UN cultural prize boycotted over links to African dictator

After years of divisive debate, the UN cultural agency Unesco is finally awarding controversial research prizes from Equatorial Guinea to three scholars.

The ceremony in Paris is being widely boycotted because the $3m (£1.9m) in prize money comes from one of the world’s most corrupt regimes.

They say the award – the Unesco-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, named after president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Africa’s longest-ruling dictator – is a stain on the UN cultural agency’s honour.

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African nations largely see the prize as a point of pride for the continent. However, scholars, human rights activists and numerous nations – including the United States and Unesco host nation France – are irked at the award’s link to the UN cultural agency.

Egyptian scientist Maged Al-Sherbiny, who researches vaccine development and diagnostics, South African Felix Dapare Dakora, who is studying food scarcity in Africa, and Mexican scholar Rossana Arroyo, who researches parasitic diseases, are the first recipients of the prize. Each is to receive $100,000 (£64,000). The rest of the prize will go to subsequent winners.

Corruption within Equatorial Guinea’s ruling clan and the oil-rich country’s human rights record have turned what might have been a welcome prize into a bitter four-year debate.

Even the head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, Irina Bokova, opposed the prize and twice sought legal counsel during the feud.

It is one of several major diplomatic dramas to descend on Unesco. The October vote to admit Palestine as Unesco’s 195th member triggered the withdrawal of $80m in US funding (£51m), or 22 per cent of the budget.

Even a former Mexican ambassador to Unesco, Homero Aridjis, has expressed his disappointment, even though one of the winners is Mexican.

“It is shameful,” he wrote in a statement issued on Monday, “that Unesco is party to a prize given by Africa’s longest-reigning dictator, who has pillaged his country’s wealth, keeping the majority of the population in dire poverty, and who has a long record of human rights abuse, repression of freedom of the press and corruption.”

Equatorial Guinea was the worst governed country of all surveyed by the UN in 2011 for a Human Development Report, which measured the discrepancy between wealth and development.