In the face of a huge international uproar, I’m told UNESCO has decided today not to allow itself to be used (at least for the time being) by Teodoro Obiang, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, who wanted to endow a prize in his honor.
The U.S. finally came out against the prize yesterday. Here is a statement issued today by the U.S. mission to UNESCO:
The damage being done to UNESCO’s reputation is serious. Numerous human rights organizations, the international scientific community, former UNESCO Prize recipients, and Members of the United States Congress are calling the credibility of UNESCO into question.
As you know, U.S. Senator Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Sub-Committee responsible for appropriating money to the State Department for UNESCO wrote to you in protest. Media freedom groups are united in their concern that UNESCO’s association with the Obiang Prize will undermine its ability to promote freedom of expression. These groups are usually supporters of UNESCO. There is a real risk that this organization could find itself friendless.
Gavin Hayman of Global Witness, one of the groups that has been working to oppose the prize, alerted me to this statement that came from Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO:
“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 told the Board. “I have come to you with a strong message of alarm and anxiety. I am fully aware that the Executive Board made a decision two years ago (to establish the prize), but I believe that given the changing circumstances and the unprecedented developments of the past months, 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.”
From what I understand, Equatorial Guinea has had little support during the controversy, save for a few African countries (like the Democratic Republic of Congo, quite the role model). The U.S. and the European Union came out against the award, as did a number of major countries from Latin America and Asia. It was not a North-South split, as some had feared.
Still, it remains to be seen what UNESCO will do down the road and if the “consultations” it is calling for will allow Obiang to get his prize later. For now, it’s a big victory for the coalition that came together to oppose the prize and an embarrassing black eye for the Obiang regime.