Interview: Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate


Ms Gbowee was invited to the Peace Palace to unveil the bust of Bertha von Suttner during the celebrations of the Centenary of the Peace Palace on August 28, 2013. The Austrian Baroness Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) was the only woman to attend the 1899 Hague Peace Conference and was present at the opening of the Peace Palace. She also was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 and the first woman to be honored with a bust in the Peace Palace. The editors of the Peace Palace Library Newsletter took the opportunity of Ms Gbowee’ s presence to interview her.

Q:  What is your impression of this day of celebration in the Peace Palace?

LG: The Peace Palace is a representation of the human dimension of peace. I mean the idea of people to sit and talk about their differences and resolve it through the Court of Arbitration instead of wars. This is something that the world has lost. We’ve lost our ability to sit and dialogue when we have issues. We’ve lost our ability to contextualize conflict in a way that shows the human side, who’s dying and who’s going hungry. We have come to a place in our world where peace, conflict and all of the related matters, thematic areas and concerns are documented in statistics and policies. I think the idea of this place is to remind us of our shared humanity and our ability to relate to one another as humanly as possible. For me it is the celebration, with all the pomp and pageantry of the day, it is a reflective moment, a time for us to reflect on how we can go back to a world where wars and conflict are not fought on the bodies of people and how we can go back to a world that was envisaged by the visionaries of the Peace Palace. It’s a time of reflection, how do we go back a 100 years in to rethinking how peace is done. 

Q: There is peace versus justice. Do you believe that they are conflicting principles?

LG: I think they are one and the same. Justice is a full component of peace. I don’t see justice as a stand alone component. So when you talk about peace, there can be no peace without justice. If I may give a description of peace, I think, that if you’re looking at the body, like you have your heart, your hands, your legs, I will say justice is the heartbeat of peace. There is no life when you leave out the component of justice. The question we have to ask ourselves is what kind of justice do we want and how do we unfold justice which is the heartbeat of peace. But I think they are one and the same. 

Q: During the Conference Pro Concordia Labor (Delft, August 27), you addressed the issue that sometimes people prefer peace over justice. How does that work?  Can you elaborate a little more on that?  

LG: Most times, people feel like, they quit peace to the silencing of the guns. So if talking about justice which is predominantly retributive justice, would make the guns keep firing , than let’s not talk about it, but in most of our context the ones who are working and yearning for both peace and justice are the ones who are being impacted in ways that you will never understand. So they are prepared to sacrifice their pains if it meant the silencing of the guns. And so, I think what we’ve done over the years and it helped me is to create an awareness about peace and the component of peace. What I think we haven’t done well is to start up a discussion about justice because to people justice is associated with prison, courts, and  arbitration. They don’t see justice as someone even just apologizing. How do we really begin the conversation about justice without raising red flags that we will go back to war or go back to violence.

Q: Were you involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia?

LG: For a moment I was commissioner, for a short a time. They asked me to reapply for a position but I never did. From the beginning I felt like the process was not internally driven. That was my opinion and I still stand by it today. I feel that there was a lot of outside influence about how the whole TRC should evolve. At the end of the today, we have a problematic report with conflicting recommendations from within the Truth Commission.

Q: For a while you worked in restorative justice and you also studied this topic as a student? Why did you decided to focus on this aspect of justice?

LG: Yes as part of the requirement of getting a masters in Conflict transformation and Peacebuilding. I also participated in a Summer Program on restorative justice because it fascinated me but I also believe that it is one of the best kind of justice that will help to solve many problems but also because of my African background. I think from all of our cultures there is a restorative component of the way things are done. I read a book about my own ethnic group talking about crimes, heinous crimes in the past and how people, instead of sending someone to prison would banish them to the forest to restore back a sense of justice. Something that happened in Monrovia concerning a part of my family that made me think about restorative justice. A young man killed a relative of mine. This relative was the only child of his mother. The young man who killed him had a wife who was pregnant. The case  went to court and he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to prison. My father was there and when he came out of the courtroom he said these women sat in two different places. The older woman who was a relative and turned to my father and said: Is this it? And he said: yes, it’s over. The older woman replied: ‘What about me? Who takes care of me? My son used to be the breadwinner for the two of us. Now he has gone. Who takes care of me?’ The man who went to prison had a young wife who is pregnant. Now he is gone. ‘Who takes care of her, my father asked?’ As he told this story in the judiciary,  justice was served. But is that really justice? We can go back and forth and discuss our ideas and impressions of what justice is, but I think that story applies to war time situations, especially when war criminals are brought to The Hague and get prosecuted. In the process of their court proceedings, they live well and eat well, whilst the victims of their crimes  live in communities where they barely have anything to eat at all. Over here, someone like Charles Taylor is able to have his wife visit and he can have sex and have more children whilst he is imprisoned. Some of the most horrendous rape that women have gone through in different communities stopped their chances of ever having a child. The question you want to ask yourself is: Is that Justice?

Q: What do you think of the ICC? Do you think it can really bring no justice no peace in the way they are doing their work?

LG: There is a lot of things that need to happen. The idea of the ICC is great but I believe it is detached from the people who are affected by some of the things that happened. It sends a good political signal to the world that we will no longer tolerate dictators, mass murderers. But comparing their life in prison, with three meals a day with the life of their starving victims, you may ask is this justice. Former President Charles Taylor send a letter recently that the African prisoners are discriminated against as their children who come to visit don’t have very little space to play and the Europeans prisoners have a better place for their children to play. You ask yourself: What the hell is this? That’s my practical way of looking at this situation. You have people who have been amputated because of their actions. They and their children will never enjoy the joys of playing. And you are sitting somewhere and you complain about racism. It is a difficult thing to comprehend, but I think we still have a long way to go. A very long way.

Q:  What do think is needed to remove the detachment between the courts and the people on the ground?

LG: I know that is some of the cases they bring victims to testify. I would like to see a process where specifically women’s issues are dealt with in some form here highlighted. There should be times when women from different conflict zones should be able to come  and  publicly tell their stories that would help people to understand.  For instance, when a 100,000 women were raped. It is not just a statistic figure, it is about seeing their faces. Take away the politics and bringing back the human dimension. I don’t know if I’m making any sense to you all. The way we conduct peace and justice now takes a lot away from the human sides of the issues. A room full of diplomats should not be shocked or uncomfortable when a girl talks about rape. It is uncomfortable for these girls and women. The important aspect of  peace and justice is not the conferences with the men in suits. The most important aspect of peace and justice are those people who are impacted by the actions of perpetrators of war. Over time, that has been taken away from the discourse of peace and justice. Today we are talking about drone strikes in Syria but in fact it is about the strength of the US and the UK versus the strength of Russia, China and Assad. No one is considering the casualties in the rebel areas and the Assad areas. There are two opposing forces. In the midst of all this, there is a kebab seller in the South of France who has lost his wife and mother and has no idea where his children are. Until we bring the whole discourse around peace and justice to those people who have been impacted and not foreign governments, political leaders, political solutions we will continue to miss the mark.

Q.: What about the Gacaca system of community justice?

LG: I think there is a great role for any local system of justice. When we put little emphasis on on local processes of justice and huge focus on structures that are not very people friendly, we take away a lot from our local communities.

Q: How do you feel about the increasing irritation about the ICC indictments of mainly Africans. Are they unfairly discriminated?

LG: Why should we be irritated? The African continent has the worst human rights record. We should be irritated by our political African leaders who treat people as private chattel on their farms. We should be irritated with our leaders. They need learn to conduct themselves and treat their people in a human way. Charles Taylor behaved like a gangster and did not fulfill the hopes of the ones who elected him to give him the chance to lead. It is important to realize and to acknowledge that the continent is for all of us. Africa is not doomed. I see political conscience awakening in young Africans. A new generation will come, that truly cares about the continent, with governments who care the right way. The continent belongs to all of us and resources should benefit all Africans.

Q: Do you think women govern differently? Is their style of governing different from men?

LG: Women are more thoughtful. They take steps back, to see the effects of their policy. And evil is in everybody, in men and women. Men are more about socializing and patriarchy.

Q: Do you have any political ambition?

LG: I am a politician. A diplomat no. I love my work. I love what I do, to go and sit in the communities and talk with women. I love to  help them to achieve their dreams. Maybe 20 years from now, at 61, it might be an idea to take my experiences into politics.

Q: Do you have any advice for journalists in Africa, covering horrendous crimes?

LG: Stay true to your first love. What was the reason to become a journalist? Do not lose this drive. Do not get compromised by money, from politicians or newspapers. Do not get distracted for your cause to tell the story of the struggle of women, even when your views contradict those of the government. People will be grateful to you, even if it meant that the price you had to pay was high, because of isolation, imprisonment. Speak out the truth to those in power.

Q: We saw your film “Pray the devil back  to hell". We are starting a collection in the PPL Library. Did the film have impact on your movement? Should this material, films, documentaries and performances, be used to educate people in law schools?

LG: Yes. More. More. In law schools and in public schools. In 2009, I discussed this film in a High School in New York. We talked about social justice, reaching out to your community. It made students aware of the human aspects in conflict zones, put things into context, and may change their view on the world they lived sofar. Films can explain the position of women in different cultures. We need to tell more stories.

Q: Is it difficult to combine work and family life?

LG: I was lucky to have a community. My mother, grandmother, sisters took care of my children while I did peace work. I have no regrets and I am not a terrible mother. Everything I do will come back to my kids some day. My daughter will not have to struggle the way I did. I think my work is a contribution to their life!

Interview by Candice Alihusain and Ingrid Kost, Peace Palace Library, 28 august 2013.