Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Atlantic Council Faulted for Awarding African "Dictator"

This is from a Foreign Policy opinion piece by Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein (both of the Human Rights Foundation) entitled "Why Did the Atlantic Council Even Consider Giving African Dictator Ali Bongo Ondimba a Global Citizen Award?":
Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba was scheduled to attend a swanky gala on Monday hosted by the Atlantic Council, a well-known Washington-based think tank, to accept an award for “his life of public service and efforts to improve the lives of the people of Gabon.” Unfortunately for the dictator, he was forced to cancel at the last moment because of mounting unrest in his country — the bloody fallout from a likely stolen election on Aug. 27.
Days of violent protests followed. At least 50 people were killed, and more than 1,000 were arrested by security forces, according to the opposition. Gabon remains under a 12-hour-a-day curfew, but the Atlantic Council has not officially rescinded the award, which it previously bestowed on the likes of Robert De Niro and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. In a letter to Human Rights Foundation, Atlantic Council President Frederick Kempe said his organization respects Bongo’s “decision to forgo receiving his Global Citizen Award this year due to the overriding priorities he has in his country.”
Yet it’s not clear how Bongo was ever considered a worthy candidate for the award in the first place. The notoriously corrupt leader has ruled Gabon since 2009, when he succeeded his father, Omar Bongo Ondimba, in a fraudulent election.
By recognizing him with a Global Citizen Award, the Atlantic Council is helping Bongo shed his image as an outrageously corrupt autocrat. The democratically elected leaders of Japan and Italy, Shinzo Abe and Matteo Renzi, respectively, will receive their awards on Monday as scheduled at a gala at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Had Bongo not been busy putting down a protest movement opposed to his rule, he would have been able to present himself as a similarly legitimate leader. And since the Atlantic Council hasn’t revoked the award, he may still be able to do so at a later date.
The Atlantic Council has long trumpeted its objectivity and independence, but feting Bongo is just the latest in a series of troubling developments at the think tank that raise questions about its commitment to transparency and ability to keep business interests separate from its research and policy operations. Gabon is not the only dictatorship the Atlantic Council has cozied up to: The Kingdom of Bahrain is listed on the organization’s website as a six-figure donor, and it has received financial support from the governments of Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and Kazakhstan. Alexander Mirtchev, one of the directors of Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund, sits on the executive committee of the Atlantic Council’s board of directors and is listed as a six-figure donor.

The piece goes on to note that it is "difficult to discern the precise nature" of the Atlantic Council's relationship with the Bongo regime, and questions if someone from the government (or someone on behalf of the government) has donated money to Atlantic Council.  The authors say that until these questions are answered, the "credibility of one of Washington's most venerated think tanks will remain in question, and its Global Citizens Award will remain a joke."

In what appears to be pushback from the think tank, Foreign Policy issued a correction at the end of the article saying that a previous version of the article noted that the Atlantic Council does not publicly disclose all of its funders, or the size of their donations (found here).  However, many think tanks say that they publicly disclose all of their donors, when it practice, many do not.

The Telegraph also wrote about this issue on September 11.

Here is an Atlantic Council statement on President Ali Bongo Ondimba not being able to accept the award this year.

But the Gabonese President was able to make it to the think tank earlier in 2016 for a breakfast to honor him.  And he also gave a keynote speech at the think tank in 2011.

Here is a Human Rights Foundation (HRF) letter sent to Atlantic Council saying that HRF is "unaware" of the qualification of a Global Citizen Award but "unless kleptocracy, nepotism, and repression are given high marks," giving the award to Ali Bongo is a "monumental mistake."

Think Tank Watch should note that it is not illegal for think tanks to take money from (most) dictators, although some may consider it ethically questionable.  And as previously reported, Gabon funds US think tanks.

Update: Here is another piece from Mr. Halvorssen.