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The UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences is named after and financed by the dictator of the oil-rich West African country of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who presides over an appalling record of human rights violations and corruption. The existence of this prize constitutes an unwarranted international endorsement of Obiang, who has displayed open contempt for the values UNESCO promotes. His rule has been marked by systematic political repression, the needless deprivation of the most basic needs of his people, and the blatant use of public funds for personal gain.

Moreover, the UNESCO-Obiang Prize seriously undermines the reputation of UNESCO and its ability to carry out its mission to promote education, science, culture, and human rights. For all of these reasons, the UNESCO-Obiang Prize should be cancelled and the funds used to benefit the people of Equatorial Guinea. UNESCO's leadership, including the governments that belong to its governing executive board, need to intervene urgently if this scandalous prize is to be halted before it is too late. The governments on UNESCO's board have a crucial opportunity to act at a June 15 "informational meeting" in Paris. If they clearly express concerns about the prize, it could allow the UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova - who has voiced her own reservations - to defer announced plans to award the prize for the first time at a ceremony tentatively scheduled for late June 2010, and instead to focus on consulting with member states to seek a resolution to the controversy.

The proposal for UNESCO to create this prize originated with Obiang, who put the idea forward in October 2007. The following year, the UNESCO executive board approved the establishment of the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, worth $300,000 annually, to recognize "scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life." The total award and associated administrative costs are funded for an initial five-year period by a $3 million grant from the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Foundation for the Preservation of Life, which UNESCO has described as an entity of the government of Equatorial Guinea. The prize was first opened for nominations in 2009, but the submission deadline was repeatedly delayed, most recently until April 30, 2010. These postponements are due at least in part to the longstanding controversy over the award.

Despite expressions of concern about the creation of the UNESCO-Obiang Prize from governments, human rights groups, scholars, and others from 2008 to the present, UNESCO has so far declined to cancel the prize. The organization's response has been inconsistent. A public statement by UNESCO's spokesperson on January 7, 2010, indicated that the organization would carry out a review of UNESCO prizes and that the UNESCO-Obiang prize remained on hold pending this review. Later UNESCO attributed the continued delay to a lack of nominations. An April meeting of UNESCO's executive board ended without any decisions on the fate of the prize. The controversy surrounding the prize was mentioned briefly at the meeting, in remarks by the director-general, Irina Bokova. In an April 22 announcement, however, UNESCO said it would award the prize by the end of June 2010.

An international jury of scientists was convened in May to select the recipients of the prize, with the $300,000 to be shared among up to three winners, but it balked at UNESCO's planned association with Obiang. One jury member, reportedly from Hong Kong, declined to serve. The remaining members urged Bokova to consult with member states to address the threat to the organization's reputation.

Bokova, in turn, requested the chair of UNESCO's board, the Russian delegate Eleonora Mitrofanova, to convene urgent meetings in Paris, which were held throughout early June. Bokova also expressed serious misgivings about the prize and, through a spokesperson, made clear that she is willing to carry out consultations with member states "to find a solution to the difficulties being encountered with this prize." Governments represented on UNESCO's executive board can give her a mandate to do so if they make clear that they do not want UNESCO to proceed with naming the winner or winners of the prize and scheduling an award ceremony. Obiang has indicated that he hopes to attend the ceremony in Paris, appearing alongside Bokova.

It would be appropriate for all UNESCO member states to object to the prize, which contradicts the requirement stated in article 1 of UNESCO's constitution that UNESCO "further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world, without distinction of race, sex, language or religion, by the Charter of the United Nations."

Governments from various regions have their own rationale to speak out at, or before, the June 15 meeting. For example, officials from Argentina, France, Ghana, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain, and the United States expressed concerns about abuses in Equatorial Guinea when its human rights record was reviewed at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in December 2009. Numerous other governments on UNESCO's board - such as Chile, El Salvador, Ghana, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Senegal - have pledged to uphold human rights principles. The debate over the UNESCO-Obiang prize also can be seen as a test for some countries - including Niger and Russia - that have declared anticorruption efforts to be a centerpiece of government policy. The European Union countries and the United States, which objected to the prize when it was initially created in 2008, would be expected again to voice concerns.

The vice-chairs of UNESCO's board - Argentina, Cote d'Ivoire, Germany, Japan, Latvia, and Morocco - play an important role in coordinating its six electoral groups, organized by region.

As various UN bodies and other sources have documented, the government of Equatorial Guinea has an abysmal human rights record. Obiang's neglect of social and economic rights, as well as civil and political rights, in Equatorial Guinea is in direct contrast to UNESCO's mandate to promote education, science, culture, and human rights.

Violations of human rights in Equatorial Guinea include the following:

  • Willful neglect of its international obligations with respect to the rights to education and health under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) by its failure to allocate available funds for essential social services. The result has been worsening child mortality rates over the past decade that result in Equatorial Guinea having the highest child mortality rates in the world in 2010, declining primary school enrollment, and needless poverty.
  • Longstanding violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association, leading Reporters Without Borders to identify Obiang as one of its 40 "predators of press freedom" in 2010.
  • Deeply entrenched political repression. Opposition parties are silenced through the use of criminal prosecution, arbitrary arrest, and harassment. The country has never experienced free and fair elections. Obiang, who came into power after overthrowing his uncle in a coup, celebrated his thirtieth year in power in August 2009. He was re-elected with 95.4 percent of the vote in a highly flawed presidential election in November 2009.
  • Rampant torture in detention, as documented in a 2009 report by the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak. Arbitrary detention and arrests without legal due process are also common; numerous detainees are held for indefinite periods without knowing the charges against them.
  • Extensive corruption and mismanagement. Although the GDP of this once-poor country has shot up more than 5,000 percent since the mid-1990s, when oil was first discovered there, and elevated its wealth per capita to over $30,000, the overwhelming majority of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Rather than benefiting the people, vast sums of the country's oil revenues have gone to bankroll personal purchases for Obiang, his family, and his close associates. The corruption of Obiang and his family is the subject of ongoing legal cases in France (under appeal) and Spain (under investigation). A further case is under consideration before the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, in which human rights groups that initiated the action contend that Obiang's diversion of the country's oil wealth violates the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Official inquiries in the United States include a February 2010 investigation by the US Senate and a criminal inquiry by US authorities. In 2007, for example, a US Justice Department investigation found strong indications of "extortion, theft of public funds or other corrupt conduct." The amount Obiang's eldest son - who serves as his agriculture and forestry minister - spent on luxury goods in 2004-2007 nearly doubles the government's 2005 budget for education.

In light of the serious issues at stake, UNESCO should come to the appropriate decision to cancel the UNESCO-Obiang prize without delay. If it fails to do so, it risks damaging its reputation and its ability to fulfill its important mission. The money provided for the prize by the Obiang Foundation should be reinvested in Equatorial Guinea's education system, where rudimentary educational materials and infrastructure are still badly needed. It is also essential for UNESCO to undertake an investigation into the source of the funds to make sure that it has not accepted money tainted by corruption, which would further compromise UNESCO's reputation.

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