Monday, November 29, 1999

UNESCO delays prize named after by Eq Guinea leader

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The United Nations' culture and education body (UNESCO) is delaying the award of a prize for life sciences named after the leader of Equatorial Guinea, whose government is widely accused of corruption and rights abuses.A coalition of human rights and civil society groups have said UNESCO was enabling Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo to launder his international reputation by funding the $3 million prize instead of using the cash to improve the living standards of his people.UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova told the agency's board members late on Tuesday she was conveying to them a "strong message of alarm and anxiety" after appeals from various strands of the international community and human rights groups."I believe that given the changing circumstances and the unprecedented developments of the past months, we must be courageous and recognise our responsibilities, for it is our organisation that is at stake," she said in a statement following the board meeting.Obiang has run Equatorial Guinea since a 1979 coup. Under his rule, the country -- listed as among the top 12 most corrupt countries in the world by watchdog Transparency International -- has leapt from small-scale cocoa producer to major oil supplier.Bokova said no new date had been set for the awarding of the prize and urged UNESCO's board to review the matter ahead of the next executive board meeting, to be held October 5-22.The government of the Central African state said on Wednesday that critics of the prize were misguided."Although the UNESCO controversy has highlighted the fact that Equatorial Guinea faces many challenges, which is true, the situation is being viewed through an outdated understanding of what our government is and what Equatorial Guinea is like," the government said in a press release.The UNESCO-Obiang prize was set up in 2008 to reward projects and activities of individuals, institutions, other entities or non-governmental organisations for scientific research in the life sciences.The annual award includes a medal, a diploma and $300,000.(Reporting by John Irish and Richard Valdmanis; editing by Robert Woodward and Mark Heinrich)

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