PARIS – Three scientists received research awards on Tuesday at UNESCO in a ceremony boycotted by numerous nations and not attended by the head of the U.N. cultural arm, which has been thrown into division because of Equatorial Guinea's funding of the $3 million prize.
Egyptian scientist Maged Al-Sherbiny, who researches vaccine development and diagnostics, South African Felix Dapare Dakora, studying food scarcity in Africa, and Mexican Rossana Arroyo, researching parasitic diseases, received each received $100,000. The rest of the $3 million will go to subsequent winners.
Human rights activists, some scholars and boycotting nations, from the United States to UNESCO host France, maintain that the source of the prize money is a corrupt regime using the prize to buff its image.
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 U.N. cultural agency's honor. African nations largely see the prize as a point of pride for a continent sorely in need of world respect.
Each recipient expressed gratefulness for the funds to continue their research. Dakora said, "What you simply have done today is to inject new energy into my bloodstream."
Equatorial Guinea's vice president for presidential affairs insisted there were "no political undertones" to the prize and expressed disappointment at the four years it has taken since the prize was approved in 2008 to give the first awards.
"This prize was slowed down due to the misrepresentation of its overarching aims," said Vice President Ignacio Milam Tang. He stood in for the president, who had been expected but also did not show up. A son of Obiang, who was made a UNESCO delegate, then named second vice president last fall, is wanted by French police probing alleged money laundering and misappropriation of public funds.
The depth of contention over the prize within the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was highlighted by the unusual absence of its chief, Irina Bokova, from the ceremony. Bokova, has voiced her opposition to the contentious prize and twice sought legal counsel during the feud among nations.
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 debate that cuts to the heart of the U.N. cultural agency's mission of seeking world harmony through education, science and culture. The contested prize is one of several major diplomatic dramas to descend on UNESCO — best known for its World Heritage sites. The October vote to admit Palestine as UNESCO's 195th member triggered the withdrawal of $80 million of U.S. funding. The late June decision to put the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the endangered list of Heritage sites, at the request of the Palestinians, triggered another uproar.
Efforts to make the Obiang prize palatable to everyone included a name change to remove any reference to Equatorial Guinea's president and a change in the source of funding, from the Obiang Foundation to the government.
Robert Zeldenrust, head of the Netherlands' UNESCO delegation, expressed on behalf of a bloc of Western nations "our disappointment and disapproval" of the decision to go ahead with the awards and "our conviction that the prize is detrimental to the reputation of UNESCO." Copies of the internal documents were obtained by The Associated Press.
The United States issued a vigorous protest last week. 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 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 for the U.N. Development Program's 2011 Human Development Report, which measured the discrepancy between available wealth and development.
Obiang has fought to push through his prize. In a statement dated Sunday, Equatorial Guinea's government said it "hopes to celebrate with pride and joy the delivery of this prize" despite maneuvers by "NGOs and other enemies."
In the same statement, the country defended Obiang's son, who failed to show up for questioning in the French probe into the alleged misspending of public funds in France. The United States, where the son has property, is conducting a similar investigation.