Former Texas agriculture commissioner, author, lecturer, activist, and raconteur Jim Hightower often says "you can put earrings on a hog, but it won't hide the ugliness." Teodoro Obiang, dictator of Equatorial Guinea for the last three decades, has expended considerable time and effort--not to mention millions of dollars--to burnish his image. After four years of controversy, part of the effort succeeded yesterday as the executive board of UNESCO voted 33 to 18 (with 7 abstentions) to accept a donation from Obiang to establish the UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences.
Supporters of the award on the executive board included representatives of African states, China, India, Russia, and Brazil. European members, the United States, and others voted "no" on accepting the donation for the award. Representatives from Europe and the United States have consistently opposed the award on the grounds that (1) the money being donated is apparently from Equatorial Guinea's public treasury, in spite of the fact that the country has serious unmet public sector needs, and (2) the abysmal human rights record of the Obiang regime makes it inappropriate for a UN body to accept such a donation.
Earlier this week, the UNCAC Coalition, a network of over 300 NGOs, issued a letter to UNESCO on the subject of the prize. In part, the letter reads:
The UNCAC Coalition strongly opposes the establishment of this award, funded from the public treasury of Equatorial Guinea and yet named after its long-term head of state. As we already communicated in 2010, we believe that the award and its endorsement of Mr. Obiang are fundamentally contrary to the spirit and principles of the United Nations, as well as to UNESCO’s constitutional goals. President Obiang heads a country that has been ranked by Transparency International as among the most corrupt in the world, whose government is known for well-documented brutality and whose citizens live in poverty despite the country’s oil riches. In more than 30 years of government, Mr. Obiang has missed the opportunity to use oil revenues, and other sources of government income, to improve the life of the people in Equatorial Guinea or even to make transparent what those revenues are.
Freedom House, which has named Equatorial Guinea among the "Worst of the Worst" in terms of civil and political rights, opposed the award, as did a coalition of seven civil society organizations including the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España, Association Sherpa, the Committee to Protect Journalists, EG Justice, Global Witness, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Justice Initiative. Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “The UNESCO-Obiang prize is irreversibly tainted by its association with the repression and high-level corruption of President Obiang’s government.”
Obiang seems to have overcome the pressure exerted by Western democracies and human rights NGOs by framing the issue as a matter of Africa against the West. The New York Times quoted Zimbabwe's UNESCO representative, David Hamadziripi, to this effect: “We believe that the decision we’ve just taken will send a very important message, that a lot of good comes out of Africa, and that Africa can and does contribute in international cooperation and is not just a recipient of the good will of others.”
Score one for the dictators.