UNESCO Lawyers Challenge Controversial Obiang Prize

With just days to go before the Executive Board of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) considers the fate of the controversial Obiang prize for life science research, an internal document has emerged that says that there are legal problems with implementing the honor in its current form. The prize is named after Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, long-time dictator of Equatorial Guinea, but its implementation was put on hold in 2010 following complaints from human rights and science groups. Now Maria Vicien-Milburn, director of UNESCO's legal office, says in a document passed to ScienceInsider by a critic of the prize that there are doubts over the source of money provided to institute the prize.

The UNESCO board in 2008 accepted $3 million from the so-called Obiang Nguema Mbasogo Foundation for the Preservation of Life to create the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research, which aimed to encourage science in the developing world. Human rights groups objected because of Obiang's abysmal record on human rights and their campaign gained support among scientists and celebrities. Supporters of the prize, including the Equatoguinean government, accused critics of having a "hidden racist, arrogant, and neocolonial attitude." The prize was eventually suspended until a consensus could be reached.

Obiang enlisted the support of the African Union and so last year the prize was back on the agenda of the UNESCO Executive Board. The board set up a working group to investigate the issue and this working group requested a legal opinion from Vicien-Milburn. The legal note, dated 2 March, is not binding but will influence decisions at the current UNESCO Executive Board meeting in Paris, which runs until 9 March. The board's decision on the prize is scheduled to be announced on Friday or Saturday.

The legal objections in the four-page document say that the prize's own statutes declare that the donor of the prize must be named. These statutes were approved in September 2008 stating the donor as the Obiang Foundation. But in February 2012 an official note from the Equatoguinean government to UNESCO stated that the funds were "no longer" provided by the Obiang Foundation, but by the Public Treasury of Equatorial Guinea.

This discrepancy led the legal office to conclude it "could not advise the Director General to use the funds currently in UNESCO accounts for the implementation of the prize." Vicien-Milburn added that simply changing the name of the prize would not solve the problem, since this would require a whole new feasibility study to be undertaken by UNESCO. A UNESCO spokesperson confirmed that the document was being considered by the committee but declined to give any other comment.

Several human rights organizations have applauded the development. "This is the strongest message from inside the organization illustrating the troubles, in particular irregularities around the money," says Joseph Kraus of EG Justice, a human rights group focusing on Equatorial Guinea. He emphasizes that this document makes the continued support for the prize appear increasingly out of touch with the values of UNESCO, but he doesn't think it will be the end of the matter. "The legal opinion is unlikely to be the final word in this years-long saga," says Kraus.

The UNESCO board also has another twist to consider. In February, French police raided mansion owned by Obiang's son a Teodoro Obiang Mangue in Paris as part of a corruption probe and seized millions of euros worth of luxury items. The anticorruption group Transparency International has asked the judge in this case to also consider the $3 million that was given to UNESCO to fund the prize.