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UNESCO delays controversial science award

After global protest, UNESCO has put on hold its plans to award a controversial science prize sponsored by an African dictator whose regime is widely viewed as corrupt and repressive.

The Paris-based education, science and culture organization was set to announce this month the first winners of the $300,000-per-year life-sciences prize, funded with a $3 million donation from President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea.

“President Obiang heads a country that has been ranked by Transparency International as among the 12 most corrupt in the world, whose government is known for well-documented brutality and whose citizens live in poverty despite the country’s oil riches,” says a letter [pdf] signed by almost 200 human-rights organizations and sent to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon on 11 June. “By creating a UNESCO-Obiang award, UNESCO is effectively endorsing his regime and undermining its own support for human rights.”

UNESCO’s own delegates – though not some African nations – were also concerned about the award. “There is a real risk that this organization could find itself friendless,” the US delegation said at a 15 June meeting in Paris.

UNESCO’s executive board now says it will delay the prize – though it has not cancelled it. “I have heard the voices of the many intellectuals, scientists, journalists and of course governments and parliamentarians who have appealed to me to protect and preserve the prestige of the organization,” director-general Irina Bokova said at the meeting. “I have come to you with a strong message of alarm and anxiety.”

The award ceremony will not now go ahead until some agreement has been reached about the prize, says UNESCO spokesperson Sue Williams; a proposition will likely be put at the organization’s next executive board meeting, which takes place between 5-22 October.

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