PARIS, March 8 (Reuters) - The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO voted on Thursday to remove the name of Equatorial Guinea's president from a science prize and replace it with that of his country, bowing to pressure over his human rights record, but it was unclear if the decision would be implemented.
Thirty-three of the 58 countries on UNESCO's executive board voted in favour of an African-backed resolution to rename the $3 million President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo prize. Nineteen countries voted against.
The original name of the prize sparked protests as analysts see the oil-rich central African state as among the most corrupt and repressive in the world under Obiang's leadership, and the government proposed the change in an effort to defuse the row.
An internal UNESCO legal note seen by Reuters this week said that although the prize statutes could be amended, it would not be possible simply to delete and replace the name of the donor.
Director General Irina Bokova said she regretted the divisions and the vote and would seek further legal counsel.
"The approval by this body of this Resolution urging the Director General to implement the Obiang Prize will be in vain," the United States delegation, which opposed the resolution, said in a statement. "We recall that the Director General and her representatives have told this body and told the working group numerous times that the prize cannot be implemented."
The vote is due to be ratified in a plenary session on Friday.
Obiang's government says the prize is intended to contribute to efforts in scientific research targeting diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
Critics say it should be scrapped altogether on the ground that Obiang is trying to launder his international reputation by financing a prize linked to the United Nations when he should be focusing on cutting poverty and reforming his own government.
Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea since 1979. He has been accused by rights groups of squandering years of oil revenues from the tiny Gulf of Guinea nation and there have been several international investigations into his family's vast wealth.
To accompany the name change, Equatorial Guinea's government said the funds for the prize would come from the state treasury rather than Obiang's own personal foundation. But the legal note concluded that this would mean the prize statutes as they were currently drafted were "no longer implementable". (Reporting By John Irish; editing by Tim Pearce)