[Viewpoint] Unesco honors Africa’s Kim Jong-il

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[Viewpoint] Unesco honors Africa’s Kim Jong-il

Imagine if the United Nations took money from Kim Jong-il and established a human rights award in his honor. No doubt many member states would be up in arms protesting such an outright mockery of the words “human rights.”

The nominees for the award would no doubt be shocked and ashamed, wondering what they had done wrong to deserve this “honor.”

Sometimes, reality is stranger than fiction. It turns out that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) is about to give out a prize in honor of an abusive, corrupt dictator from West Africa whose record resembles that of Kim Jong-il.

The award is the Unesco-Obiang Nguema Mbasogo International Prize for Research in the Life Sciences, named after the longtime dictator of Equatorial Guinea. Despite repeated protests by international human rights groups and human rights defenders from Equatorial Guinea, Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, has so far refused to cancel the prize, scheduled to be given for the first time at the end of June. Instead she has passed the buck, arguing that only member states on Unesco’s governing board - which includes South Korea - have the power to stop this travesty.

Unesco’s Executive Board created the award in 2008, ostensibly to recognize “scientific achievements that improve the quality of human life.” The problem is that President Obiang has failed to improve the quality of life of citizens in his own country.

Although the country is the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, with a per capita GDP on par with South Korea’s, even Obiang’s government admits that over 75 percent of its people live in poverty.

For years, UN human rights monitors have criticized Obiang’s government for repressing the political opposition, allowing arbitrary detention and rampant torture by the police, systematically violating the right to freedom of expression and presiding over a systemic abrogation of economic and social rights.

Keeping official theft quiet is apparently a big priority. Transparency International lists the country among the 12 most corrupt in the world. Reporters Without Borders recently gave President Obiang more appropriate recognition, including him in their list of “Predators of Press Freedom.” This is hardly the sort of champion that Unesco, which has freedom of expression as one of its core mandates, should be promoting.

During the Universal Periodic Review of Equatorial Guinea by the UN Human Rights Council in December 2009, South Korea joined many other governments to express concerns about the Obiang government’s abysmal human rights record.

South Korea needs to step up again and ask Unesco leaders why they are honoring a man whose rule is the epitome of what Unesco should oppose.

Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, sent a congratulatory message to President Obiang on his re-election as president - in an election whose result was rejected by the opposition.

It is quite natural for Kim Jong-il to feel camaraderie with Obiang, as they have quite a lot in common. Kim inherited power from his father in the mid-1990s, while Obiang became president through a bloody coup d’etat in 1979 that overturned his uncle’s rule. In July 2003, state-owned radio declared Obiang a god who is “in permanent contact with the Almighty” and “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.” Kim Jong-ll, like his father, has also built one of the most pervasive cults of personality in the world. Under their respective rules, North Korea and Equatorial Guinea have forged reputations as being among the most repressive and undemocratic nations in the world.

In 2003, President Obiang told his citizens that he felt compelled to take full control of the national treasury to prevent corruption by civil servants. Obiang then deposited more than half a billion dollars into accounts controlled by himself and his family. Now it’s up to the 58 states on the Executive Board of Unesco, including South Korea, to speak up urgently to put a stop to this prize once and for all.

If no member state steps in to stop this political circus now, it may not be that farfetched to imagine a day when we witness the first Unesco-Kim Jong-il Prize for Human Rights.

*The writer is researcher with the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.

By Kay Seok
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