The resolution was passed on Thursday by 33 of the 58 member states and called for the prize to be renamed - to refer to Equatorial Guinea rather than its president - causing an outcry not only among human rights groups, but among the 19 dissenting members of the board.
“Unesco delegates, specifically African delegates, cannot hide behind this prize under the banner of African solidarity,” said Tutu Alicante, the head of human rights group EG Justice, which promotes human rights and transparency in the central African country.
The 2.3 million euro prize funded by Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema courts controversy due to the country’s dismal human rights record.
Some African board members defended the vote, saying that the newly-renamed Unesco-Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences is the first award given by Africans for Africans.
Critics say that the prize should be scrapped outright because Obiang should use the money to help his own people. While ordinarily executive board members make statements as part of the debate before the vote, those in favour of the prize pushed for a vote without debate.
“That was ridiculous and unfortunate and it shows that all the countries that supported it did not want an airing of all the problems with it,” said Lisa Misol, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Unesco board members who supported the prize “did not want civil society to have a voice, to be able to be heard, they did not want the objections to be recorded,” said Misol. “As some delegations said [after the vote], if they had nothing to fear, they would have allowed freedom of expression. This is Unesco after all,” she added.
Bukova said she was disappointed after the vote, as this was the first time a decision to award a prize was not passed by consensus.
“The version proposed by Zimbabwe was reflective of just how undemocratic it was and how appalling the approach to a democratic process it is,” said Andrew Feinstein, the head of Corruption Watch and a former South African parliamentarian.
“So the fact that there was no debate about what is a hugely controversial decision in an organization like UNESCO I find absolutely astonishing and extremely dismaying,” Feinstein added.
Equatorial Guinean presidential adviser Agapito Mba Mokuy said that democratic principles had been exercised with a vote, suggesting that any dissent in regard to a lack of consensus was irrelevant.
“Why is it when it comes to Africa, we have a different treatment? You see, that’s what creates that sentiment of discrimination. I think there is no room for discrimination in an institution like Unesco,” he said.
Mokuy told RFI that Obiang took the high road by agreeing to remove his name from the prize, so that Africans and those suffering from life-threatening diseases such as Aids could benefit from prize-funded research.
The prize name change makes no difference, said activist Alicante. “It doesn’t matter what name you give it if this prize is funded by tainted money [...] and until you change that, we have an issue. If this prize is funded by someone who does not respect human rights, who does not care about basic freedoms, you can’t change that,” he added.
The lack of infrastructure in Equatorial Guinea is worrisome, said Alicante, especially when the head of the country is donating money for a science prize.
“What has happened […] has nothing to do with African pride. It has everything to do with dictatorship pride, taking pride in the fact that most of them [board members] are dictators and has everything to do with the solidarity of dictators,” he added.