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“If there is to be any change to it at all, it has to come from the member states,” she said. “We have 193 member states and seven associate members. … [T]hat is most of the countries in the world. We are not casting any judgment on those countries or defending their governments. We are inviting them all around the table to take part in the international discussions on issues related to education, culture, communication and science. It is important that they have this place at the table.”

Mr. Obiang seized power in a military coup in 1979. While he has prospered under Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth, the wealth has not been used to address the country’s dire poverty.

Obiang is mostly known for the corruption of his inner circle, which is the subject of multiple criminal investigations, as well as a truly atrocious human rights record,” said Lisa Misol, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The U.N. special rapporteur on torture stated in a 2009 report that torture is systemic for the government in Equatorial Guinea. “Equatorial Guinea’s human rights record, which includes abuse of press freedom, economic and social rights, is across the board a truly awful record that UNESCO should distance itself from. Associating the UNESCO name with President Obiang is a very grave mistake,” Ms. Misol said.

South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a statement late last week urging UNESCO to reconsider the prize, said he was “appalled that [UNESCO] … is allowing itself to burnish the unsavory reputation of a dictator.”

Representatives of African nations, however, are viewed as quietly supporting the Obiang prize.

Mr. Obiang’s government has softened its criticism of opponents over the past few days.

On Monday, the government said in a statement: “Although the UNESCO controversy has highlighted the fact that Equatorial Guinea faces many challenges, which is true, the situation is being viewed through an outdated understanding of what our government is and what Equatorial Guinea is like.”

The tone of the statement was in marked contrast to a government statement last week that said “the idea of allocating part of the riches that our nation currently enjoys in the pursuit of research, science, and the improvement of human life, has curiously become a frightening idea to a number of organizations that, ironically and hypocritically, represent themselves in public as ‘defenders of human rights.’”

The United States withdrew from UNESCO in 1984 over concerns about its anti-Western bias, growing politicization, rampant mismanagement, and advocacy of policies that undermine freedom of the press and free markets. It returned two decades later after the panel had undertaken some reform.