Hotly Disputed Life Sciences Award Back on UNESCO's Agenda

A year ago, human rights activists thought they had squashed a proposed United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ( UNESCO) prize in the life sciences that would honor Teodoro Obiang, the longtime dictator of Equatorial Guinea. But that celebration may have been premature. The controversial award is back on the agenda of UNESCO's Executive Board, which will meet in Paris next week—and this time, Obiang has the backing of the entire African Union (A.U.).

In 2009, UNESCO's Executive Board—on which 58 member states have a seatvoted in favor of the award, funded by a $3 million grant from Obiang. An international jury had already selected the first recipients, when human rights organization and celebrities—including Desmond Tutu and several other Nobel laureates—publicized Obiang's abysmal record on human rights. In the wake of an international uproar, UNESCO's board decided in October 2010 to "suspend" the prize pending a consensus. Opponents concluded that it had been postponed "until never." The Equatoguinean government blamed the decision on "a hidden racist, arrogant, and neocolonial attitude."

In June, however, Obiang hosted a meeting of the African Union in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, at which the union called on UNESCO to go ahead with the award. At the request of Congo and Ivory Coast, the issue has been put before the Executive Board again.

The A.U. resolution appears to have been adopted "at the last minute, late in the day," at the Malabo meeting, says Joseph Kraus, program and development director of EG Justice, a human rights group focusing on Equatorial Guinea. Although the vote was unanimous, Kraus believes that some African countries may not support awarding the prize. Nonetheless, its adoption may make it harder for UNESCO to keep the award on ice, he says. EG Justice, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and several other groups have started a last-minute campaign to stop UNESCO's board from issuing the award.