- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2010

A U.N. organization is under fire from human rights groups over its decision to create a prize for “life sciences” named after Teodoro Obiang, the leader of Equatorial Guinea, whose regime is widely viewed as one of the most corrupt and oppressive dictatorships in the world.

The executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is set to meet in Paris on Tuesday to discuss whether to scrap the prize in the wake of an outpouring of international criticism.

UNESCO's director general, Irina Bokova, in April told the panel’s executive board of growing concern over its decision to name the prize after Mr. Obiang, who provided the funding for it. No nations aired their concerns at that meeting.

The U.S. government opposed the prize when it was first created in 2008.

David T. Killion, the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, stated in a June 14 letter to Ms. Bokova that for UNESCO to carry out its mandate the organization “must maintain public support.”

“But I fear it is now in danger of losing it,” he stated.

Mr. Killion said the Obama administration wants a suspension of plans to award the prize so member states can hold “quiet consultations” on a way forward, “consistent with UNESCO's commitment to its basic values.”

A U.N. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the controversy “is certainly causing UNESCO problems.”

Jon Elliott, African advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement described the UNESCO-Obiang Prize as “a stain on the reputation of all UNESCO members.”

The plan for the prize was proposed by Mr. Obiang in October 2007. In 2008, UNESCO's executive board approved the “UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.” The prize is worth $300,000 annually for “scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life.”

The irony of a science prize named after a leader linked to human rights abuses was not lost on groups focused on developments in Equatorial Guinea.

Human Rights Watch has stated that under Mr. Obiang’s rule, the quality of life in the country remains abysmal. “Its own government acknowledges that over 75 percent of its people live in poverty. A majority of [Equatorial Guineans] lack access to clean drinking water, and on average, they die before their 50th birthday,” the group said.

“For years, U.N. human rights monitors have criticized the government’s use of unfair trials, arbitrary arrests, incommunicado detentions, and systematic torture.”

Ms. Bokova could not be reached for comment. However, UNESCO spokeswoman Susan Williams said Ms. Bokova wants to hear member states’ positions at the meeting on Tuesday.

UNESCO's member states that are part of the executive board established this prize,” Ms. Williams said in a phone interview from Paris.

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