Turtle Bay

Congress tries to halt award endowed by African strongman

Senator Patrick Leahy, the powerful chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Department of State and Foreign Operations, has raised concerns about UNESCO’s plans to administer a controversial life sciences prize in the name of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the allegedly repressive and corrupt strongman of Equatorial Guinea. "I am concerned that by sponsoring ...

Senator Patrick Leahy, the powerful chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Department of State and Foreign Operations, has raised concerns about UNESCO’s plans to administer a controversial life sciences prize in the name of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the allegedly repressive and corrupt strongman of Equatorial Guinea.

"I am concerned that by sponsoring this prize, UNESCO is associating itself with a dictator who has spent thirty years doing little more than consolidating his power and enriching himself and his family," Leahy wrote to Irina Bokova, the director general of the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization on May 20. "It seems highly likely that the $3 million donated to UNESCO by President Obiang for the Obiang International Prize came from corruption, kickbacks or other theft from the public treasury."

The Leahy letter comes weeks after the Paris-based agency announced plans to consider candidates for the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, to be awarded to three scientists each year. An international panel has already selected this year’s winners, and they are scheduled be announced before the end of next month.

The establishment of the award in October 2008 immediately sparked intensive criticism of UNESCO from human rights and free speech advocates, as well as anti-corruption groups, who maintain that it will taint the organization’s reputation. They say the money would have better been spent supporting education programs back in Equatorial Guinea. Members of the committee that selected the awardees have also expressed concern about the controversy surrounding the awards, according to sources familiar with the issue.

Leahy is the first prominent American political figure to criticize UNESCO’s plan to award the prize. In his letter to Bokova, Leahy noted that Equatorial Guinea is "one of the largest oil producing countries in Africa with a per capita income of over $30,000, but which ranks at or near the bottom of most health, education and human rights indicators."

Indeed, Equatorial Guinea’s vast oil wealth — national GDP is higher than Saudi Arabia, and Italy — has not trickled down to most of the country’s impoverished people. Life expectancy in the country is only around 50 years and the country ranks near the bottom of most global public health and political freedom indicators, according to U.N. figures.

Leahy’s letter coincides with a new request before his committee to authorize $80 million in U.S. funding for UNESCO. And since Turtle Bay first reported last month on UNESCO’s decision to push forward on its plans to approve the award, Eleonora Mitrofanova of Russia, the chairperson of the organization’s executive board, agreed to convene a set of meetings to reconsider the move, sources familiar with the issue said.

The African leader has pledged $3 million to the Paris-based U.N. agency to administer the prize over the next five years. Half of the money, $1.5 million, will go to awardees while the other half will be used to cover the costs of selecting winners.

In response to a request for comment on the prize, UNESCO furnished Turtle Bay with excerpts of a letter Bokova sent to Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group. Bokova said the decision to award the prize was made by UNESCO’s executive board, which includes the United States and 57 other governments, and that she is bound to implement the decision. She wrote that she informed Mitrofanova about the criticism in April, but "no member of the board took the floor to express a negative opinion, raise a critical question about the prize or indicate a change in procedure."

Human Rights Watch contends that many board members oppose the prize but that Bokova never sought their views on the matter. "Bokova failed to tell governments that this was an opportunity for them to stop the prize," said Lisa Misol, who has followed the issue for the rights group. "She didn’t ask for their views or a decision, so there was no reason to speak up."

Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists has added its name to a growing list of advocacy groups who have taken UNESCO to task for lending its name to the African leader. The press freedom group, joined by 29 others press freedom groups, noted in a May 20 letter to UNESCO that the "local press [in Equatorial Guinea] is almost totally controlled by the state. The few brave local journalists working for international media outlets have been targeted by Obiang’s regime."

Agapito Mba Mokuy, a presidential advisor in Equatorial Guinea, told Turtle Bay that the allegations of corruption and repression by his president were "distortions" that failed to take into account the large-scale investment in the country’s social services and infrastructure.

Mokuy said this is the first time an African government has underwritten a science prize at UNESCO, and that its gift has been approved by the agency’s full membership. "Some people may not be used to having African countries donating funds in science," he said, emphasizing "this is a humanitarian action on behalf of the president."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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