UN debating prize in tainted African ruler's name

Last Updated: Mon, Oct 03, 2011 19:30 hrs

UNESCO's director-general appealed directly to Equatorial Guinea's president Friday to withdraw a life sciences prize in his name that has created controversy around the globe because of the African leader's human rights record.

The call for President Teodoro Obiang Nguema to take back the prize was a bold move for the head of a U.N. organization that tiptoes through diplomatic minefields to maintain consensus.

But the prize — on hold since its adoption by UNESCO's executive board in 2008 — has stirred the ire of numerous Western nations as well as scientists, Nobel winners and other notables around the world, while becoming a point of honor for its African backers.

It has risked pitting African member states against others at Paris-based UNESCO.

"As generous as he was in offering this prize, I think he should make the same proof of generosity" by withdrawing it, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova said in an address to delegates at an executive board meeting.

"I don't think this organization should wage a war against the scientific community."

Her goal, she said, is to preserve the reputation of the U.N. organization — and avoid divisions with Africa.

Furious negotiations preceded the board meeting which Bokova addressed.

In a surprise, a working group on the board later came up with a draft agreement to be further discussed Monday. Contents of the agreement were not made public. Furious negotiations that preceded Friday's meeting were likely to continue.

UNESCO, seeking consensus, hopes to avoid a vote on the issue, a move considered divisive.

Africa has 13 delegates on the 58-seat executive board. However, the pro-prize group, which includes Arab nations, stands at 20 — 10 shy of the 30 needed to pass it.

Pass or not, divisions in such a vote could scar the organization whose stated mission is the promotion of peace and human rights through cultural dialogue.

At a lavish summit in Equatorial Guinea earlier this year, the nation's president, who now chairs the African Union, persuaded the bloc to pass a motion calling on UNESCO to approve the prize in his name.

The $3 million prize was first proposed in 2008 and UNESCO initially agreed to create it, only to suspend it as outrage erupted over the provenance of the money and accusations of abuses by Obiang against his people. A jury was even selected, but at least two candidates have reportedly withdrawn amid the controversy.

Leading rights activists and cultural figures have urged UNESCO to reject the prize.

"The stakes are very high here," Bokova said. "I believe that sometimes we have to take courageous decisions."

The president of the Africa group at the body, Jean-Marie Adoua, said the African nations cannot simply reverse their support of the prize because they are following instructions from their leaders.

"We've received instructions from our heads of state, what should we do? We're under an obligation to respect our heads of state," Adoua said. He asked the executive board to "respect its own decisions" regarding the prize.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu is among those urging UNESCO to reject the prize. A letter signed by him and other leading authors and activists from around the world says they are "deeply troubled by the well-documented record of human rights abuse, repression of press freedom and official corruption that have marked his (Obiang's) rule."

The tiny nation located on the coast of Central Africa spent several times its yearly education budget to build the new $800 million resort to house those attending the summer summit.

Outside of an 18-hole golf course, a five-star hotel, and a spa, the country built a villa for each of the continent's 52 presidents in attendance. Each one came with a gourmet chef and a private elevator leading to a suite overlooking the mile-long artificial beach that had been sculpted out of the country's coast especially for them.

Equatorial Guinea Information Minister Jeronimo Osa Osa Ecoro told The Associated Press by telephone that claims of theft, corruption and abuse by Obiang and his entourage are unfounded.

Obiang seized power in a coup 32 years ago after toppling the former leader who was then executed. A U.N. expert toured the country's prisons in 2008 and determined that torture is systematic, including using electroshocks through starter cables attached to detainees' bodies with alligator clips.

Another concern is the provenance of the $3 million that Obiang has said he will donate to endow the prize. The Obiang family is accused of pilfering the nation's oil wealth.

French authorities seized several luxury cars allegedly belonging to Obiang's son in Paris this week as part of a probe into the assets of three African leaders prompted by complaints by anti-corruption groups.


Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.