UNESCO delays decision on disputed prize

By ANGELA CHARLTON | October 4, 2011 | 4:10 PM EDT

PARIS (AP) — Diplomats at UNESCO delayed a decision Tuesday on whether to name a life sciences prize after the much-criticized ruler of Equatorial Guinea, giving respite to Western governments who see him as tainted and the prize as an embarrassment.

Human rights groups, while welcoming the delay, said the U.N. agency for culture, education and science should have quashed the prize altogether. Famed scientists, writers and Nobel winners have implored UNESCO to abandon the honor.

Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema — frequently accused of human rights abuses and corruption — had persuaded other African leaders to back the prize in his name, and many had expected it to come to a vote at UNESCO this month.

Instead of a divisive vote that would have pit African and Western delegations against each other, UNESCO is putting a decision on hold. The Paris-based agency is walking a tightrope, trying to save its honor while maintaining its mission of consensus.

A commission at UNESCO's executive board agreed unanimously Tuesday to set up a working group to continue consultations on the prize, aiming for a conclusion next spring, said two sources at UNESCO.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the tense, closed-door discussions.

"They have denied his effort to get the prize reinstated immediately, but they are pushing off a final decision into the future," said Lisa Misol of Human Rights Watch. "They need to take clear action to eliminate the prize completely."

"All the energy and money he puts into the prize effort should go to improving conditions in Equatorial Guinea," she said.

The debate over the Obiang prize has produced unusual drama and emotion at UNESCO, whose stated mission is the promotion of peace and human rights through cultural dialogue.

Obiang offered the $3 million prize three years ago but UNESCO's executive board put it on hold, amid outrage over his record and questions about the provenance of the money.

This summer, Obiang hosted African Union leaders at a summit, spending $800 million — several times the country's annual education budget — on a golf course and villas for each of the continent's 52 presidents in attendance.

At the summit, AU leaders agreed to back the UNESCO prize.

But next spring, when the issue comes up again, Equatorial Guinea will no longer hold the rotating AU leadership, and diplomats say Obiang's levers for rallying support may be diminished.

UNESCO's director-general, Irina Bokova, appealed directly to Obiang on Friday to withdraw the prize — a bold move for an organization more known for careful diplomatic debate than open confrontation.

"The stakes are very high here," Bokova said to delegates on the executive board. "I believe that sometimes we have to take courageous decisions."

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu is among those urging UNESCO to reject the prize. A letter signed by him and leading authors and dignitaries 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."

Equatorial Guinea Information Minister Jeronimo Osa Osa Ecoro told The Associated Press last week 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. His family is accused of pilfering the country's oil wealth.

A U.N. expert has said that prison torture in Equatorial Guinea is systematic. French authorities seized several luxury cars allegedly belonging to Obiang's son in Paris last week, as part of a probe into the assets of three African leaders in France accused of corruption.