Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has donated $3 million dollars to the United Nations to fund a prize for work in the life sciences in the developing world.
Sounds great, right?
Not so fast. Obiang has a reputation as a brutal dictator which might make the UN pause before establishing a prize in his name.
There's an international campaign to persuade the UN to drop the Obiang award. On the other side the African Union and Obiang's government are pressing the UN to launch the prize.
It is all coming to a head this week as the board of the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organization (UNESCO) is meeting in Paris and is expected to give their decision by March. 9.
One of the most persuasive arguments against the UN award comes from Wenceslao Mansogo, a doctor and a leader of an opposition party. He has been imprisoned for a month in Bata Central Prison.
This week a letter apparently by Mansogo was smuggled from prison and delivered to UNESCO. The doctor urges the UNESCO board to consider the record of the Obiang government and decide if a man whose regime is known for human rights abuses should have a UN award named for him.
"From the confines of my current cell, I implore UNESCO delegates to call upon the Equatoguinean government to release all those who have been unjustly imprisoned. In addition, I urge delegates to closely analyze the record of the Obiang government and carefully weigh the wisdom of honoring President Obiang with a prize for “research in the life sciences” when the actions of his government consistently contradict that endeavor," wrote Mansogo. "UNESCO’s Executive Board has the power to impact the struggle for an open and peaceful society in Equatorial Guinea, a country where improvements in quality of life are desperately needed. I hope that it acts to do so."
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In addition the UNESCO board will consider an internal study that says there are legal questions about the source of the money to fund the prize, according to ScienceInsider.
The legal objections in the four-page document say that the prize's own statutes declare that the donor of the prize must be named but it is not clear if the money came from the Obiang Foundation or the government of Equatorial Guinea.
This political hot potato has been passed around for some time. In 2008 UNESCO first accepted the $3 million from the Obiang Foundation to encourage science in the developing world. Human rights groups quickly objected because of Obiang's abysmal record on human rights and their campaign gained support among scientists and celebrities.
But supporters of the prize, including the Equatoguinean government, accused critics of having a "hidden racist, arrogant, and neocolonial attitude." The prize was eventually suspended until a consensus could be reached.
Obiang got the support of the African Union and so last year the prize was back on the agenda of the UNESCO board.
A decision on the award is expected by March 9 but perhaps the UNESCO board will further postpone the decision, citing the legal confusion of the source of the funds.
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