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Why UNESCO should just cancel the Obiang life sciences prize


Equatorial Guinea


Equatorial Guinea is now the richest country in sub-Saharan Africa, but while its ruling family is benefiting, Equatorial Guinea's population suffers from terrible poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy. The economic, social and cultural rights of its people are mostly ignored. (See CESR's factsheet for more on economic and social rights in Equatorial Guinea.)

This is the reason for serious public concern that UNESCO is offering a prize in the name of Equatorial Guinea's ruler, President Obiang. "UNESCO is allowing itself to be used to burnish the unsavory reputation of a cruel and corrupt despot," said Tutu Alicante of the human rights organization EG Justice. "The prize's US$3 million endowment should be used for the education and welfare of the people of Equatorial Guinea, rather than the glorification of their president."

Other organizations have also raised these concerns, including Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and EG Justice. CESR has been part of this campaign, in order to raise greater awareness of the shameful status of economic and social rights of Equatoguineans, despite the vast wealth of their country.

But as the Economist observed, perhaps we should just focus on President Obiang Nguema’s generosity. "The new UNESCO award is going to set him back some $3m (not including fees for the lobbyists and public-relations firms who swung this for him)," it wrote in an editorial, "Instead of cavilling, other organisations should follow UNESCO’s approach."

"The World Food Programme, for starters, should ask Zimbabwe’s president for funds to establish a Robert Mugabe award for agricultural productivity. Next, the UN refugee agency could squeeze a few million dollars from Myanmar’s junta for a Than Shwe prize for promoting the rights of women prisoners. The World Health Organisation could surely seduce Italy’s prime minister into providing some cash for a Silvio Berlusconi medal in sex education."

You can read the full article here.

You can also read the letter we sent to UNESCO in January in protest here, and their response in March here (they say that while they have "taken due note" of our concerns, "the adoption of prizes is the prerogative of UNESCO's governing bodies."). They later confirmed that the closing date for nominations was April 30 and that the first prize will be awarded in June.

So we tried again this week, highlighting "the urgent need for UNESCO to investigate the source of the millions UNESCO accepted from an autocrat who enjoys fabulous wealth from his nation’s petroleum riches while keeping his people mired in poverty." You can read that letter in English or in Spanish.

Or feel free to write to UNESCO's chief yourself: Irina Bokova, Director General, UNESCO, 1, rue Miollis, 75732 Paris Cedex 15, France.

Stay tuned.