Scientists Join Protests Against Award in Honor of African Dictator

Scientists—including two Nobel Laureates—and public health groups have joined protests against a new, highly controversial UNESCO award sponsored by and named after Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Equatorial Guinea. In a letter sent yesterday to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, a group of organizations and individuals in the field of public and global health asks that UNESCO "reconsider ... and abolish" the prize.

The charge against the UNESCO-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences—which may be announced this week and is slated to be awarded next month—has been led by human-rights organizations. But yesterday's letter, coordinated by the Open Society Institute Public Health Program, points out that human-rights violations and corruption aren't the only problems in Equatorial Guinea. Despite massive oil revenues, "health indicators reflect shockingly poor governance and widespread suffering," it says. The letter notes that the life expectancy in Equatorial Guinea stands at 49.9 years, only 43% of the population has clean drinking water, and one in five children does not survive until their 5th birthday.

A source close to the Paris-based U.N. agency tells ScienceInsider that frantic, closed-door talks about the award are still going on and that there's still a chance that the prize could be postponed pending a review.

The letter's signatories include 11 organizations in global health, six scientists at U.S. and U.K. institutes, and eight of the 10 members of the Executive Committee of the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies. Among the latter are Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and John Polanyi, Nobelists in physics and chemistry, respectively, and Belita Koiller, who in 2005 won a UNESCO award for women in physical sciences, sponsored by L'Oréal.

On Tuesday, Foreign Policy reported that U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D–VT), chair of the Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, had also written Bokova on 20 May to express his concerns. "It seems highly likely that the $3 million donated to UNESCO by President Obiang for the Obiang International Prize came from corruption, kickbacks or other theft from the public treasury," Leahy was quoted as writing.