The applause seemed to go on forever at Monday’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. Dr Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were honoured with lengthy standing ovations, for drawing international attention to sexual violence as war crimes that must be punished.
“We thank you for seeing the suffering, and devoting your life to the battle for women, and against sexual violence,” the leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, said from the podium while looking straight at Mukwege. She was interrupted by cheers and loud applause that went on and on, and brought royals, members of government and everyone else gathered in the Oslo City Hall to their feet.
“Nadia Murad, we thank you for your extraordinary courage,” Reiss-Andersen said moments later, after explaining how Murad has used her own suffering as a victim of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group to bravely telling the world what she has been through and how sexual violence and attempted genocide of her Yazidi minority must be stopped. Applause erupted again, and everyone immediately stood up for another lengthy ovation that seemed to overwhelm Murad as she averted her gaze and hardly allowed herself a smile.
It was a particularly tough Nobel ceremony this year, with two winners who have seen so much inhumanity that it’s “beyond comprehension,” as Reiss-Andersen said, not least “when the atrocities against individuals and attempted extermination of an entire ethnic group can be rationalized by a religious belief.” Murad’s six brothers and her mother were murdered by IS along with most other men, boys and elderly. Young women and girls were spared, only to be taken prisoner and subjected to a brutal fate as sex slaves by their Islamic captors.
“The women were supposed to be circulated among many men,” Reiss-Andersen stressed. “They were supposed to be treated brutally and humiliated, with the aim of breaking them down completely.”
In her own address to the roughly 1,000 people attending the Nobel ceremony that’s also broadcast worldwide, an impressively poised and straightforward Murad said she hoped the Peace Prize day would mark the beginning of “a new era” in which sexual violence is investigated and prosecuted just as harshly as other war crimes, and in which threatened minorities like her own Yazidi would receive international protection.
She’s impatient for world leaders to finally mobilize against sexual violence just, she chided, as they might for a trade war. Murad, age 25, made it clear that she doesn’t need more sympathy. She wants action instead, to track down war criminals and hold them accountable.
There was another lengthy standing ovation when she finished speaking and still more when Mukwege took the podium. After decades of treating victims of sexual violence in Congo, he has become an expert at physically mending the horrific injuries suffered by women. He said at the outset that he would spare his audience the details, but not so much that he didn’t reveal the case of an 18-month girl who’d been all but torn apart by rape, or a young woman named Sarah who suffered the same fate after being tied naked to a tree and gang raped for days on end. Crown Princess Mette-Marit’s eyes filled with tears as she gripped the hand of her husband, Crown Prince Haakon. Members of the government listened intently, looking grim, while various members of the audience wiped away tears as well.
Dr Mukwege launched straight into how the hospital where he worked had been attacked, with patients killed in their beds and hospital personnel killed as well. Congo, he stressed, is “one of the world’s richest countries” in terms of natural resources, yet with one of the world’s poorest populations because of endless conflicts among groups vying for control over those resources that include everything from diamonds to cobalt. “My country is systematically plundered,” he said, not least by multinational corporations that exploit the local population. The sexual violence that often follows is meant to conquer entire communities by not just physically attacking people but trying to shame them.
The rapes and abuse also has played out everywhere from Bosnia to Myanmar and Iraq. Mukwege called Murad “a sense of inspiration,” rather like Sarah who refused to be broken and today has her own small home and business. Yet Mukwege called on world leaders to impose political and economic sanctions on the perpetrators: “Don’t roll out a red carpet, roll out a red line against war crimes,” he urged.
Andersen of the Nobel Committee was keen to point out that this year’s shared Peace Prize, which has received overwhelmingly positive reaction, fulfills key criteria in Alfred Nobel’s will. The work that both Murad and Mukwege are doing is a contribution towards disarmament, with sexual violence an “intolerable weapon that cannot be accepted in warfare.”
“Their primary contribution, however, is to what Alfred Nobel called ‘the fraternity of nations,'” Andersen said. “They have shown us that human suffering in war is universal. They have pointed out that women are predominantly invisible victims of the horrors of war.” Both prize winners have “demanded that injustice be combated with justice. War crimes must be punished, and the responsibility rests with the entire international community.”
Both Murad and Mukwege “are thus fully deserving of Alfred Nobel’s Prize,” Andersen concluded, and another long round of applause indicated the audience agreed. The Nobel Laureates were being honoured with a torchlight parade in downtown Oslo Monday evening that ends outside the Grand Hotel where the prize winners traditionally stay. After waving to the masses assembled outside, Murad and Mukwege would then be the guests of honour at the traditional Nobel Banquet inside.