UNESCO board OKs divisive Equatorial Guinea prize

March 8, 2012 - 6:55 PM

PARIS (AP) — A $3 million award in life sciences research offered by Equatorial Guinea to UNESCO is a point of pride for African nations. But for the U.N.'s cultural arm, it is a poison prize that risks wrapping it in a cloak of shame.

UNESCO's director general made a final effort on Thursday to say "no thank you" shortly after an executive board commission voted in favor of the prize — languishing in semi shame since it was first approved in 2008.

Irina Bokova said that if the prize is approved Friday in the board's plenary session, as expected, instead of quickly implementing it, as the draft resolution says, she would be forced to seek legal counsel about how to proceed.

The prize has drawn condemnation from scholars, human rights groups and western and other nations because of the poor human rights record of Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema and corruption within the ruling clan.

The small nation where thousands live without electricity or running water has spent lavishly on high profile events. About $800 million went to an African Union summit last year — at which AU leaders agreed to back the UNESCO prize.

France has opened a corruption investigation against Obiang and two other African leaders for misuse of public funds here.

Bokova noted that three jury members resigned before the award is formally instituted. That "precedent" accompanied several other regrettable firsts, she said.

"This is the first time a prize divides member states instead of uniting them." And, she said, "This is the first time ever in the history of the organization that the executive board votes on a prize."

Obiang's name was dropped from the prize in a bid to outdo critics, making it the UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences. Most recently, Equatorial Guinea informed UNESCO that the funding would come from the government rather than a foundation bearing Obiang's name.

A working group set up to hash out differences among the various voting blocks at UNESCO failed to reach consensus.

On Thursday, those in favor of the prize, African nations joined by many in the Middle East and Latin America, used their weight to wrangle a leading position before the vote.

The commission voted to forego debate and move directly to a vote. It then reversed the order of balloting on two competing texts — putting the one favoring the prize first and leaving the other to evaporate once the pro-prize draft passed 33-18.

The draft resolution asked the UNESCO chief to quickly implement the prize.

"We are convinced this prize will not further UNESCO's goals," said U.S. Ambassador David Killion, predicting that the approval would ultimately be "in vain."

UNESCO's legal office has already weighed in. Responding last week to a query for advice, it said the statutes of the prize "are no longer implementable" because of the changes in its name and in the source of funding. It concluded that a feasibility study would be needed to see if the prize could be offered in UNESCO's name.

Bokova has said the controversy surrounding the prize sullies UNESCO's name just as it is struggling with funding shortages linked to its acceptance of Palestine as a member late last year. That provoked the United States to withhold its dues — 22 percent of the organization's budget.

In September, Bokova pleaded with Obiang to show "generosity" by withdrawing the prize.

"The decision to vote for this prize shows weakness when we need to be strong," she told the delegates. "I regret this vote, because it comes at a difficult time."

If the resolution voted Thursday is ratified on Friday, "I will be obliged to take further legal advice on how to proceed," she said.

Many African countries see the prize as a point of honor for the continent with various delegates saying it gives Africa its "just place" among nations.

Mbah Mokuy Agapito, special adviser to Obiang for international organizations, said he was pleased with the vote — for Equatorial Guinea and Africa. "And I am particularly happy for the thousands of people who suffer from AIDS, malaria" who might be helped by research from the prize.

That was countered by Tutu Alicante, an Equatorial Guinean who heads EG Justice, an NGO.

"I think we all want Africa to support science, we all want Africa to support education," he said. "But this prize ... is about supporting President Obiang."

Human Rights Watch echoed that sentiment.

"With this vote, a majority of UNESCO's board has chosen to promote the image of President Obiang rather than uphold basic standards of human rights, financial integrity and good government," said senior Human Rights Watch researcher Lisa Misol.

Equatorial Guinea was the worst governed country of all surveyed for the U.N. Development Program's 2011 Human Development Report, which measured the discrepancy between available wealth and development.

In their corruption probe, French investigators have seized 16 luxury cars, including a Bugatti Veyron, allegedly belonging to Obiang's son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue — recently appointed No. 2 of the Equatorial Guinea delegation to UNESCO.

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Oleg Cetinic of Associated Press Television News in Paris contributed to this report.

(This version corrects spelling of Irina in third paragraph instead of Irine.)