Unesco’s latest attempt to give out dictator’s $3m prize delayed by lawyers

Published in The Guardian (March 5th, 2012)

The latest attempt to award a controversial $3m UNESCO prize given by Africa’s longest-ruling dictator has been jeopardised by the organisation’s own lawyers, who have expressed concerns over the source of funding and attempts to change the name of the award.

According to confidential legal advice, a copy of which has been seen by the Guardian, the prize cannot be given because of discrepancies over whether the cash comes from government accounts or those of a foundation set up in the name of Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the president of Equatorial Guinea.

Maria Vicien-Milburn, director of Unesco’s legal office, said the original prize statutes were “no longer implementable” after the regime suggested the Obiang prize for research into life sciences should be renamed after the country and funded by the government.

It is the latest twist in a four-year saga since the UN agency for education, science and culture accepted the prize money. It has been thwarted from making the award by an international row over the source of the money.

Human rights groups say the organisation should not honour the head of a corrupt and repressive regime. Obiang has been accused of looting his tiny nation’s oil wealth while most Equatorial Guineans remain in poverty, with his family facing corruption and money-laundering investigations in France, Spain and the United States.

His eldest son – a deputy ambassador to Unesco – has been accused of spending twice as much as the state’s entire education budget on luxury goods in just three years. Last year, he tried to buy a £234m yacht, while a recent raid on his Paris mansion seized a treasure trove of art and antiques, including a signed Rodin statue, several Fabergé eggs and a £1.3m Louis XIV desk.

The 58-member executive board of Unesco is discussing the prize at its meeting in Paris this week. It has provoked a fierce split between the west, which has nine seats, and the 14-strong African bloc. The African nations – with Zimbabwe particularly vocal and reportedly supported by Brazil and Cuba – have turned the debate into one about western attitudes to developing nations.

According to a US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks, the Unesco director general manoeuvred a delay on the issue last year by claiming there were not enough applicants for the prize. But she was quoted as saying she could not hold out forever.

A special committee was established to try to resolve the dispute. It reports back to the board on Tuesday with an announcement expected by the weekend. The legal advice was among submissions to this committee, said a Unesco insider.

Joseph Kraus, a spokesman for EG Justice, which campaigns for human rights in Equatorial Guinea, said the inconsistencies over funding and ongoing corruption investigations meant Unesco should abolish the prize and urge Obiang to spend the money on development in his country.

“If delegates continue to support the prize, even after the prize’s funding irregularities have surfaced, they risk permanently damaging Unesco’s reputation,” he said.

Obiang’s opponents believe he is using the prize, along with his recent presidency of the African Union, the hosting of the African Cup of Nations football tournament and invitations to British parliamentarians, to launder his regime’s tarnished image.

Equatorial Guinea has Africa’s highest per capita gross national income and perhaps the most glaring inequality in the world. One in eight children dies before the age of five, while government spending on health and education is below the regional average in sub-Saharan Africa.

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