A United Nations organization on Tuesday delayed awarding a controversial “life sciences” prize named for Equatorial Guinea’s strongman, Teodoro Obiang.
The decision followed a warning from the director general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that the award threatened the organization’s credibility.
UNESCO came under fire in recent weeks from human rights activists, intellectuals and scientists over the UNESCO-Obiang prize. They say Mr. Obiang’s oppressive regime contradicts everything the prize intends to promote.
Equatorial Guinea was to finance the $300,000 annual prize for five years at a total cost of $1.5 million. More than 75 percent of the West African nation’s population lives in poverty while Mr. Obiang and his inner circle became wealthy from the country’s oil resources.
At the meeting in Paris, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova told the executive board she had come to them “with a strong message of alarm and anxiety.”
UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams said no member states spoke against the prize at the meeting, but all supported discussions to find a solution.
“Nobody is talking about scrapping the prize at this point … any decision will have to be made at a formal session in October,” Ms. Williams said in a phone interview from Paris.
“The idea of overturning a decision made by the board two years ago is not something that sits easily with the board members … . They have this decision to create a prize, and they have to deal with it,” she added.
Ms. Williams suggested there could be a “diplomatic solution” to the controversy.
Human rights activists said they want to see the prize abolished.
“Putting this controversial prize on hold is a good step for now, but they need to act to abolish the award outright at their next meeting,” said Lisa Misol, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. U.N. funds for the award should go “toward meeting basic needs inside Equatorial Guinea,” she said.
Ms. Misol said the board’s decision shows that “the director general and member states have come to realize that the UNESCO-Obiang prize gravely threatens the organizations reputation and credibility.”
The prize was first proposed by Mr. Obiang in October 2007, and UNESCO’s executive board approved creating the “UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences” in 2008. According to UNESCO, the prize recognizes “scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life.”
Mr. Obiang seized power in a military coup in 1979, and human rights groups have catalogued widespread rights abuses and corruption under his regime. The U.N. special rapporteur on torture described Equatorial Guinea in a 2009 report as a country in which government-sanctioned torture is rampant.
Critics say the UNESCO prize is allowing Mr. Obiang to launder his reputation by exploiting the world body.
Ms. Bokova said many intellectuals, scientists, journalists, governments and parliamentarians appealed to her to “protect and preserve the prestige of the organization.”
“Given the changing circumstances and the unprecedented developments of the past months, we must be courageous and recognize our responsibilities, for it is our organization that is at stake,” she said.
The prize was initially to be awarded this month; however, Ms. Bokova on Tuesday refused to set a date for a ceremony.
The Obama administration this week asked UNESCO to suspend plans for awarding the prize.
Ms. Bokova asked the board to continue its consultations “in a spirit of mutual respect and dignity for all partners concerned, taking all recent developments into consideration, so that the issue could be addressed in a constructive way at the next session of the board.”
The board will meet again from Oct. 5 to Oct. 22.