E Guinea prize name change not OK

2012-03-05 22:08

Dakar - The UN cultural agency Unesco should not allow Equatorial Guinea to skirt controversy over its bid to sponsor a science prize by simply renaming it, an internal legal note seen by Reuters has recommended.

Unesco is due to decide this week on the $3m prize, which has sparked protests by critics of the central African state, which boasts oil wealth but is seen by analysts as among the world's most repressive and corrupt states.

The award was initially named after President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo but his government proposed last year changing it to the name of his country in an effort to defuse the row.

"Although the Prize Statutes may be amended, it would not be possible in this case to simply delete and replace the name of the donor," argued the March 2 note, signed by Maria Vicien-Milburn, director of Unesco's legal office.

The world body would not comment on the document, which was seen by Reuters on Monday.

Obiang's government says the prize is intended to contribute to efforts in scientific research targeting diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

But critics argue it should be scrapped altogether as they say Obiang is seeking to launder his international reputation by financing a prize linked to the United Nations when he should be focusing on cutting poverty and reforming his own government.

Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979. He has been accused by rights groups of squandering years of oil revenues from the tiny Gulf of Guinea nation and his family has been targeted by a series of international investigations into their vast wealth.

To accompany the name change, Equatorial Guinea's government said the funds for the prize would come from the state treasury rather than Obiang's own personal foundation.

Breakneck economic growth

However the legal note concluded that this would mean the prize statutes as they were currently drafted were "no longer implementable".

One source at Unesco said the issue was being reviewed before a decision was announced on Friday or Saturday.

"The executive board has been seeking the advice of all the parties concerned, including the legal affairs department regarding the prize," the source said.

The former Spanish colony has pumped oil since the mid-1990s, leading to breakneck economic growth and some of the highest per-capita income figures in the world.

But the revenues have largely failed to trickle down through the estimated 700 000 population, and development has been slow despite the billions of dollars in oil revenues.

"The Unesco-Obiang prize is irreversibly tainted by its association with the repression and high-level corruption of President Obiang's government," Nobel Laureat Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a vocal critic of the prize, said in a February 27 statement.

"Giving the prize a different name does nothing to answer these concerns or remove doubts about the origins of the funds that finance the award," he added.