[Washington Babylon ]UNESCO for Sale: Dictators allowed to buy their own prizes, for the right price | Harper's Magazine

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UNESCO for Sale: Dictators allowed to buy their own prizes, for the right price Issue [Washington Babylon]

UNESCO for Sale: Dictators allowed to buy their own prizes, for the right price


In the face of intense pressure from human rights and advocacy groups and a barrage of bad publicity, the lunkheads who run UNESCO are apparently reconsidering their decision to allow a corrupt dictator to endow a prize in his own name. The story involves Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled oil-rich Equatorial Guinea since 1979 and who has stolen just about every penny in the national treasury since then. He wants to give UNESCO $3 million to create the “Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.”

Outside of UNESCO, the prize is a joke. In a May 20 letter to Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director general, Senator Patrick Leahy wrote: “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. 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 Economist suggested that other international agencies follow suit, proposing the creation of the World Food Program “Robert Mugabe award for agricultural productivity,” the World Health Organization “Silvio Berlusconi medal in sex education,” and the International Atomic Energy Agency “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prize for the peaceful sponsorship of nuclear power.”

A group of scientists, public health organizations, and professionals called on UNESCO to abolish the prize, saying, “We believe the most perfunctory examination of President Obiang’s record on human rights and meeting the needs of the people makes it clear that he is cynically attempting to use UNESCO to legitimize his abusive regime.” A coalition whose members range from Human Rights Watch to EG Justice suggested that “the $3 million that UNESCO has accepted from President Obiang to be applied to the education and welfare of Equatoguineans, rather than the glorification of their president. We respectfully propose that these funds be used to provide rudimentary educational supplies for primary schools and to address other long neglected needs in Equatorial Guinea.”

I’ve been told that following recent urgent meetings in Paris, Bokova has decided to raise the matter at a June 15 “informational meeting” of the organization’s Executive Board. It appears that Bokova might be ready to back away from the prize — “The Director-General has expressed her serious concern over UNESCO’s prestige and has urged Member States to live up to their responsibilities and discuss the future of the prize,” reads press guidance that UNESCO HQ in Paris sent to the agency’s New York office a few days ago. But one source told me that despite the public flogging UNESCO is taking, Bokova will approve the prize unless the Board gives her clear guidance to do otherwise.

The Obama administration (and some European governments) have opposed the prize behind-the-scenes, but the U.S. hasn’t taken a public stance on the matter since objecting to the original decision to create it back in late-2008. If the U.S. and other governments don’t take more aggressive action before June 15, UNESCO will likely move forward with this travesty and confirm its reputation as an agency that sells itself to the highest bidder.

(Note: For those following this story, see the excellent coverage at the Turtle Bay blog.)

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