The 58 members of UNESCO’s executive board agreed yesterday to put the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences on hold indefinitely. The prize – worth $300,000 annually –  was to be awarded to recognize “scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life.” For an initial five-year period, it would have been funded by a $3 million grant from the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Foundation for the Preservation of Life. The problem with the prize? It is named after and funded by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea’s oppressive and kleptomaniac leader.

The irony – or, rather, the hypocrisy – of such a prize was not lost on rights activists. Leading organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Justice Initiative have been unequivocally condemning the UNESCO-Obiang prize, noting that the prize “constitutes an unwarranted international endorsement of Obiang, who has displayed open contempt for the values UNESCO promotes.” Obiang has been ruling resource-rich Equatorial Guinea with an iron fist and complete disregard for the welfare of his people: Transparency International ranks Equatorial Guinea in its top 12 most corrupt states, and in spite of an annual GDP per capita of over $30,000, it remains in the lower ranks of the Human Development Index.

UNESCO clearly made a mistake in approving and establishing this prize. The foundation supposed to provide monies for the prize is a government entity, and there is no doubt that these funds belong to the people of Equatorial Guinea. Following the announcement that the prize would be suspended, Ken Hurwitz, senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, noted, “We are concerned that UNESCO did not do due diligence in accepting money from a foundation that no one knows anything about from a country where money laundering rules are minimal – it is a classic red flag for money laundering.”

Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness, boiled it down “A dictator who has impoverished his citizens and enriched himself and his family by plundering the country’s oil wealth has no place sponsoring a UN prize.” It is unfortunate and surprising that UNESCO would even consider such a prize: Obiang’s track record is well-known, and the UN agency should have never established the prize in the first place.

Obama, Obiang and their respective spouses, at a state dinner at the Met in NYC in 2009

Further reading: Human Rights Watch Resource Page: Canceling the UNESCO-Obiang prize

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