UNESCO: Decision on controversial prize deferred

The Unesco executive board has postponed a decision on whether to award or abandon a controversial science prize named after and funded by the dictatorial President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea.

Meeting last Tuesday, representatives of the 58 member countries constituting the board deferred taking a decision until October at the request of Unesco's Director-General Irina Bokova. She had delivered "a strong message of alarm and anxiety" concerning the award.

A worldwide campaign by human rights organisations, academics and scientists had been growing, demanding that Unesco should drop the prize altogether.

The annual Unesco-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was established in 2008 to reward scientific achievements that would "improve the quality of human life".

Financed by Obiang, it would celebrate the projects and activities of up to three scientists a year, who would share $300,000 and receive medals and diplomas. The first winners should have been announced this year.

But a campaign bringing together organisations from countries all over the world warned the prize would cause irreparable harm to the reputation of Unesco. As well as human rights and freedom of expression groups, critics included academics, and health workers and scientists who wrote to Bokova asking the organisation to abandon the award.

They protested that Obiang, who seized power 30 years ago, was a tyrannical dictator and one of Africa's worst violators of press freedom.

He had squandered the oil wealth of Equatorial Guinea to enrich himself, his family and cronies while the country, despite having the highest GDP per capita in Africa, was languishing in poverty with one of the lowest life expectancy rates in the world, clean drinking water for only 43% of the population and an under-five child mortality rate of more than 20%.

Before the board met Obiang posted a video to talk about the prize and its aim to find cures to such diseases as HIV-Aids that would preserve human life. But he did not refer to the human rights condemnations against him.

At last week's meeting, Bokova told board members she had "heard the voices of many intellectuals, scientists, journalists and of course governments and parliaments who have appealed to me to protect and preserve the prestige of [Unesco]. I have come to you with a strong message of alarm and anxiety."

Despite the board's decision two years ago to establish the prize, she believed that, given changing circumstances and unprecedented developments, "we must be courageous and recognise our responsibilities for it is our organisation that is at stake".

Bokova said she would therefore not set a date for awarding the prize. She called on the board to continue consultations so the issue could be addressed at the next board meeting in October.