Equatorial Guinea's President, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, addresses the 64th United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 23, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

*The joint NGO letter to UNESCO Director-General Bokova was updated to incorporate additional endorsements received by the end of the day on May 10, 2010.

(New York) - The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is set to award a life sciences prize named after and funded by the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, despite pleas from hundreds of outraged individuals and organizations around the world. Human rights and other civil society groups today called for a full investigation into the source of the money in a joint letter to UNESCO.

"UNESCO is allowing itself to be used to burnish the unsavory reputation of a cruel and corrupt despot," said Tutu Alicante of the human rights organization EG Justice. "The prize's US$3 million endowment should be used for the education and welfare of the people of Equatorial Guinea, rather than the glorification of their president."

UNESCO failed to pull the prize or investigate its funding despite receiving several previous communications from human rights groups, scholars and others. When pressed, it provided conflicting information about the prize's status. In January, UNESCO's spokesperson stated publicly that the organization would carry out a review of UNESCO prizes and that the Obiang prize would remain on hold pending this review. Later, UNESCO sources indicated the delay was due to a lack of nominations.

In early April, at a meeting of UNESCO's executive board, the organization's director-general, Irina Bokova, briefly commented on the controversy surrounding this prize and said that it had once again been postponed. The board meeting ended on April 15 without any decisions on the ultimate fate of the prize, but the following week Bokova sent a letter to governments announcing that it is set to be awarded in June 2010.

The UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was created in 2008 to recognize "scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life." Yet under the rule of Obiang - the prize's namesake - the quality of life in the country, sub-Saharan Africa's fourth largest oil producer, remains abysmal.

Though its oil riches give Equatorial Guinea a per capita GDP on a par with Italy, South Korea, and Israel, its own government acknowledges that over 75 percent of its people live in poverty. A majority of Equatoguineans lack access to clean drinking water, and on average, they die before their 50th birthday. For years, UN human rights monitors have criticized the government's use of unfair trials, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and systematic torture.

Equatorial Guinea's dismal human rights performance is compounded by vast official corruption that squanders funds that could be spent to fulfill their economic and social rights. According to evidence produced in 2004 and 2010 investigations by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Obiang and close family members have diverted tens of millions of dollars from their country's natural resource earnings to their private benefit. Criminal charges are now under judicial investigation in Spain.

The groups are outraged that UNESCO would accept money from this source, no matter the prize's ostensible goal of promoting science. UNESCO's own documentation on the prize does little to alleviate concerns about the source of its funding. Although UNESCO documents credit the $3 million grant to an apparently private philanthropic entity - the "Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Foundation for the Preservation of Life" - they also state that it was the government of Equatorial Guinea that proposed to establish and finance the prize.

"UNESCO's valuable work risks being overshadowed by this ill-conceived alliance with one of the world's most infamous dictators," said the groups' joint letter, in which they urge UNESCO to reverse course. The letter was addressed to UNESCO director-general Bokova. The groups also distributed copies to the 58 country representatives serving on UNESCO's executive board.

Obiang first proposed creating a UNESCO prize in his honor in October 2007, and the UNESCO executive board approved its establishment in 2008. The $3 million grant provided by Obiang covers the $300,000 prize and another $300,000 each year for administrative costs, for an initial five-year period. The prize was first opened for nominations in 2009 with a submission deadline of September 25, 2009. The deadline was subsequently postponed to December 30, and then to April 30, 2010.

To read the March 26, 2010, Human Rights Watch letter to UNESCO’s director-general about the Obiang prize, please click here here.

To read the UNESCO director-general's May 5, 2010, response to Human Rights Watch, please click here.