21 October 2010

Africa: Unesco Puts Controversial Obiang Prize on Hold

Photo: Evan Schneider/UN Photo
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) meets with Obiang Nguema Masogo, President of Equatorial Guinea, at UN Headquarters in New York.

The controversial UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences has been put on hold indefinitely after an international outcry forced UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) member states to reconsider the wisdom of having a major science prize named after a notorious dictator.

Diplomats meeting in Paris for UNESCO's executive board meeting this week agreed to suspend the prize and "continue the consultations among all parties concerned, in a spirit of mutual respect, until a consensus is reached".

The move represents a compromise after African and Arab countries indicated they wanted to press ahead with the prize, which they saw as benefiting their continent, while the United States and some European countries vehemently opposed it on the grounds of Obiang's dubious human rights record.

However African diplomats said not all African countries were happy about the outcome and that the controversy would not go away.

The agreement was "a typical diplomatic fudge in which no side wins", an Asian diplomat in Paris said.

Another Paris-based diplomat said the agreement was reached by consensus, after negotiations continued in the corridors. "Members of the executive board are not keen for the issue to continue hanging over UNESCO deliberations, and member states are not keen for it to be brought up in the future. This is an elegant way to suspend the prize indefinitely," he said.

UNESCO director-general, Irina Bokova, said the decision was reached "by consensus and with respect and dignity towards all concerned parties".

But an African diplomat told SciDev.Net: "Tension was high just before a vote was taken and some African countries who wanted to speak [against the prize] were not allowed to take the floor.

"The decision is being presented as unanimous, but it was the kind of resolution that African countries were neither for nor against.

"It is the worst possible outcome. African countries can continue to open up the discussions every six months [when the executive board meets]. All this does is reduce public scrutiny at UNESCO. But discussions will continue, for example in the African Union summits."

"The US put immense pressure on some African countries, lobbying in their capital cities," he said.

A taskforce, set up by Bokova in February to review all 43 current UNESCO prizes after the row over the Obiang prize erupted, delivered an internal report in September that failed to mention the prize as one that needed to be reconsidered.

But it said "there are inherent difficulties in assessing the integrity of the private or individual donor" as requested by UNESCO's own internal rules on prizes. It added "there is no specific procedure applied when the integrity of a private or individual donor of a UNESCO prize comes into question".

Ken Hurwitz, senior legal officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative in New York, one of the organisations that carried out a sustained campaigned against the award, said: "We think this is a terrific result and it shows that UNESCO is responsive to common sense." However he added: "We do think the right response is to terminate the prize and not just have a diplomatic solution."

"Our belief is that it is extremely unlikely that consensus will be reached to reactivate the prize," Hurwitz said.

But Hurwitz, an anti-corruption lawyer, raised concerns regarding the Obiang funds being held by UNESCO.

"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. We will continue to press UNESCO for a response to this legal as well as political issue."

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