On July 17, 2012, the fight to block the deeply tainted Equatorial Guinea International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences has been lost. Despite numerous powerful voices and massive criticism, the UNESCO Executive Board went ahead with awarding the prize. In fierce reaction, Homero Aridjis, the Mexican former ambassador to Unesco, said: "It is shameful that Unesco is party to a prize given by Africa's longest reigning dictator, who has pillaged his country's wealth, keeping the majority of the population in dire poverty, and who has a long record of human rights abuse [and] repression of freedom of the press.”
He went on to further criticize the institution itself: “Unesco's mission is to promote universal respect for human rights to justice and the fundamental liberties to which all humankind is entitled.” In his yet damning comment, he lambasted the multilateral institution: “Unesco's prestige is sullied by its endorsement of a prize which bears the weight of suffering of Equatorial Guinea's people, and which is tinged with their blood.”
Along similar lines Tutu Alicante, director of the human rights group EG Justice, hammered further striking direct and hard. He said, “It is shameful and utterly irresponsible for UNESCO to award this prize, given the litany of serious legal and ethical problems surrounding it. Beyond letting itself be used to polish the sullied image of Obiang [President of Equatorial Guinea], UNESCO also risks ruining its own credibility.”
Moral and Professional Obligations
The recipients of this infamous award, as impressive as they may be, are under a moral and professional obligation to determine if the worldwide condemnation from every corner of the world is worth ignoring. They should review the literature, read the papers, and talk directly to those who have firsthand information on the matter, if doubt still lingers. Even better, they could visit the country for firsthand information, if possible, without the interference of government minders and state machinations. Well, they could start their own investigative journalism with the fledgling national higher learning institutions, that the Prize purports to advance.
In tandem, a statement must also go out to those countries and institutions that host these scientists — Maged Al-Sherbiny of Egypt, Felix Dapare Dakora of South Africa and Rossana Arroyo of Mexico — that the award adds no value to their standing as scientists. The institutions and the communities where these individuals work and practice must also be peppered with petitions, comments, and questions to persuade the scientists to turn down the award. Furthermore, the international organizations, scientific academies, funders, and other relevant organizations should also refuse to recognize the award, at least until such time that the doubt expressed by the legal counsel of UNESCO, is removed.
This prize is not simply about the “dirty” money and the alleged personality peddling it; it is also about violating the sanctity of the academic citadels—both very important reasons for rejection. But it is also that this drama takes place while institutions in Equatorial Guinea are subjected to hardship, as stated in earlier articles that provided stunning data. The higher learning institutions in Equatorial Guinea are simply in terrible shape: the libraries, the labs, and the infrastructure are in shambles. And it is this utter hypocrisy that is driving many to question and reject this tainted prize.
In Conclusion: Academic Heroes
By rejecting the award, the three scientists would honor the integrity and sanctity of the academic citadels—everywhere. The act may also serve as an expression of powerful solidarity with scientists, scholars and intellectuals struggling in Equatorial Guinea, Africa and elsewhere. For sure, they will be hailed as heroes especially by those who have passionately campaigned against, but failed, on moral matters beyond their sphere of influence.
Moreover, it is conceivable that institutions around the world would recognize, and remember them not simply for their scientific achievements but also for standing for academic freedom, social justice, and integrity. This would be significantly more important than being recognized by an award that provokes revulsion from all walks of life.