African Countries Press U.N. Agency to Establish Award Honoring One of the ‘World’s Worst’ Despots

By Patrick Goodenough | September 27, 2011 | 4:56am EDT

( – A year after the U.S. successfully blocked an attempt to have a U.N. agency create an international life sciences award named for an African dictator, the issue is back on the agenda. The autocrat – who now chairs the African Union and has the continent’s support – wants the initiative to move ahead.

The executive board of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), currently in session in Paris, later this week will consider a request by African members to set up the prize in honor of Teodoro Obiang, the president of Equatorial Guinea.

UNESCO, whose stated aim is to promote global understanding through culture, education and science, agreed in 2008 to establish the life sciences award named for, and funded by, Obiang.

The aim of the proposed $3-million “Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences” is to reward research leading to “improving the quality of human life.”

The UNESCO decision triggered strong protests from scientists and human rights advocates who drew attention to rights abuses under the Obiang regime.

The U.S. mission to the Paris-based agency led a campaign to block the move, succeeding last October in getting it shelved. Obiang’s government called its critics “racist, offensive, arrogant and colonialist.”

But this year Obiang holds the rotating presidency of the African Union, and during a summit of African leaders last June in Equatorial Guinea’s capital, Malabo, he secured the unanimous backing of the 53-nation bloc, which passed a resolution calling on UNESCO to move ahead with the award.

Two African countries, Congo and Cote d’Ivoire, then placed the matter on the agenda for the fall session of the UNESCO executive board.

African countries also have proposed Equatorial Guinea for a two-year stint on the 58-member board. Board members are elected by all 193 UNESCO member states.

UNESCO’s approved regular budget for the two-year period 2010-2011 is $653 million.  The U.S. funds 22 percent of the regular budget, as well as almost $3.7 million additional dollars each year in extra-budgetary funds, according to the U.S. Mission to the UNESCO.

The Obama administration requested $84.8 million for contributions to UNESCO in fiscal year 2011, up from $80.9 million in 2010 and $75.9 million in 2009.

Equatorial Guinea comprises a small piece of territory on the African mainland as well as several islands.

Obiang has been in power there for 32 years, since seizing control in a violent coup and having his toppled predecessor tried and executed. He won “elections” in 1989, 1996, 2002 and 2009, on each occasion receiving between 96-99 percent of the vote, according to official results.

Obiang featured in Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the world’s worst despots last year, while in its 2011 report on the “worst of the worst” countries in the world, democracy watchdog Freedom House listed Equatorial Guinea as one of just nine countries scoring lowest for political rights and civil liberties – a ranking placing it even below Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China and Syria.

Transparency International’s annual “Corruption Perceptions Index” last year placed Equatorial Guinea in the 168th position out of 178 countries assessed.

In the chapter on Equatorial Guinea, the most recent annual State Department report on human rights lists the following problems: “limited ability of citizens to change their government; unlawful killings, including summary executions; abductions by security forces; torture of detainees and prisoners by security forces; life-threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; official impunity; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention; harassment and deportation of foreign residents with limited due process; constraints on judicial independence; official corruption at all levels of government; restrictions on the right to privacy; restrictions on freedoms of speech, press, assembly, association, and movement; official corruption and impunity; violence and discrimination against women; suspected trafficking in persons; discrimination against ethnic minorities; and restrictions on labor rights.”

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