The Obiang prize, named for and funded by one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, was a very poor idea from the start and our goal, bluntly, was to kill it. We didn’t quite succeed in getting an outright cancellation, but the prize, while technically alive, is in a deep coma with virtually no chance of recovery. How the prize came to a halt is detailed in a press release available on the website of the Open Society Institute’s Justice Initiative, but here’s the story in a nutshell.
In 2008, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of the oil-rich African nation of Equatorial Guinea, donated $3 million to UNESCO to finance a prize for research in the life sciences. This was a transparent effort by Obiang to launder his image. If the president had truly wanted to improve the lives of Africans, he could have easily invested this money in basic services in his own country, which despite vast oil revenues, has some of the poorest social indicators in the world.
UNESCO, the U.N. agency charged with promoting education, science, and culture, also has a human rights and press freedom mandate. The Obiang prize represented an affront to everything UNESCO stands for. Human rights organizations, press freedom groups, scientists, journalists and prominent figures from all over the world, including past winners of UNESCO’s own Cano prize, spoke out against Obiang award. But getting UNESCO to reverse course and cancel it turned out to be an enormous challenge.
As an organization composed of U.N. member states, UNESCO functions under arcane rules, essentially working by consensus. Even after UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova pushed UNESCO’s executive board in June to suspend the prize pending further discussions, a permanent solution proved elusive.
The final compromise, hammered out at the executive board meeting currently wrapping up at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, is a resolution suspending the prize until a consensus is reached. This will never happen. Essentially, any member of the executive board has veto power over the prize. The United States and several European countries have expressed permanent opposition.
Members of the coalition opposing the prize would like to see it abolished permanently. But we are satisfied that there is almost no chance the prize will ever be awarded. Now, we hope, UNESCO can get back to its more serious work, which includes promoting and defending press freedom around the world.