PARIS — UNESCO's governing board voted Thursday for the UN's educational body to go ahead with a controversial prize financed by Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, UNESCO said.
Rights groups as well as Western nations are opposed to the prize, worth three million dollars and created in 2008, because of accusations that Obiang rules with an iron grip and heads a government marked by corruption.
The prize is however backed by other nations, mainly African, and so Thursday's resolution calling on UNESCO Secretary General Irina Bokova to award the prize was passed by 33 of the 58 states on the governing board.
"This vote is an insult to the people of Equatorial Guinea and damages the reputation of UNESCO," Lisa Misol of Human Rights Watch told AFP after the vote.
Despite the decision, the prize may never be awarded as a legal opinion requested by UNESCO has said it is illegal because of a change in the source of financing.
Bokova, who is opposed to the prize but must abide by the vote, said she would request a fresh legal opinion.
The vote called for the prize to be renamed the "International UNESCO-Equatorial Guinea Prize" for research in the life sciences instead of the originally planned "Obiang-UNESCO Prize" after Obiang backed the change.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2010 bowed to pressure from anti-corruption campaigners and suspended the science prize.
Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea with an iron grip since seizing power in a 1979 coup d'etat. His country is Africa's third biggest oil exporter but its people live in grinding poverty.
South African Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu has joined rights groups in calling for the prize to be abolished.
"The UNESCO-Obiang prize is irreversibly tainted by its association with the repression and high-level corruption of President Obiang's government," Tutu said last month.
"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," Tutu said.
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