Nobel’s Legacy to Women
ON Saturday I was in Oslo with two of my sisters from Africa, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of — according to the Nobel Prize committee members — our “non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Next week, I will be in Paris to talk more generally about the role of women in shaping Africa’s future and also to pay my respects to the man who created the prize I am taking with me back to Liberia: Alfred Nobel.
It was in Paris in November 1895 that this Swedish inventor, who made a fortune with the invention of dynamite, wrote his last will and testament leaving much of his estate to establishing the prizes that bear his name.
Nobel is said to have been motivated to this act by a misunderstanding: In 1888, a French newspaper published an article stating that he had died. The headline was “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” and it said that “Dr Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” The newspaper was doubly mistaken.
First, Alfred Nobel had not died — it was his brother. Second, and much more consequential, Alfred Nobel’s dynamite did not kill people. People kill people, whether it is with a knife or a machete, with a handgun or a rifle or a machine gun or an explosive device packed with Nobel’s potent tincture.
The murder of 77 innocent people by a man with explosives and weapons in Norway last summer underscored this point with tragic clarity. It may have been a rare moment in the history of that prosperous and mostly peaceful Scandinavian country, as I observed in Oslo last Saturday, but it has often occurred with appalling frequency in other parts of the world, especially on my continent. I need only mention the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia and my own Liberia.
And we must not forget that some of the most heinous crimes in war have been committed without explosives, indeed, without the need for any particular weapon at all. Too often simple brute force has sufficed. Rape remains one of the tested and most enduring weapons of war. I said this at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, and I would like to repeat here verbatim what I said three days ago in Oslo: “Although international tribunals have correctly declared that rape, used as a weapon of war, is a crime against humanity, rapes in times of lawlessness continue unabated. The number of our sisters and daughters of all ages brutally defiled over the past two decades staggers the imagination, and the number of lives devastated by such evil defies comprehension.
“Through the mutilation of our bodies and the destruction of our ambitions, women and girls have disproportionately paid the price of domestic and international armed conflict. We have paid in the currencies of blood, of tears, and of dignity.” But wherever there have been men willing to commit this double transgression against the human body and spirit, there have always been other men, and perhaps even more women, who have committed themselves to the cause of peace.
These were the people Alfred Nobel wanted to identify for celebration and, even more important, emulation.
In his testament establishing the foundation to fund his prizes, Nobel stipulated that each year a prize be given to a person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.” Unlike war, which has remained almost exclusively the domain of men, the project of peace and healing has belonged to men and women alike. The awarding of Nobel’s peace prize has generously given recognition to this fact almost from its inception with 15 women to date.
In 1905, Baroness Bertha Felicie Sophie von Suttner was honored for her efforts in promoting the Hague Peace Conference of 1899. Since then, there have been 11 additional women, the most recent of whom was the late Wangari Maathai, who received Nobel’s honour in 2004 “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” This courageous professor from Kenya, who died much too young, was the first woman from Africa to be honoured by the Nobel committee, and this past weekend she was doubly honoured as the trailblazer for her three African sisters who have now followed in her footsteps.
It is not just the memory of Professor Maathai that we must honour, but also the countless women across Africa, around the world, who work relentlessly and selflessly to prevent or overcome the ravages of war.
As I said in Oslo, the award that Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkol Karman and I received belongs in fact to all those whose efforts we have the privilege to represent and whose rights we have the obligation to defend. We are but their reflection.
And let me repeat another observation I made at the podium in Oslo: “With such a distinction comes great responsibility.
History will judge us not by what we say in this moment in time, but by what we do next to lift the lives of our countrymen and women. It will judge us by the legacy we leave behind for generations to come.” (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee of Liberia and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen)