Dr. Mukwege Accepts Seoul Peace Prize

Delivered by Dr. Denis Mukwege to Seoul Peace Prize Cultural Foundation Award Ceremony
Dynasty Room, Hotel Shilla, Seoul

Chairman of the Seoul Peace Prize Cultural Foundation,
Members of the Seoul Peace Prize Selection Committee,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentleman,
Friends of peace,

It is my pleasure to be with you today in Korea. Thank you for your warm welcome!

On behalf of my staff working each day, tirelessly, I am humbled and honored to accept the Seoul Peace Prize. At Panzi Hospital and Foundations, we treat, heal, and help revitalize dignity within our patients who have faced evil and survived. 

To all survivors of rape and sexual violence around the world, I dedicate this Prize to you as an acknowledgement of your humanity and suffering, and our shared desire for peace. 

I must also honor and recognize the resilience of the so-called Comfort Women. They suffered immeasurable pain, indignity, violence, and social stigmatization. In their memory, and in the memory of all victims of rape and sexual violence, I re-dedicate myself to pursuing peace, seeking truth and reconciliation, standing up for the rights of all people, and healing survivors around the world. We are one family and community. In your honor, I accept this prestigious award with humility and with hope. 

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment.”

Dr. King then asked us, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” 

I am doing my duty, as we all must. Each one of us confronted with the suffering of any fellow human being must show concern and compassion. We must take action to help those in need. This is what we do every day at Panzi. 

I have hope despite that, for too long, the use of rape and sexual violence in times of war – and in peace – has been ignored or denied. This global issue affects humanity as a whole. Because of the tireless work of those in the medical community, advocates for justice, and civil society voices around the world, addressing rape and sexual violence is on the agenda of the international community. But, more needs to be done.

By expressing your solidarity with victims of sexual violence in conflict, you have chosen to stand against the indifference that survivors endure. You are joining those who know suffering is not an inevitable part of war. You are reaffirming that lasting peace and security can only be achieved when threats to women are seen as threats to all. 

This prize is a message to survivors. You are valued and not forgotten. Your cries and your voices are heard. Together we commit ourselves to building a healthier, more just, and peaceful world. 

Friends of peace, ladies and gentlemen, and survivors, 

My heart is also heavy. Today is October 6, and I am compelled to share with you one of the most difficult memories of my life. 

This date lives within me, in my work, but also in my soul. Twenty years ago, in 1996, I was the medical director of the hospital in Lemera – a village in the beautiful hills of the South Kivu Province in Eastern Congo, near the borders with Burundi and Rwanda. 

That day, an armed group attacked the hospital, killed 30 of my patients – sick and wounded people – and three members of my medical staff. 

I miraculously survived. 

This war crime was the first massacre of many that are still ravaging the region where I live and work. 

Those who have command responsibility for this serious breach of international humanitarian law that marked the beginning of the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are well known. Their crimes have been documented and listed in a report of the United Nations (UN). Not one of the perpetrators has been prosecuted or brought to justice. 

Twenty years after this atrocity at Lemera was committed, no one has ever been held accountable. Neither the families of the victims nor the community received any sort of redress. No memorial has been built on the site of the mass grave where the remains of the innocent victims were buried with no names. 

There is no official recognition of what happened.

No academic or history book is teaching our children at school about the day that changed the course of the modern history in the Great Lakes region. No truth. No memory. No reparation. No justice for the victims. No dignity for the innocents. 

Three years after the 1996 massacre, my aim was to build a hospital where women could receive good healthcare in order to reduce maternal mortality. But our first patient did not come to deliver a baby. She had been raped with extreme violence. It was the first time we had witnessed such an inhumane act. We thought the case must be an isolated one. It quickly became clear that it was only the beginning of a humanitarian disaster of tremendous proportions that plagues us to this day.

The bodies of women and girls are now the battlefields of a conflict that has killed and displaced millions of people. Rape has been used in a widespread and systematic manner as a weapon of war, as a deliberate political and military strategy. Many of these atrocities have been committed by child soldiers brainwashed by warlords and domestic and foreign armed forces to destroy communities. Yet we should not forget that children who perpetrate sexual violence are often victims themselves. 

In this climate of impunity, trauma and gender discrimination, rape is becoming more and more prevalent among civilians, and is spreading across society. Rape should never be normalized, or accepted as a consequence of conflict.

Is rape about uncontrolled sexual desire? No. Rape as a weapon of war is about power. It is first and foremost a strategy to demoralize, destabilize and displace entire communities. It is not incidental violence. Rape as a weapon of war is committed in a systematic way with specific goals. Often in public and with brutal violence, targeting civilians.

Recently we have been confronted with an even more troubling and shocking side of violence and destruction: the rape of children and infants. The wards at Panzi hospital are increasingly filled with young innocent faces. 

No one should accept what is unacceptable. Red lines must not be crossed without serious action and accountability. Our children’s lives matter. 

Friends of peace,

Officially, there has been peace in the DRC since 2002, but the harsh reality in eastern Congo is one of violence and ongoing conflicts. 

Despite various peace agreements, which are supposed to foster democratic transition under the watch of the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, we live in neither war nor peace. 

We live in a new form of conflict involving numerous militias and armed groups. Like criminal enterprises, they operate in the shadows, with the complicity of unscrupulous businessmen and corrupt leaders. They exploit our land and our people for personal interests. This occurs in an economy that is largely militarized and is based on the illegal trade of minerals resources.

We must break the existing links between armed conflicts and illegal exploitation of natural resources. Often called “conflict minerals” or “blood minerals.” 

These resources are abundant in the region where I live. They continue to power our cell phones, tablet, laptops and other electronic devices. This industry in Congo is partially driven by the modern slavery, of women and men, but also of exploited children who work in inhumane conditions and are victims of all forms of abuse. 

Human dignity must be at the heart of ethical governance, and at the center in our shared economic and financial interests. 

In a globalized market, responsible consumers must be made aware that even though we may not be directly associated with these illegal activities and human rights abuses, our purchases can and do contribute to these types of crimes. 

We must be aware of the links between our mobile phones and other devices and the instability in the DRC. We have a responsibility to advocate for transparency in the upstream and downstream supply chains for these precious minerals. By doing so, we may bring stability, prosperity and peace to the people of Congo.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is the context in which we are fighting against rape as a weapon of war. Every one of us can contribute to the resolution of this violence as responsible consumers and advocates, lifting our voices and ensuring mining companies and governments adhere to best practices. 

Since we opened Panzi Hospital in 1999, we have treated more than 48 thousand survivors of rape and sexualized violence, in addition to 35 thousand women and girls with complex gynecological injuries.

This medical care, which includes reconstructive gynecological surgery, is part of a four-pillar holistic healing model with which we strive to help survivors and their families and communities to heal the body, the mind and the spirit. 

At Panzi, survivors can access medical care, psychosocial services, legal aid, and can choose to participate in activities aimed at gaining socio-economic power and building women’s leadership. When they are ready, Panzi also supports them in their community reintegration. We provide these services to help victims become survivors, to speak out, and to become advocates for peace and justice. 

Panzi Foundation is also increasingly involved in prevention work. We cannot continue to repair the damage done on our wives, daughters and sisters. We need to act to prevent the violence from occurring in the first place. 

We also must address the need to alter existing gender norms. Time has come to change mentalities, combat harmful practices and patriarchal discrimination. Hence our projects address structural issues such as gender inequality. Men and boys must work together with women and girls in the fight against sexual violence. We as men must promote women’s leadership.

Education is also vital in combatting the systematic use of sexual violence. The right to education cannot continue to be denied for women who make up half of the population in the world. 

We are convinced that investing in access to education and healthcare for women and girls is not only a way for governments to fulfill their legal obligations, but is the smartest way to support social and economic development and prosperity. 

We must pursue justice for victims of sexual violence. As long as there is no accountability and complete impunity for perpetrators, the cycle of violence will continue. We must unite and show that we will no longer tolerate this behavior. When we no longer allow it to persist, justice for women and all of us will be within our grasp.

In the absence of a functioning judiciary that is able and willing to address the most serious crimes, including rape and other forms of sexualized crimes, we are calling for the establishment of an International Tribunal for Congo. Such an institution will represent one step towards ending impunity, and help the process of combatting root drivers of the instability and violence.

We find our inspiration in the fierce determination of survivors who become actors for social change in their communities. They are fighting for their rights and for peace. We strongly believe that those who have endured violence in conflict have the capacity to act as agents for peace and security. They must participate at all stages of peace processes and deserve a place at the negotiation table in peace talks. 

Dear Friends,

We will never give up. With you and other advocates around the world at our side, we can end rape as a weapon of war. 

Why, when the international community has been able to draw a red line for the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, is there no red line with regard to rape as a weapon of war? There is legal precedent for seeking justice and obtaining convictions. 

It is crucial that the international community, the diplomatic world, donors and international criminal justice mechanisms do not allow this red line to be crossed again and again without responding. 

The survival of our humanity is at stake.

If we want to stop seeing the blood of our Congolese sisters and brothers, the international community must urgently act to prevent a new cycle of violence and repression, thereby increasing perpetration of sexual violence. Sanctions must be imposed to discourage constitutional violations that risk jeopardizing democracy. 

Friends of peace,

We will never give up as we believe it is possible to end violence and build sustainable peace in the Great Lakes region. 

We strongly believe that there will be no lasting peace nor sustainable development without having access to all the tools of transitional justice – prosecution, truth and reintegration mechanisms, vetting and reparation. 

Your country, too, has understood the tribulations surrounding reparations. Victims of wartime sexual violence must receive the proper acknowledgement. The strength of the women continuing to demand justice in Korea is inspiring. They do not give up. And neither should we. 

We are convinced that the promotion and enjoyment of human rights for all, economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights are both our means and our goal towards consolidating the path to lasting peace and democracy in Africa and worldwide. 

Finally, my dear friends and partners in peace,
The DRC stands on the precipice. The constitutional mandate requires the current President to step down at the end of his second and last term in December. The regime is currently in an authoritarian drift. The government’s opposition, civil society, human rights defenders, journalists and youth movements, are all being persecuted. These groups are eager to witness and support the first democratic transition of power in Congo’s history. 

But there are grave concerns that those in power are eager to retain power. 

In this climate of fear and terror, the message of a strengthening Congolese civil society is simple and clear: we need to respect the provisions enshrined in the 2006 Constitution, which is the result of a referendum and the fruit of a negotiated peace agreement. 

As you have lifted your voice in support of survivors of sexual violence, I ask you now to stand with all the innocent people engaging in the defense and promotion of human rights, the rule of law, and peace. 

It is my honor to be with you here, 

Thank you for your attention and support,

Denis Mukwege, MD, PhD 

Photo credit: Olivier Vanderveeren, Panzi Hospital and Foundations

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