05/10/2010 11:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

UNESCO Slammed For 'Dictator' Science Prize

Over a dozen human rights groups have censured UNESCO for planning to award a science prize sponsored by Teodor Obiang Nguema, the president of Equatorial Guinea.

"UNESCO's valuable work risks being overshadowed by this ill-conceived alliance with one of the world's most infamous dictators. We urge you to reverse course before it is too late," the groups write in a letter addressed to the Director General of UNESCO.

The $3 million given by President Obiang will fund a prize for achievement in the life sciences in his name. UNESCO is the body of the UN responsible for science and education.

A UNESCO spokesman refused to comment to the BBC on the matter.

The prize has come under fire from human rights activists for months. Obiang's critics contend that his decades of rule in Equatorial Guinea have been marked by corruption and suppression. Obiang won re-election last year with 95% of the vote.

"If there's any way for UNESCO to shoot itself in the foot it's by renting its credibility to President Obiang, whose record of corruption and abuse seems to go against everything the organization supposedly stands for," a lawyer for the Open Society Justice Initiative said last month.

Last week the Economist ran a particularly scathing satirical rebuke of UNESCO's decision and Obiang in an article entitled "A brilliant idea from the UN."

Foreigners moan about the arrest and murder of opposition leaders, a clampdown on the press, or frittering of oil revenues on palaces and luxury cars. But pragmatists will agree with Mr Nguema that Human Rights Watch and others are clearly out to "blackmail" his country. Rumours of horrors in his jails, such as the notorious Black Beach prison, are clearly overblown. A UN special rapporteur who described "inhuman" conditions and "systematic torture" in Equatorial Guinea's prisons was quite reasonably dismissed by Mr Nguema for discussing the issue with the country's sole opposition MP.

Observers should focus instead on Mr Nguema's generosity. The new UNESCO award is going to set him back some $3m (not including fees for the lobbyists and public-relations firms who swung this for him). Instead of cavilling, other organisations should follow UNESCO's approach.

As the human rights group write in their letter: "The grim irony of awarding a prize recognizing "scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life," while naming it for a president whose thirty?year rule has been marked by the brutal poverty and fear of his people and a global reputation for governmental corruption, would bring shame on UNESCO."

Read the full letter via