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UNESCO defers award named for African leader accused of human rights abuses

By Al Kamen
Back in September 2008, the European Union, joined by the United States and Norway, objected when the executive board of the U.N. Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) agreed to set up a life sciences award in the name of Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, to be endowed for five years by a fine $3 million gift from President Obiang.

The initiative seemed to stall for a while, especially after some reform candidates won top spots on the 57-nation board. But then in April, UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said she was going forward to pick the first three winners of the award.

The human rights crowd went wild, noting that Obiang, in power only since 1979 and supposedly elected with a nifty 95 percent of the vote, ran the oil-rich country (pop. one million) amid constant State Department reports of "arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention; harassment and deportation of foreign residents with limited due process; judicial corruption," and so forth and so on.

The administration, apparently seeing a loser issue and not wanting to ignite an ugly controversy of former western colonial powers confronting independent African states, adopted a low-key diplomatic approach.

But then Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote Bokova on May 20 seeking "clarification" about the award, since "credible reports" said Obiang and his family have stolen "possibly billions of dollars" from the people of that country and "it seems highly likely" that the $3 million donation "came from corruption, kickbacks and other theft." Leahy said he was concerned that the prize would link UNESCO to "a dictator."

That little grenade sparked an uproar. The Canadians weighed in strongly, as did other nations. The African countries held back.

On Friday, the government of Equatorial Guinea fired back, attacking critics for waging an "absurd, cynical [and] hypocritical campaign" to block the prize. "In this case," the statement said, "we have no doubt that the entities that created this controversy are showing their true colonialist, discriminatory, racist and prejudiced identity, by not accepting that an African president can confer an award of this kind."

That same day, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa weighed in with a blunt statement saying he was "appalled" that UNESCO, "a beacon for hope and development. . . is allowing itself to burnish the unsavory reputation of a dicatator."
Obiang's regime, "has been marked by corruption and abuse," Tutu said, and the money should go to people in that country "rather than to glorify their president." Tutu never was one to mince words.

On Monday, David Killion, the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, wrote Bokova saying Washington was in "support for your dedicated efforts to resolve" the controversy and asked her "to suspend plans for awarding the prize" and provide time to figure out some solution.

Early Tuesday, the UNESCO executive board, meeting in Paris, took up the matter and, with the support of some African states, agreed to study it further, likely deferring resolution until the fall.

The leading contenders for the prize, Korea's Kim Jong Il, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, are said to be preparing a statement condemning the delay.

By Al Kamen  |  June 15, 2010; 11:11 AM ET
Categories:  44 The Obama Presidency  
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