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UNESCO urged to kill award named for African dictator

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.

"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.

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About the Author
Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.

Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.

 

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