Obiang Prize: Whatever the Name, a Scandal for UNESCO | Freedom House

Obiang Prize: Whatever the Name, a Scandal for UNESCO

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by Morgan Huston and Arch Puddington*

(Photo Caption: Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea)

This past Tuesday, the Unesco–Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences was awarded for the first time. The award recognizes the achievements of scientific research that “have contributed … to improving the quality of human life.” Unfortunately, the man who proposed and funded this award, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, is among the most corrupt and repressive dictators in Africa, or indeed anywhere. In other words, he is a political leader who has devoted a long career to worsening the quality of life for the people of Equatorial Guinea.

The country’s prodigious oil wealth is siphoned off by the leadership, leaving most citizens without reliable access to electricity, safe drinking water, education, or health care. Equatorial Guinea is nestled on a low rung in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 172 out of 183 countries. It has also been designated as one of the world’s most repressive regimes by Freedom House for many years. Its scores in the Freedom in the World report are only marginally better than those of Sudan, Uzbekistan, and North Korea. Arbitrary detention, torture, censorship of the media, rigged elections, and nepotism are defining features of Obiang’s regime. Having seized power in a 1979 coup, Obiang is sub-Saharan Africa’s longest-serving ruler, and enjoys a cozy trading relationship with the United States and its oil companies. While ignoring the abysmal levels of poverty and underdevelopment endured by his people, he has attempted to burnish his reputation through wholly unnecessary infrastructure projects and public relations schemes, of which this award is the most visible. His image problem has worsened recently, however, due to a French arrest warrant and a U.S. investigation into alleged money laundering by his son and heir apparent.

Given this dreadful and lengthy record of despotism and graft, the decision by Unesco’s governing board to extend its credibility to this award merits a special prize of its own, for hypocrisy in international affairs. For four years, the United States and other countries that serve on Unesco’s board had blocked the disbursement of funds for the Obiang award. Unesco’s director, Irina Bokova, also objected to the prize, as did its counsel.

Nevertheless, Unesco’s 58-nation board voted in March to approve the award, and by a substantial margin: 33 in favor and 16 against, with 7 abstentions and absent votes. Of the countries that voted yes, 18 were rated Not Free in Freedom in the World’s 2012 edition, 10 were rated Partly Free, and 5 were rated Free. The list of Not Free countries reads like a who’s who of human rights offenders around the world. It includes China, Russia, Belarus, Cuba, and Zimbabwe. Of the states that voted against the award, 16 were rated Free, 1 Partly Free, and 1 Not Free. Seventeen African countries are on the board, and all voted to approve the award. Of these, 9 were rated Not Free, 5 were rated Partly Free, and 3 were rated Free.

It is hardly surprising that the board’s despotisms and autocracies sided with Obiang. For years now, the world’s authoritarians have worked in tandem at the United Nations and its subsidiary agencies to thwart democratic initiatives and buttress fellow autocrats. More recently, it appeared that the Arab Spring had driven a wedge in the loose alliance of dictatorships. But as the Equatorial Guinea award vote suggests, on many issues, birds of a feather still do flock together. They may be hoping that the approval of a project so thoroughly identified with one of the world’s most notorious tyrants will have the effect of making other autocrats, in Africa and elsewhere, seem more normal.

The accompanying table lists the votes of the states that have representation on the Unesco executive board, broken down according to their status in Freedom in the World. If there is praise to hand out, it should go to Indonesia, the only country from Asia, Africa, or the Middle East to break ranks and vote against this disgraceful project. Five countries with Free rankings voted yes: Brazil, Ghana, India, Mali, and Namibia. Yet again, Brazil and India have failed to pull their weight on an issue relevant to the state of world democracy. Nor did Mexico, Haiti, Japan, or South Korea distinguish themselves by abstaining.

One of the compromises that enabled approval of the award was to remove Obiang’s name from the formal title. This is no longer the Obiang award, but the Equatorial Guinea award. Informally, however, it will forever be associated with Obiang, as the governments that gave their assent to this squalid affair surely recognize. It was not simply the approval of an award for distinguished scientists, it was a way of giving the legitimacy of an agency ostensibly devoted to humanitarian ideals to a man whose principal achievement is a record of persecution and ruthlessness that is unique in today’s Africa.

FIW STATUS Yes Votes No Votes Abstentions Absent
Not Free

Saudi Arabia



Partly Free

Burkina Faso
Papua New Guinea



Free Brazil
Czech Republic
St. Lucia
United Kingdom
United States

South Korea


* Morgan Huston is a member of the Freedom House research staff. Arch Puddington is vice president for research. Marissa Miller provided research for this post. She is an intern in New York.



Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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