Special Report

Decision Time at UNESCO

A dubious prize is named for the president of Equatorial Guinea.

By 10.13.10

Send to Kindle

This week, when the Executive Board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) meets in Paris, the delegates will be hoping to avoid discussing the controversial "UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences."

The prize is controversial because Obiang, the president of Equatorial Guinea, is thought to be one of the most corrupt dictators in Africa. The State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report lists some of the reasons why: unlawful killings by security forces, torture of detainees and prisoners, life-threatening conditions in prisons, and judicial and government corruption.

The Executive Board approved the prize in 2008. But last June, UNESCO's Director-General, Irina Bokova, gave the delegates a message of "alarm and anxiety" in which she said she had "heard the voices of the many intellectuals, scientists, journalists and of course governments and parliamentarians" deploring the prize. Fearing for the reputation of UNESCO, Ms. Bokova delayed awarding the prize and asked the Executive Board to address the issue at its October meeting.

Many of the delegates from UNESCO's 193 member states had hoped that this issue could be settled quietly, through diplomatic consultations, so it would not have to be dealt with publicly at the Executive Board meeting. Unlike the United Nations's General Assembly and Security Council, UNESCO avoids controversy whenever possible.

Some delegates had also hoped that Equatorial Guinea's recent agreement with the Commission of the African Union to establish the headquarters of the new African Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, would cause Equatorial Guinea to lose interest in its UNESCO prize.

Those hopes were dashed by Equatorial Guinea's Minister for Foreign Affairs, Pastor Micha Ondo Bile. In his September speech before the UN's General Assembly he demanded that UNESCO award its prize without further delay. Bile took the occasion to denounce "the manipulations and maneuvers of the new UNESCO administration," and "the unfair and irresponsible attitude by certain figures and NGOs working against the laudable and humanitarian initiative to create the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo prize." What nonsense!

THERE CAN BE NO QUESTION about why Ms. Bokova is reluctant to award the prize. It was controversial from the moment it was first submitted to the Executive Board, of which I was a member at the time, serving as the U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO. In addition to the U.S., other countries including Norway, and the EU countries, particularly France, strongly objected before and during the debate to naming the prize after Obiang, given his wretched record on human rights.

However, because of widespread support by the delegates from Africa and from other developing countries, including, most especially, the then-Chairman of the Executive Board, the Ambassador to UNESCO from Benin, our efforts failed to prevent the Executive Board from adopting Equatorial Guinea's proposal.

UNESCO Executive Board resolutions are rarely voted on, but are adopted by "consensus," in which the U.S. has no veto. Although countries can object during debates, a consensus is generally achieved if there is a large and determined majority. After a brief debate on the proposed Obiang prize, the Chairman quickly graveled the resolution to a "consensus" adoption despite the objections of the U.S. and other delegations.

In June, Director-General Bokova asked that consultations be conducted in "a spirit of mutual respect and dignity for all partners concerned…." That's UNESCO-speak for do not offend Equatorial Guinea. That means that if they discuss the prize at the Executive Board meeting, they will try to do it carefully and quietly, perhaps during agenda item 38, "Report by the Director-General on the assessment of the effectiveness of the Overall Strategy for UNESCO Prizes." The proposed decision for that item asks the Director-General to "pursue her efforts aimed at improving the visibility and effective management of UNESCO Prizes as a tool for furthering the strategic objectives, programme priorities, and prestige of the Organization …." Which, being translated from the bureaucratese, means, if instituting a prize will discredit UNESCO, don't do it.

If the Executive Board is serious about using prizes to enhance UNESCO's visibility and prestige, it must reverse its earlier decision and reject the Obiang prize. It should also encourage Equatorial Guinea to spend the $3 million it has allocated for the prize on improving the lives of the suffering people in its own country -- which ranks near the bottom of the UN human development report, and where 20 percent of the children die before reaching the age of five.

Ms. Bokova is right: UNESCO's reputation is on the line. If the Executive Board does not reject the prize at its October meeting, it will forfeit the respect of the international community. This should be an easy one, but the Executive Board's tradition of consensus and collegiality will make taking a principled stand difficult. Will they do it? Don't hold your breath.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

{fullname}} served as the Permanent Representative of the United States to UNESCO from 2004 to 2009.