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UNESCO rejects petition to reinstate prize funded by Equatorial Guinea president

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Washington, DC, May 11, 2011 - EG Justice and other civil society organizations today credited the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's Executive Board for soundly rejecting a petition by the government of Equatorial Guinea to reinstate a prize funded by and named after its president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. In a decision on May 9, 2011, the Executive Board declined to consider a May 4 request by the Obiang government to reverse its prior decision and award the prize without delay.

UNESCO indefinitely suspended the $3 million UNESCO Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences in October 2010 after an unprecedented global outcry seeking its cancellation. Prominent African leaders, Latin American literary figures, Nobel laureates, scientists and public health professionals, press freedom groups, Cano World Press Freedom Prize winners, and rights organizations challenged the prize. They cited a record of corruption, abuse, and restricted press freedom under President Obiang that is well-documented, including by UN reports and foreign government investigations.

"With this decision, UNESCO has sent a strong signal to President Obiang that it will not ignore serious human rights and governance concerns," said Tutu Alicante, executive director of EG Justice. "To improve his international standing, President Obiang should focus his efforts on improving the lives of ordinary Equatoguineans rather than on funding symbolic prizes."

The board's action reaffirmed the October 2010 decision to suspend the Obiang prize in view of the unprecedented controversy surrounding the Equatoguinean president. The October decision noted in particular the lack of consensus among member states to move forward and the board's responsibility to "preserve the integrity, values and high status" of the organization.

The chairperson of the executive board, Eleonora Mitrofanova of Russia, and the representatives of Cote d'Ivoire, Japan, and the other governments that lead the UNESCO Executive Board, cited the October decision as the basis for unanimously recommending the rejection of Equatorial Guinea's request to reinstate the prize. The full 58-country membership of the board accepted the leadership's recommendation without debate.

"UNESCO was right to reject this maneuver by President Obiang," Alicante said. "But it should go further and cancel the prize outright so that the issue never again resurfaces."

The statement was issued by the following groups that have spoken out against the prize: Association Sherpa, the Committee to Protect Journalists, EG Justice, Freedom House, Global Witness, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

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