UN debating prize in tainted African ruler's name

September 30, 2011 - 8:40 AM
Equatorial Guinea UN Prize

FILE - In this June 30, 2011 file photo, Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema addresses African leaders during the opening session of the 17th African Union Summit, at the Sipopo Conference Center, outside Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. In preparation for the summit, the tiny central African nation spent nearly $800 million building the luxury Sipopo resort to host African heads of state. Western diplomats say that the charm offensive worked, and on Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, the United Nations' cultural arm may be forced to create a prize named after Obiang, a man whose regime is accused of gross human rights violations. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

PARIS (AP) — Leading rights activists and cultural figures are urging the United Nation's culture and education agency to reject a prize Friday named after the president of Equatorial Guinea, whose regime is accused of gross human rights violations.

At a lavish summit in his country earlier this year, Teodoro Obiang Nguema persuaded the African Union to pass a motion calling on UNESCO to approve the life sciences prize in his name.

Western diplomats say UNESCO may now be forced to create the prize at a meeting Friday of its executive board in Paris.

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 says they are "deeply troubled by the well-documented record of human rights abuse, repression of press freedom and official corruption that have marked his (Obiang's) rule."

The tiny nation located on the coast of Central Africa spent several times its yearly education budget to build the new $800 million resort to house those attending the Summer summit.

Outside of an 18-hole golf course, a five-star hotel, and a spa, the country built a villa for each of the continent's 52 presidents in attendance. Each one came with a gourmet chef and a private elevator leading to a suite overlooking the mile-long artificial beach that had been sculpted out of the country's coast especially for them.

The $3 million UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Prize for Research in the Life Sciences 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 Obiang against his people.

The African Union agreed on a resolution in favor of the prize at the summit. Armed with the resolution, the 13 African delegates on UNESCO's executive board are threatening to force a vote on the prize at the board meeting in Paris on Friday, said five officials taking part in the discussion.

Together, the Arab and African delegations account for 20 out of 58 votes on the board at UNESCO, whose stated mission is the promotion of peace and human rights through cultural dialogue. Thirty votes are needed for the measure to pass; fewer if some governments abstain.

Equatorial Guinea's Minister of Information Jeronimo Osa Osa Ecoro told The Associated Press by telephone that claims of theft, corruption and abuse by Obiang and his entourage are unfounded.

Obiang seized power in a coup 32 years ago after toppling the former leader who was then executed. The UN's Rapporteur on Torture 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.

Another concern is the provenance of the $3 million that Obiang has said he will donate to endow the prize. The Obiang family is accused of pilfering the nation's oil wealth.

French authorities seized several luxury cars allegedly belonging to Obiang's son in Paris this week as part of a probe into the assets of three African leaders prompted by complaints by anti-corruption groups.

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Rukmini Callimachi contributed from Dakar.