An African leader whose regime is accused of human rights abuses sent a substitute to Rome to deliver the keynote address Monday at a U.N. forum on food crises.
The Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization had invited Equatorial Guinea's president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, to give the main speech Monday.
Obiang seized power in a coup 32 years ago. He has frequently been accused of human rights violations and corruption, and Western governments view him as tainted.
There has been resistance at another U.N. body, UNESCO, the Paris-based organization which promotes culture, to a push by African leaders to create a $3 million prize in his honor.
Diplomats, who see the prize as an embarrassment, earlier this month delayed a decision on its creation. Famed scientists, writers and Nobel winners, including Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, have implored UNESCO to jettison the idea.
Obiang had been listed on the food crisis forum's program as the keynote speaker at a daylong series of events to draw attention to the world's hungry and malnourished people, many of whom live in Africa. The FAO said Obiang was invited because his country now holds the rotating helm of the African Union.
Instead, the president delegated the task to a special envoy to the Rome gathering.
"Because of the importance of the meeting, he gave me an airplane just to come here," the envoy, Diosdado Sergio Osa Mongolo told The Associated Press in an interview after delivering the speech, which noted how many people in Equatorial Guinea are suffering from the volatility of food prices.
Asked about the controversy over creating a $3 million UNESCO prize in Obiang's honor, the envoy said, "We don't understand why it is not accepted."
"We are very concerned about humanitarian issues," Osa Mongolo said, urging UNESCO to "think about that very closely and see that this money will be used for the need of the people."
Obiang's family has been accused of pilfering his nation's oil wealth. Equatorial Guinea spokesmen have said that claims of theft, corruption and abuse by Obiang are unfounded.
A U.N. official's tour of Equatorial Guinea's prisons in 2008 found that torture is systematic. An FAO spokesman said he didn't know why Obiang didn't come to the forum.
FAO's director-general Jacques Diouf in his speech urged nations to devote a greater share of resources toward agriculture development.