According to a statement issued by seven civil society groups in July 2012, the decision by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to issue a controversial prize financed by President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea is a disappointment to the efforts towards upholding human rights and democracy. The groups that oppose this move by the President of Gabon include, Association SHERPA, Committee to Protect Journalists, Corruption Watch, EG Justice, Global Witness, Human Rights Watch and ONE.
In an overwhelming vote, the governing Executive Board of UNESCO approved the prize on March 8 under the name UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences. The Executive Board then put pressure on UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, to move quickly to award it, despite advice from UNESCO’s legal office not to go ahead with the endorsement. UNESCO’s legal department strongly argued that the endorsement and implementation of the award went against UNESCO’s rules and regulations, especially as the source of the funding came from a leader considered as having a very poor human rights record by organisations like Human Rights Watch.
‘It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for UNESCO to award this prize, given the litany of serious legal and ethical problems surrounding it,’ explained Tutu Alicante, director of the human rights group EG Justice. Alincante added that UNESCO was at risk of ruining its credibility by accepting such an award.
Equatorial Guinea happens to be an oil-rich West African country plagued with serious rates of poverty and a high-level of corruption. A majority of the population lacks basic socio-economic rights like health care, sound education and access to electricity. The UN’s 2011 Human Development Report, shows that Equatorial Guinea ranks 136 out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index, notwithstanding a very high per-capita GDP of $28,857.
According to Human Rights watch, the government prefers to spend on large, highly visible infrastructure projects intended at impressing the international community, rather than cater for the development and improvement of the lives of its citizenry.
Still according to Human Rights Watch, President Obiang’s government has tried to silence voices of liberty by carrying out arrests. Political opposition figures like Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, a well-known human rights activist and medical doctor was detained for four months when he opposed the award of this prize.
President Obiang’s government has refereed to international civil society criticising the UNESCO award as ‘neo-colonialists’ and ‘racists’.
The award was first approved in 2008 as the ‘UNESCO-Obiang prize’. As a result of protests from civil society groups, intellectuals, journalists as well as human rights activists, President Obiang’s name was dropped from the prize. He was criticised for having a poor human rights record.
It is indeed understandable why there is a lot of outcry with respect to the financial source of this award which is supposed to assist in research in the life sciences especially in a world still plagued with poverty and disease. Had it been that President Obiang was dedicated to economically improving the lives of his citizens and ensuring that human rights were upheld, the story would have been different.
‘Ordinary people in Equatorial Guinea have never shared in the country’s wealth or their leaders’ fancy lifestyles,’ concurs, Alicante.
From all indications, the Executive Board of UNESCO does not care about the poor human rights record of Equatorial Guinea. All they are interested in are the finances from a leader with a poor human rights record. This indeed is an aberration to human rights. In an effort to once and for all abolish this very disgraceful award, there is need for civil society groups, intellectuals, journalists and human rights activists to awaken from their slumber. There is also need for social media to join the protests in a bid to ensuring that African governments like Equatorial Guinea improve their human rights image and promote the development of their people, before giving out awards of such magnitude.