Those self-appointed guardians of world culture, the international functionaries at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris, surely know that popular folklore story, the Tar-Baby. It figures in over 200 tales in societies of all races, ancient and modern, from West Africa to South America and Asia. In America it was told most memorably by Joel Chandler Harris in his Uncle Remus yarn about Br’er Rabbit, the cottontail entrapped by Br’er Fox with a sticky doll made of tar and turpentine.
In all versions it is a cautionary tale about the danger of tacky situations that only get worse and entangling the more they are grappled with. As a bearer of universal, age-old wisdom, it is worthy of being included in UNESCO’s famous list of the world’s intangible heritage, right along with, say, Sbek Thom Khmer shadow theatre and the Mongol Biyelgee.
But whimsical folk tales are one thing, harsh reality is another. Now UNESCO is struggling to detach itself from a real-life Tar-Baby. It takes the form of the $3 million Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, set up by UNESCO with his money in 2008. For those who may not have seen “The United Nations’ Rogue Agency” in the February American Spectator, the story to date:
The donor, President Obiang, is the brutal dictator of a tiny, oil-rich African nation, Equatorial Guinea — the 11th most corrupt country in the world, according to the 2011 corruption index kept by Transparency International. His colossal personal fortune makes him one of the world’s richest rulers. Sensing that some cynics might see impropriety in this, since his countrymen get by on about $1 dollar a day, he sought to whitewash his image by having UNESCO name a prize for him. Lured by this $3 million Tar-Baby, the organization readily accepted Br’er Obiang’s money four years ago.
Many countries, including the U.S., opposed the prize. Senator Patrick Leahy, for one, has warned Director General Irina Bokova that “It is likely that the $3 million prize itself was the product of corruption or theft from the public treasury,” and said it was a serious mistake for UNESCO to associate itself with Obiang. Nobel laureates and human rights defenders around the world also protested. Belatedly realizing its mistake, an embarrassed UNESCO clumsily suspended the prize and began trying to get the tar off its hands. It did what bureaucracies usually do: it created a committee to discuss the problem.
Meanwhile, investigations in the U.S. and France make clear just how compromisingly sticky UNESCO’s Tar-Baby is.
As long ago as 2004, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations began looking into President Obiang’s financial dealings in the U.S. It found that he and close family members controlled tens of millions of petrodollars in American banks. In 2010, it issued a 325-page report zeroing in on how his prodigal playboy son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, known as Teodorin, moved more than $100 million into the U.S. Not one to put his cash into mousy savings accounts, he laundered it via shell companies with names like Beautiful Vision and Sweet Pink, and spent it on trinkets like a $30 million compound in Malibu, where he had attended Pepperdine University. Last October the Justice Department went to court to seize some $70 million of his U.S. assets including the mansion, a Gulfstream jet, luxury cars, and a million dollars worth of Michel Jackson memorabilia.
Could a United Nations agency like UNESCO not have known the kind of people it was partnering with?
Or that in France, the organization’s home turf, investigating magistrates have been looking into Obiang’s brimming bank accounts and luxury assets, suspecting that they result from embezzlement, money-laundering, and other misuse of public funds? (He’s in good company: also suspected are his dodgy African neighbors, Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso, and Gabon’s late President Omar Bongo Ondimba.) In 2010, a French appeals court authorized the investigations involving the three heads of state and their relatives. Relatives like Teodorin.
Imagine then UNESCO’s chagrin when last September French police raided Teodorin’s six-story, 5,000-square-foot Paris mansion on Avenue Foch and towed away 11 cars from its garages and cobbled courtyard, including a Maserati, a Porsche Carrera, an Aston Martin and a Mercedes Maybach. Also two Bugatti Veyrons, the most expensive and fastest street car in the world, costing over $1 million apiece. But the tenacious French investigators hadn’t finished. The cops returned February 14 with a moving van and emptied the mansion of Rodin statues and other baubles worth an estimated $24 million. Equatorial Guinea’s local lawyer sputtered that the building benefits from diplomatic immunity. Indeed, President Obiang only last October named his son deputy permanent representative to –what else? — UNESCO, obviously intending to give him immunity from corruption charges. That’s unlikely to wash with French authorities.
That UNESCO teams up with such strange bedfellows does not seem to worry the Obama Administration. For months it has been trying to get Congress to waive or change the law, dating from the 1990s, that obliged the U.S. to cut off funding to any UN agency that admitted the Palestinian Authority as a full member, as UNESCO provocatively did last October.
Now the State Department has quietly included some $79 million in its new budget to cover its UNESCO contribution for FY 2013. “The President has also articulated quite clearly that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO,” said Thomas Nides,Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources at State, on February 13. “We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we’re not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver, and we have made it clear to the Congress we’d like a waiver.… UNESCO does a lot of enormously good work.” One can only admire State’s chutzpah.
One who does not is Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “Resuming U.S. funding would give a green light for other UN bodies to follow in UNESCO’s footsteps and support the Palestinian statehood push,” she declared, reacting to State’s ploy. It “sends a disastrous message that the U.S. will fund UN bodies no matter what irresponsible decisions they make.” Adds Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation, “These efforts are beyond shortsighted.”
Meanwhile, UNESCO’s 18-member committee labors mightily to find some way, any way, to get rid of the Obiang Tar-Baby. Whatever it does, its hands will stay tarred.
One solution, suggested by President Obiang, still lobbying hard to have the prize awarded, is to remove his name and endow it in the name of Equatorial Guinea. A committee insider tells me that won’t fly. Another idea is to temporize for a year, which should be easy for a UNESCO committee; the prize has a five-year time limit and will expire in 2013 if not awarded by then. But the favored solution at this point apparently is to create a new scientific award, named neither for Obiang nor his country, and accept contributions from any government. Given the kind of people UNESCO has shown it is willing to receive money from, that could produce the mother of all Tar-Babies. Anybody need their money laundered in Paris?