PARIS — UNESCO’s director-general has appealed directly to Equatorial Guinea’s president to withdraw a life-sciences prize in his name that has created controversy around the globe because of the African leader’s human rights record.
The call for President Teodoro Obiang Nguema to take back the prize is a bold move for the head of a U.N. organization that tiptoes through diplomatic minefields to maintain consensus.
But the prize - on hold since its adoption by UNESCO’s executive board in 2008 - has stirred the ire of numerous Western nations as well as scientists, Nobel winners and other notables around the world, while becoming a point of honor for its African backers.
It also has risked pitting African member states against others at Paris-based UNESCO.
“As generous as he was in offering this prize, I think he should make the same proof of generosity” by withdrawing it, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said in an address to delegates at an executive board meeting last week. “I don’t think this organization should wage a war against the scientific community.”
Her goal, she said, is to preserve the reputation of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) - and to avoid divisions with Africa.
Furious negotiations preceded the board meeting that Ms. Bokova addressed.
In a surprise, a working group on the board later came up with a draft agreement to be discussed further this week. Contents of the agreement were not made public. Furious negotiations that preceded last week’s meeting were likely to continue.
UNESCO, seeking consensus, hopes to avoid a vote on the issue, a move considered divisive.
Africa has 13 delegates on the 58-seat executive board. However, the pro-prize group, which includes Arab nations, stands at 20 - 10 shy of the 30 needed to pass it.
Pass or not, divisions in such a vote could scar the organization, whose stated mission is the promotion of peace and human rights through cultural dialogue.
At a lavish summit in Equatorial Guinea earlier this year, the nation’s president, who now chairs the African Union, persuaded the bloc to pass a motion calling on UNESCO to approve the prize in his name.
The $3 million prize was first proposed in 2008, and UNESCO initially agreed to create it, only to suspend it as outrage erupted over the provenance of the money and accusations of abuses by Mr. Obiang against his people.
A jury was even selected, but at least two candidates reportedly have withdrawn amid the controversy.
Leading rights activists and cultural figures have urged UNESCO to reject the prize.
“The stakes are very high here,” Ms. Bokova said. “I believe that sometimes we have to take courageous decisions.”
The president of the Africa group at the body, Jean-Marie Adoua, said the African nations cannot simply reverse their support of the prize because they are following instructions from their leaders.
“We’ve received instructions from our heads of state. What should we do? We’re under an obligation to respect our heads of state,” Mr. Adoua said.
He asked the executive board to “respect its own decisions” regarding the prize.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu is among those urging UNESCO to reject the prize.
A letter signed by him and other leading authors and activists from around the world said they are “deeply troubled by the well-documented record of human rights abuse, repression of press freedom and official corruption that have marked [Mr. Obiang’s] rule.”
Mr. Obiang seized power in a coup 32 years ago after toppling the former leader, who was then executed.
A U.N. expert toured the country’s prisons in 2008 and determined that torture is systematic, including using electroshocks through starter cables attached to detainees’ bodies with alligator clips.
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