A Corrupt Dictator Tries to Buy UNESCO's Brand Name.

The UNESCO Executive Committee meeting at the organization's headquarters in Paris soon will have to make a decision about a very controversial Prize, the UNESCO-Teodoro Obiang Award for the protection of life. This prize is funded by Obiang, for 31 years the dictatorial President of Equatorial Guinea, who is trying to use Unesco's values and reputation to improve his international image. In June, UNESCO postponed an award ceremony after an international uproar over the planned "dictator prize."

President Obiang is feeling the sting of rejection after several international bodies rebuked him. In April, a global transparency initiative for petroleum and mining industries (the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) expelled the oil-rich country for failing to meet its most basic criteria. In July, the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries deferred Equatorial Guinea's application to join, also in the wake of controversy over Obiang's record.
As part of a concerted effort to repair his image, Obiang, one of the world's most notorious dictators, delivered a high-profile speech at the Global Forum in Cape Town, South Africa, this summer. Best known for vast corruption and rampant human rights abuses, Obiang hoped that announcing a five-point reform plan to the Global Forum's audience of dignitaries and corporate executives would give him a fresh start.

No one should be fooled, though, by Obiang's false claims that his government is on a path to reform. For instance, he promises the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, for example, that the country will improve accounting standards, when the real issue that led to his country's expulsion from the group is a lack of political will on transparency.
The people of Equatorial Guinea have grown tired of their government's empty promises. Obiang's words in Cape Town left out inconvenient facts: despite its desirable GNP per capita -- the highest in Africa, equivalent to Israel or Italy -- Equatorial Guinea remains among the worst countries when it comes to such measures as maternal mortality or educational.
Just as telling, Obiang touts his commitment to environmental conservation by citing the work of the Central African Forests Commission. Equatorial Guinea is represented there by his eldest son -- the minister of agriculture and forestry -- who has exploited the nation's forests to line his own pockets. Obiang and this same son have featured in detailed US Senate investigations on corruption and money-laundering.

Yet the litany of bad news from Equatorial Guinea continues. Since late August, Obiang has tried to quell the international outcry over his government's execution by firing squad of four men convicted by a grossly unfair military trial of attempting to assassinate him. He claimed that their immediate execution was justified by "imminent danger against me, my family, and my government." Never mind that his government abducted the men in January from Benin, where they were living as refugees, held them in secret detention for months and tortured them to get them to confess to participating in a February 2009 attack on the presidential palace.

Had Obiang been serious about developing a reform plan, he didn't need to pay for it. The United Nations provided one free in December, when the UN Human Rights Council set out concrete steps his government should take to clean up its act. Officially, the government endorsed almost all of the recommendations -- including measures to combat torture, end arbitrary and secret detentions, ensure judiciary independence, allow civil society to operate freely, guarantee press freedom, address basic health and education needs, and fight corruption.

Obiang has had ample opportunity to begin to implement the recommendations. "We cannot afford the luxury of letting these recommendations become window-dressing for the Equatorial Guinea government," one local activist said. But these pledges have languished, as recent events make clear.

In another travesty of justice connected to the 2009 attack for which four men were executed, two opposition members acquitted in a civilian trial in March were retried in August by a military court and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In this very disturbing context, Unesco's members should not hesitate to cancel a prize that could tarnish the institution's image for a long time. And they should tell Obiang that the best way to overhaul his image and earn the trust of the international community would be to stop trampling on the rights of the people of Equatorial Guinea.