Despite Legal Warnings, UNESCO Finally Approves African Science Prize

Deputy News Editor

Overruling its own legal experts, U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO's) executive board yesterday finally approved a new prize for African scientists. The award has long been delayed because of its association with Equatorial Guinea's dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

Once named after Obiang and originally thought to be funded by a foundation bearing his name, the award will now be called the UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences. The $3 million endowment backing it will come directly from the African nation's government.

Since the idea for the award first emerged in 2010, scientists and human rights groups protesting Obiang's regime have sought to block the proposed honor. At the same time, many African countries believe that the prize would boost recognition of the continent's research. Caught in the middle of this fight, UNESCO had delayed a final decision on the prize several times. This week's vote was also in question after an internal legal opinion challenging the award became public.

Maria Vicien-Milburn, director of UNESCO's legal office, concluded that the change in the source of funding for the award violated preexisting rules UNESCO had established for named prizes. Simply changing the honor's name was not an option, she argued. But in a 33-18 vote yesterday, with seven abstentions, UNESCO's Executive Board approved the renamed prize.

The saga may not be over. Human rights groups have already called for Irina Bokova, UNESCO's director general, to block implementation of the prize. Bokova has said she will seek further legal counsel.

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