Thanks, but no thanks

Yielding to congressional and public pressure, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), indefinitely suspended its plan to offer a $300,000 annual life science prize named after the allegedly repressive and corrupt president of Equatorial Guinea. The decision followed an intensive letter-writing campaign by leading human rights, press, freedom and anti-corruption groups that charged ...

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Yielding to congressional and public pressure, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), indefinitely suspended its plan to offer a $300,000 annual life science prize named after the allegedly repressive and corrupt president of Equatorial Guinea.

The decision followed an intensive letter-writing campaign by leading human rights, press, freedom and anti-corruption groups that charged UNESCO was tainting its reputation by association itself with a prize funded and named for President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. "I am appalled that this organization, which holds such promise, is allowing itself to burnish the unsavory reputation of a dictator," South African Nobel Peace laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to UNESCO Thursday.

The decision to suspend came in a closed-door meeting of UNESCO board members, who feared the controversy surrounding the prize threatened to damage UNESCO's image. "I have heard the voices of the many intellectuals, scientists, journalists and of course governments and parliamentarians who have appealed to me to protect and preserve the prestige of the organization," Irina Bokova, UNESCO's director general, said after the meeting. "We must be courageous and recognize our responsibilities, for it is our organization that is at stake. Therefore, I will not set a date for awarding the UNESCO-Obiang Prize for the Life Sciences."

Yielding to congressional and public pressure, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), indefinitely suspended its plan to offer a $300,000 annual life science prize named after the allegedly repressive and corrupt president of Equatorial Guinea.

The decision followed an intensive letter-writing campaign by leading human rights, press, freedom and anti-corruption groups that charged UNESCO was tainting its reputation by association itself with a prize funded and named for President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. "I am appalled that this organization, which holds such promise, is allowing itself to burnish the unsavory reputation of a dictator," South African Nobel Peace laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote to UNESCO Thursday.

The decision to suspend came in a closed-door meeting of UNESCO board members, who feared the controversy surrounding the prize threatened to damage UNESCO’s image. "I have heard the voices of the many intellectuals, scientists, journalists and of course governments and parliamentarians who have appealed to me to protect and preserve the prestige of the organization," Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director general, said after the meeting. "We must be courageous and recognize our responsibilities, for it is our organization that is at stake. Therefore, I will not set a date for awarding the UNESCO-Obiang Prize for the Life Sciences."

The UNESCO-Obiang prize was established in September 2008 to reward scientists that achieve advances in the life sciences that aided humanity. President Obiang pledged $3 million to fund the prize over a five-year period. Half of that money, $1.5 million, was to cover UNESCO’s costs for administering the prize. A panel of judges recently met to select the winners, and Bokova planned to present them at the end of the month.

Today’s move represented a sharp reversal for Bokova, a Bulgarian national, who decided to press ahead with the prize in April in the face of mounting international pressure on UNESCO to disassociate itself with the prize. But Bokova changed course after Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), who chairs the appropriations committee that approves U.S. funding for UNESCO, wrote Bokova to say that her agency should not associate itself with "a dictator who has spent thirty years doing little more than consolidating his power and enriching himself and his family."

Leahy’s message was echoed by other Americans. On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David T. Killion, urged Bokova to suspend plans to award the prize to allow UNESCO member states to engage in "quiet consultations" to find a way forward that is consistent with UNESCO’s "basic values."

"To carry out its mandate, UNESCO must maintain public support, but I fear it is now in danger of losing it," he wrote in a letter to Bokova.

The U.S. delegation to the U.N. had chosen not to comment on the matter, but it welcomed Bokova’s decision. Stephen C. Engelken, the U.S. charge d’affaires, said today that the award was seriously damaging UNESCO’s reputation and that "there is a real risk that this organization could find itself friendless."

The dispute –which was first reported by Turtle Bay — has drawn attention to the wide gap between Equatorial Guinea growing national wealth — its per capita income surpasses that of Italy and Saudi Arabia — and the woeful state of the country’s social services. The country’s citizens have a life span of about 50 years, according to U.N. figures, and it regularly appears at the bottom of U.N. health indicators.

On Friday, Equatorial Guinea dismissed Obiang’s critics as racists and colonialists who had mounted an "absurd, cynical" effort to halt the prize. "We have no doubt that the entities that created this controversy are showing their true colonialist, discriminatory, racist and prejudiced identity, by not accepting that an African president can confer an award of this kind," according to a statement issued by Equatorial Guinea’s Ministry of Information.

Follow me on Twiiter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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