The UNESCO-Obiang Prize: Battle won but the fight is not over

Joseph Kraus of EG Justice provides an update on the status of the controversial UNESCO-Obiang prize.

Obiang_Bokova Irina Bokova and Teodoro Obiang
As ONE blog readers will recall, in late September the executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was considering reinstating a prize named for and funded by Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has accumulated an impressive résumé of human rights abuses and corruption during his 32-year rule. In October 2010, following a global outcry, the executive board suspended the prize until a consensus could be reached. Given the strong opposition to the prize voiced by many delegates, such an agreement seemed unlikely at the time.

However, this past June, President Obiang shrewdly used his position as the 2011 chairman of the African Union to secure an African Union resolution urging UNESCO to implement the prize. African delegates on UNESCO’s executive board, locked-in by that resolution, lined up to support the prize. Delegates representing UNESCO’s Arab regional group followed suit, as did many other delegates from G-77 countries. With the support of so many, there was considerable risk that a vote on the prize would reverse UNESCO’s 2010 decision and grant President Obiang his controversial prize.

On September 27, less than 72 hours before UNESCO began officially its discussions, the tide began to turn. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu published a powerful op-ed, in which he argued “the UNESCO-Obiang prize’s $3 million endowment should be used to benefit the people of Equatorial Guinea — from whom these funds have been taken — rather than to glorify their president.” Thirty-five additional global luminaries, including several Nobel Laureates, UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize Laureates, scientists, and award-winning writers, journalists and activists, joined Archbishop Tutu in writing a letter to UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova asking that UNESCO “not lend its prestige to a prize in President Obiang’s name.”

On September 28, as part of an ongoing corruption inquiry into the Obiang family, French authorities seized 11 high-end sports cars from the Obiang’s residence in Paris’ upscale 16th district. The seizure and underlying corruption investigation highlighted concerns about the origins of the money that Obiang donated to UNESCO to fund the prize.

Meanwhile, activists and diplomats who opposed the prize redoubled their efforts, and individuals from around the world mobilized to express their concerns. These included ONE members, who sent messages to Director-General Bokova asking her to push for a permanent cancellation of the dictator prize. Countless others participated in an EG Justice campaign to send messages directly to high-level government officials of African countries with delegates serving on UNESCO’s executive board. And our voices were heard!

The public outcry, together with the dramatic asset seizure, proved critical in pressuring UNESCO delegates to rethink their position on forcing a vote for the prize. On September 30, repeating her stance from 2010 that UNESCO’s image was being sullied by the controversy, Director-General Bokova took the unusual steps of asking President Obiang to withdraw the prize (he didn’t) and delivering an impassioned speech to the executive board, in which she exhorted delegates to “take courageous decisions.”

In response, on October 4, UNESCO decided against immediately implementing the prize. Instead, diplomats on the executive board reached a compromise to avoid a divisive vote. The new decision, approved by consensus, reiterated the board’s previous suspension of the prize and established a working group “to undertake further consultations…with a view to reaching a conclusion on this subject by the 189th session of the Executive Board,” which will take place in April or May 2012. The working group will consist of three members from each of the executive board’s six regional groups.

Some UNESCO diplomats claimed this outcome as a victory in the campaign to abolish the prize, believing that it places the prize in the “deep freeze.” However, given the relentlessness with which President Obiang has pursued it and an October 3 press release from the government of Equatorial Guinea announcing that “it will maintain its offer to UNESCO,” it would be premature to consider the matter settled.

That is all the more reason that UNESCO’s executive board should, at its next meeting, summon the courage to definitively abolish the prize.

The Obiang family, for its part, seems intent on helping UNESCO find that courage by showcasing why the prize is so controversial. Amidst ongoing corruption investigations of the Obiang family in France, Spain and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the United States Department of Justice filed a lis pendens on October 6 against the assets of President Obiang’s eldest son, potential successor and government minister, Teodoro Nguema (“Teodorin”). Teodorin was the subject of a 2010 US Senate investigation that revealed his use of shell companies to launder more than $100 million into the US to finance several extravagant purchases. Led by its new anti-kleptocracy taskforce, the Department of Justice has targeted many of those purchases for forfeiture, including Teodorin’s $35 million seafront mansion in Malibu, California, his $33.8 million Gulfstream G-V jet,and seven sports cars, including a Bugatti Veyron, the fastest street-legal production car in the world. Also on the forfeiture list is “one white crystal-covered ‘Bad Tour’ glove and other Michael Jackson memorabilia.”

UNESCO has allowed the charade known as the UNESCO-Obiang prize to go on long enough. It distracts the organization from its core mission and threatens to tarnish both its reputation and credibility. In the coming months, let’s hope that the delegates on UNESCO’s executive board heed Ms. Bokova’s advice and find the courage (and common sense) to abolish the prize onceandforall.

Concerned activists and ONE members may again have a key role to play, so stay tuned for updates and be ready to act again to help stop the UNESCO-Obiang Prize!

Joseph Kraus, Ph.D. is the program and development director at EG Justice, a US-based organization that focuses on improving human rights and good governance in Equatorial Guinea. Follow EG Justice on Twitter at @EGJustice.