Rights groups condemn controversial Obiang science award

Seven human rights organisations have condemned Tuesday’s award by UNESCO of a controversial science prize financed by Equatorial Guinea. The award ceremony went ahead despite allegations of corruption against the country’s leaders including President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who sponsored the prize.

The UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was awarded to three scientists – Maged Al-Sherbiny of Egypt, Felix Dapare Dakora of South Africa and Rossana Arroyo of Mexico – for their research into vaccine development, food scarcity in Africa and parasitic diseases, respectively. They each received US$100,000.

The presentation took place at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 17 July.

France, which, like Spain and the United States is investigating allegations of corruption against the Obiang family, was among the countries that boycotted the ceremony.

Earlier this month, French magistrates issued a warrant for the arrest of Obiang’s son, Teodorin, who is suspected of embezzling millions of dollars.

Last week’s ceremony was the culmination of four years of internal disagreement within UNESCO over the prize, which was proposed by Obiang and was originally to be named after him. It was intended to reward up to three scientists for their scientific achievements that would "improve the quality of human life".

It was established by UNESCO’s executive board in 2008, financed by Obiang with a US$3 million endowment over five years. But attribution of the prize was postponed in 2010 following international protests over the connection with the Obiang regime.

Human rights organisations, academics, health workers and scientists wrote to UNESCO’s Director-general Irina Bokova, warning that the prize would irreparably harm the organisation’s reputation.

They condemned Obiang, who seized power in the oil-rich former Spanish colony in 1979, as a tyrannical dictator who had squandered the country’s wealth on himself, his family and his cronies.

Bokova opposed the award, and asked the board to withdraw it. But following a majority vote in March 2012 by the board in its favour under the new name, she was legally advised that she was required to follow the board’s directive.

A joint statement last week by seven rights organisations,* including Human Rights Watch, criticised UNESCO’s decision as “disappointing and irresponsible”.

Tutu Alicante, director of EG Justice, another of the groups, said: “It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for UNESCO to award this prize, given the litany of serious legal and ethical problems surrounding it.

“Beyond letting itself be used to polish the sullied image of Obiang, UNESCO also risks ruining its own credibility.”

* The statement was issued by: Association SHERPA, Committee to Protect Journalists, Corruption Watch, EG Justice, Global Witness, Human Rights Watch and ONE.