Prize-Winning Hypocrisy

If you were a scientist would you really want to get a prize from a dictator? Would you want one of the world's worst human rights abusers to "honor" you with an award, even if it was filtered through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)? UNESCO's decision on Wednesday to indefinitely suspend the Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, established in 2008 with $3 million from the president of Equatorial Guinea, seems to answer the questions above with a "no." The Executive Committee's decision to "indefinitely" postpone the prize until a consensus is reached effectively ensures the tainted accolade will not be awarded. The disgust expressed by organizations and individuals around the world at the idea of legitimizing Obiang's three decades in power has kept it from being awarded thus far, but the UNESCO Executive Committee should go one step further and definitively abolish the prize that is so inimical to the organization's mission.

The president of Equatorial Guinea seemed to think he could buy respectability but is apparently unmoved by the bitter irony of founding a prize intended to fund life sciences research leading to improvement in the quality of human life when he himself has done so little for his own citizens. He seems equally oblivious to the fact that it would be nearly impossible for an Equatorial Guinean to even qualify for the prize, given that there is not a single research center in the entire country. According to the UNDP, Equatorial Guinea spends less on education as a ratio of government spending than any other country in the world. In fact, in the years since Equitorial Guinea's discovery of oil during his rule, net primary education enrollment has plunged from near universal (96.7 percent) enrollment in 1991 to a mere 69.4 percent as of 2007. These statistics are particularly shameful in the country with the highest per capita GDP in Africa.

The 67-year-old Obiang has ruled the country for more than 30 years with an iron fist that has earned his country a spot among the ten 'worst of the worst' human rights offenders in Freedom House's annual Freedom in the World survey. Just a few weeks ago, four political dissidents were executed after being kidnapped, smuggled across the border and thrown into jail where they were tortured while awaiting trial at a trumped up military tribunal. Yet he refused to withdraw the prize and forced UNESCO into diplomatic maneuvers to figure out how to avoid a divisive prize that human rights defenders around the world vehemently opposed.

As Africa's third largest oil exporter, Equatorial Guinea is awash in oil revenues and the government is particularly well-positioned to make life better for its citizens. Yet the country has the highest rate of child mortality in the world, and 20 percent of children die before the age of five. With a Human Poverty Index value of 31.9 percent, the country ranks 98th among the 135 countries indexed. Despite having Africa's highest per capita GDP, 75 percent of Equatorial Guineans live in poverty, according to the country's own statistics. Clean water is a luxury for the majority of citizens, who can only expect to live on average until about age 50. The prospect of vast untapped reserves has tempted numerous multinational corporations to find a foothold in one of the world's longest running dictatorships, but little if any of the wealth generated by these business ventures has trickled down to the population at large. It is incumbent upon democratic countries, at least, to send a signal to Obiang that their oil interests do not outweigh their interests in upholding freedom and accountability by voting against this prize. Clearly the government has little interest on using its wealth to enrich the lives of its citizens and Obiang's stranglehold on his country's oil reserves has left the vast majority of the population in grinding poverty and earned Equatorial Guinea the reputation as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Transparency International's 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks it at 168 out of 180 countries. US Senator Carl Levin, chair of the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, this month condemned Obiang and his son for corruption and lavish spending, including a multi-million dollar mansion and plane.

Obiang's offer to fund a prize in his name worth one-third the price paid by his son for his Malibu mansion was an attempt to burnish his image that UNESCO eventually rejected, although it remains in limbo. It would be a travesty for UNESCO, the UN organization mandated to promote the "observance of human rights, mutual respect and the alleviation of poverty," to honor the longest-serving ruler in sub-Saharan Africa, a man who has been condemned for grave human rights violations, endemic corruption, money laundering, bribery and keeping his people impoverished.

Accordingly, it is critical that UNESCO not be complicit in this farce and aim to completely eliminate a prize that no respectable scientist would ever want to receive anyway.