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Momentum builds to stop "dictator prize", says Human Rights Watch

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, June 12, 2010 - The chorus of voices from around the world asking the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to overturn its decision to award a prize named after and financed by President Teodoro Obiang, the abusive ruler of Equatorial Guinea, has grown even louder, with at least four new protest letters sent to the organization on June 11, 2010, alone. In a growing number of countries, individuals and organizations are also contacting their government representatives to encourage them to oppose the prize at the June 15 "informational meeting" at which UNESCO's governing executive board is expected to discuss the controversy.

• Seven recipients of UNESCO's most prestigious award, the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom prize given to courageous journalists, sent a letter to the organization's director-general expressing opposition to the UNESCO-Obiang prize. The Cano prize laureates cited in particular "the severe repression in Equatorial Guinea" and that Obiang "oppresses the media." The Cano prize laureates who signed the letter are from Chile, China, Cuba, Mexico, Syria, and Zimbabwe, and were joined by the widow of a prize laureate from Sri Lanka.

• EG Justice, a human rights organization founded by a lawyer from Equatorial Guinea living in exile, circulated a petition with nearly 250 signatories from some 40 countries asking UNESCO to halt the award.

• A global coalition of more than 170 anti-corruption organizations from almost 70 countries wrote to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling on him to take steps to cancel the UNESCO-Obiang award, noting that "the creation of this award and the resulting endorsement of Mr. Obiang are fundamentally contrary to the spirit and principles of the United Nations, as well as to UNESCO's constitutional goals."

• The chair of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines wrote to that country's foreign minister to ask that he "take urgent steps" to block the UNESCO-Obiang prize, which "contradicts the organization's professed human rights principles."

In total, since January, several hundred organizations and individuals from more than 100 countries, covering all seven continents and including more than 30 countries in Africa alone, have publicly stated their opposition to the UNESCO-Obiang prize. Some governments – including Canada, France, and the United Kingdom – have begun to speak out openly on the issue, with more expected to do so at the June 15 meeting in Paris.

Critics of the prize cite their concern over Equatorial Guinea's abysmal human rights record and their support for the people of the country, who under Obiang's leadership are not benefiting from their nation's wealth and whose access to education or scientific research is extremely limited.

On June 11, the government of Equatorial Guinea put out a statement that sought to disparage critics of the prize: "In this case, 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." The original Spanish text of that statement was posted on the website of the Ministry of Information.

"Many Africans from every corner of the continent have spoken out against this 'dictator prize,'" said Tutu Alicante of EG Justice. "As Africans, we believe we would all be diminished if we closed our eyes and washed our hands of the problems that other African brothers and sisters are facing. We hope our voices are heard in the halls of UNESCO's headquarters in Paris."

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