A tumultuous and divisive episode at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is set to come to a conclusion tomorrow at 4:00 p.m. in Paris, when the U.N. agency plans to give three researchers an award for the life sciences sponsored by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea. A broad coalition of human rights advocates, scientists, and health experts have fought until last week to prevent the ceremony from occurring. They say the award is an attempt by Obiang to buy credibility for his regime, which stands accused of human rights violations.
The winners of the prize are Maged Al-Sherbiny from Egypt, for his research on vaccines and diagnostics against hepatitis C and schistosomiasis; plant scientist Felix Dapare Dakora from Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, in South Africa for his work on legumes and soil bacteria; and Rossana Arroyo of the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies of Mexico's National Polytechnic Institute, who studies trichomoniasis, a parasitic disease.
Al-Sherbiny and Dakora plan to attend the award ceremony and are already in Paris, a UNESCO spokesperson says; Arroyo is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. Whether Obiang will be present was still uncertain today, the spokesperson says. Just last Friday, a French court issued an arrest warrant for Obiang's son Teodorin, who's suspected of money laundering and embezzlement. It's also unclear whether UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who opposed the award, will attend. "She will make the decision herself tomorrow," says the spokesperson.
The prize was adopted by UNESCO's Executive Board, composed of delegates from 58 member states, in 2008 , but delayed several times after an international outcry. Bokova last year told the Executive Board that she thought the award would damage UNESCO's credibility. In the March vote, however, 33 countries voted to go ahead with the award, after Obiang agreed to have it named after his country instead of himself. Among the supporters were all 14 African members and 19 other, mostly developing, countries.
Opponents had hoped that the prize might yet be stopped after obtaining a letter in which UNESCO lawyers stated there were doubts about the provenance of the funds. But the March vote overruled such concerns, the spokesperson says, leaving Bokova no choice but to let the ceremony go ahead. The spokesperson says the prize will be awarded annually at least five times, as Obiang has donated a total of $3 million.
"It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for UNESCO to award this prize, given the litany of serious legal and ethical problems surrounding it," Tutu Alicante, director of the human rights group EG Justice, said in a statement released today. "Beyond letting itself be used to polish the sullied image of Obiang, UNESCO also risks ruining its own credibility."