a legal and fiduciary duty” to fully resolve the funding questions “so that there is no cloud of illegality hanging over the prize.”
It remains unclear if Obiang, who has pushed this prize as part of a major effort to improve his global standing, will attend the award ceremony, as foreseen in the program for the event. The prize was first approved in 2008 as the “UNESCO-Obiang prize.” His name was dropped from the award in the face of outrage from prominent African and Latin American intellectuals, writers, journalists, Nobel Prize Laureates, scientists, health professionals, and civil society groups who criticized the president’s poor human rights record and alleged involvement in money laundering.
Ongoing corruption investigations of members of the Obiang family in France, Spain, and the United States contribute to questions over the source of the prize’s funding. On March 5, Association SHERPA and Transparency International France requested that French judges extend France’s corruption investigation to include Obiang’s $3 million donation for this prize.
Serious allegations of corruption and money-laundering on a grand scale by the president or his family and close associates are now being examined by multiple judicial bodies internationally. Obiang’s eldest son and presumed successor, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, known as Teodorín, is wanted under an international arrest warrant issued by French judges on July 10 in connection with the case in France.
In a move that may have been an attempt to grant Teodorín immunity from prosecution, Obiang appointed his son to be Equatorial Guinea’s deputy permanent delegate to UNESCO in October 2011. In May, Obiang also named Teodorín to be Equatorial Guinea’s second vice president, a post not foreseen under the country’s constitution. Teodorin’s lawyer in France contends that the arrest warrant “is null and void because of Mr. Obiang's status” as second vice president.
French authorities have twice raided a lavish residence used by the Obiang family in Paris and seized large quantities of luxury goods valued at tens of millions of Euros belonging to Teodorín.
In a separate investigation, the United States Department of Justice has filed complaints that provide detailed allegations that Teodorín abused his prior government post as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry to extort and launder money to finance more than $300 million in high-end purchases between 2000 and 2011, including properties in Brazil, France, South Africa, and the United States with a total value of US$133 million, and $45 million in art by Renoir and other master painters.
Lawyers for Teodorín in France and the US have disputed the claims against their client.
Teodorín’s lifestyle and the prize’s stated goal of “contributing to improving the quality of human life” contrast sharply with conditions in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where poverty, human rights abuses, and corruption are widespread and social services are inadequate, the civil society groups said.
In contrast to UNESCO’s core mandate to protect and promote media freedom and information sharing, free expression and press freedom are routinely curtailed in Equatorial Guinea. The government also fails to publish basic information related to government budgets and spending.
“Ordinary people in Equatorial Guinea have never shared in the country’s wealth or their leaders’ fancy lifestyles,” Alicante said. “If they celebrate anything as they languish in poverty, it won’t be the UNESCO prize. It will be Teodorín’s arrest warrant.”
The statement was issued by the following organizations
Committee to Protect Journalists
Human Rights Watch
Background on human rights in Equatorial Guinea
Equatorial Guinea is an oil-rich West African country with rampant high-level corruption and disproportionately high rates of poverty, given the nation’s per capita wealth. Most ordinary citizens do not have reliable access to electricity, safe drinking water, or quality education and health care.
According to the UN’s 2011 Human Development Report, Equatorial Guinea ranks 136 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index, despite a very high per-capita GDP of $28,857. As a result, Equatorial Guinea has by far the largest gap of all countries between its wealth ranking and its human development score. The country’s poor social indicators include high child mortality rates. Nearly one in eight children dies before reaching the age of five.
Meanwhile, the government prioritizes spending on large, highly visible infrastructure projects aimed at impressing the international community, including the $830 million Sipopo luxury complex constructed to host the June 2011 African Union summit.
The government tries to intimidate or silence dissenting voices. Political opposition figures have been unjustly detained in recent months, including Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, a well respected doctor and human rights activist who was held for four months on dubious charges. Mansogo urged UNESCO delegates to abolish the prize in a letter written from his prison cell. He was convicted and later pardoned by Obiang on June 5 but remains subject to penalties, including large fines and orders to close his clinic and suspend his medical license for several years, highlighting the hypocrisy of a prize intended to improve “the quality of human life.”
The government has sought to brand international civil society organizations opposed to the UNESCO prize as“racists,” “neo-colonialists” and “the declared opponents of Equatorial Guinea,” who “want to dirty the image”of Equatorial Guinea through “slander, prejudice, and disinformation.”
Background on the Prize
The UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was created by UNESCO’s Executive Board in October 2008. In the wake of a global campaign against the prize, in June 2010 Director-General Bokova asked the organization’s Board to reconsider, saying the prize would post a grave risk to UNESCO’s reputation. In October 2010, the Executive Board suspended the prize indefinitely.
Despite an appeal by Bokova to withdraw the prize as “proof of generosity,” Obiang continued to push to reinstate it. The Board continued the suspension in October 2011. In November 2011, Equatorial Guinea’s government announced that Obiang was willing to “concede” that the prize would “not bear his name.” A majority of the Board voted on March 8 to approve the prize under the new name.
Unanswered questions remained, however, about the prize’s funding sources. The original prize was to be funded by the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Foundation for the Preservation of Life. On February 9, 2012, the government of Equatorial Guinea informed UNESCO that the prize funds instead came from the public treasury.
In a legal opinion issued on March 2, UNESCO’s legal adviser concluded that the original UNESCO-Obiang prize was “no longer implementable” due to a “material discrepancy” between its stated and actual funding source and that the same would apply to any renamed prize.
After the prize was officially adopted, Bokova said she would seek a second legal opinion given the ongoing concerns about the source of the prize money. The second legal opinion reportedly asserts that the Director-General is required by UNESCO’s rules to follow the directive of the Executive Board and implement the prize.