By Meredith Varela

In 2010, President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea told visiting President Lula da Silva that, “For us, the Republic of Brazil is a country that serves as a reference development model.” Brazil has become a model for many developing countries as it continues to grow in economic and political power. It has become a leader in south-south relations, helping developing countries gain a more powerful voice in the international community.

Yet Brazil showed questionable judgment in actively supporting a UNESCO prize sponsored and funded by President Obiang in an apparent effort to strengthen its relations with his regime, which has accumulated a long list of human rights violations and corruption in the course of its 32 years in power.  On March 8, UNESCO’s Executive Board approved the prize, and Brazil was among the countries that supported it. Given Obiang’s  dismal human rights record, a global campaign of Equatoguineans, civil society organizations, Nobel Laureates, Latin American literary figures, Cano Prize winners, press freedom groups, scientists and public health professionals, and others had urged UNESCO to abolish the prize.

Controversy over the prize led UNESCO to suspend it in October 2010 and to reaffirm that suspension twice the following year. Then, in February 2012, Brazil joined forces with Cuba and Zimbabwe to make an internal push at UNESCO to reinstate the prize. In doing so, Brazil dismissed concerns about Obiang’s human rights record as well as concerns that the $3 million Obiang gave to UNESCO might be tainted by corruption.

According to the prize’s original statute, the prize was to be funded by President Obiang’s foundation, but in February 2012 the government of Equatorial Guinea revealed that the money for the prize had actually been drawn from the public treasury, raising concerns that President Obiang was blurring the distinction between private and public funds. Given the uncertainty surrounding the source of the money, UNESCO’s legal office stated that the prize could no longer be implemented, and that doing so would violate UNESCO’s own regulations. The Executive Board approved the renamed prize anyway. The unquestioning and shameful support of the prize by Brazil and other countries demonstrated a lack of regard for the rules and reputation of UNESCO.

It is likely that Brazil’s support for the prize is linked to its increased economic ties to Equatorial Guinea, especially in regards to petroleum. Petrobras has made multiple forays into Equatorial Guinea over the past decade in search of oil, and Brazil began importing Liquified Natural Gas from the region in 2009. As a sign of the two countries’ warming relations, then President Lula da Silva traveled to Equatorial Guinea in July 2010 and signed several bilateral agreements to promote trade and cooperation. He returned one year later to give a speech at the African Union Summit, which Equatorial Guinea hosted. Brazil is also supporting Equatorial Guinea’s bid to join the Comunidade dos Países de Língua Portuguesa (CPLP), despite the fact that very few people speak Portuguese in Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea has recently tried to position itself as a leader in south-south relations, and its overtures to Brazil should be viewed as part of that effort. In November 2011, Equatorial Guinea hosted the Council of Ministers meeting of the Africa-South America Cooperation Forum, at which Brazilian Foreign Minister de Aguiar Patriota spoke. President Dilma Rousseff is scheduled to travel to Equatorial Guinea in May for the Heads of State meeting of the Africa-South America Cooperation Forum.

Sadly, the two budding allies share some common problems as well, namely in regards to human rights abuses and poor governance. Torture and poor prison conditions are still reported in both countries. Security forces commit illegal abuses, including arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings. Corruption is another major barrier to progress in both petro-states. President Rousseff’s administration has been plagued by corruption scandals, forcing more than a dozen officials—including her cabinet chief—to resign in the first few months of her presidency.

Nevertheless, Brazil could be a positive example to Equatorial Guinea on democracy and human rights. Brazil’s relatively smooth and effective transition from a military dictatorship to a participatory democracy in the 1980s contains lessons for democratic transitions in other southern countries, including Equatorial Guinea.  In recent years, Brazil has supported several important international human rights initiatives. In 2010 and 2011, for instance, Brazil backed United Nations resolutions addressing human rights violations in Iran, Belarus, North Korea, and Sudan.

Furthermore, President Rousseff’s dismissal of ministers accused of corruption signals that Brazil is getting tough on corruption. Brazil has taken a lead role in promoting transparency and government accountability at the international level. In September 2011, Brazil and the United States announced a new joint initiative, the Open Government Partnership, which promotes government transparency, accountability, and effectiveness worldwide.

Government accountability is something that people in Equatorial Guinea and other southern countries dream about. Their current reality consists of a state-owned media, flawed elections, widespread corruption fueled by government secrecy, and impunity by government officials. By justifying its support for President Obiang’s UNESCO prize as south-south solidarity, Brazil harmed its international reputation, weakened the credibility of south-south alliances, and turned its back on the daily struggles of Equatoguineans to hold their government accountable.

If Brazil truly wants to be a good friend of Equatorial Guinea and its people, as well as a good ally to its other southern partners, it should set a consistent example and take a stand against corruption and human rights abuses, wherever they occur.