UNESCO Set to Postpone Controversial Science Prize 'Until Never'

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

The year-long battle about a UNESCO prize for the life sciences named after Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president and long-time dictator of Equatorial Guinea, seems set to end in a victory for human rights groups. On Wednesday, UNESCO's Executive Board, meeting in Paris, is expected to adopt a diplomatic compromise that--while calling for more talks—will effectively cancel the award.

The Executive Board—in which 58 member countries have a seat—adopted the proposal for a prize named after Obiang in 2008, and accepted the president's offer of $3 million in prize money and additional funds to cover administration for 5 years. But the board decided to postpone implementation of the award in June—although the jury had already selected a winner—after an outcry from human rights and science groups.

Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea since a coup he led in 1979 killed his predecessor—his uncle. Several international investigations have charged Obiang with massive corruption, and his regime has an abysmal record on human rights.

Months of intense backroom talks about the award between member states preceded the current meeting of UNESCO's Executive Board, which has been going for 2 weeks—but a solution remained elusive. Most western countries opposed the prize; African countries generally supported it. Yesterday, according to insiders, the Executive Board's Programme and External Relations Commission heard several proposals, including one by Senegal to award the prize, and another one by the United States to cancel it.

In the end, the commission united behind a draft decision introduced by Russian Executive Board Chairperson Eleonora Mitrofanova, which calls on UNESCO to suspend the prize "and continue the consultations among all parties concerned, in a spirit of mutual respect, until a consensus is reached."

Because everybody knows that a consensus is impossible, it's understood that the award will be postponed "until never," says Kenneth Hurwitz of the Open Society Justice Initiative in New York City, one of the groups that oppose the award. Hurwitz calls it "a very UNESCOnian solution," but also "quite a good outcome, if it holds."

The decision is now tabled for a plenary decision of the Executive Board on Wednesday. A UNESCO insider, who asked to remain anonymous, told ScienceInsider that "no problems are expected. It will go through." The source agreed that the resolution is a diplomatic way to cancel the award.

Equatorial Guinea does not have a seat on the Executive Board. The country's delegation at UNESCO could not be reached for comment today. In the past, the Equatoguinean government has blamed critics of the award with having a "hidden racist, arrogant, and neocolonial attitude."