Award ceremony speech

Presentation Speech by Francis Sejersted, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

Your Majesties, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 1992 to Rigoberta Menchú Tum. It is a particular pleasure for us to welcome you, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, here in Oslo to receive the award. Welcome to this little winter country in the far north, so far from your own country and your own world. The distance, both geographically and culturally, is vast, but the occasion of this award, in particular, should prompt us to think about nearness. Wherever in the world they take place, conflicts and wars have in our time become the whole world’s concern. Even at this distance, we feel threatened by a local conflict in Guatemala, not militarily, but because it affects the world’s future. The situation in Guatemala acquires a special significance because it is such a clear case of general problem that we must all contribute to solving. I refer to such matters as ethnic and racial segregation, the rights of aboriginal peoples, the environment and the sharing of resources, the gap between the poor and rich. I refer to the role of women in society. The path Guatemala takes in all these respects is important to us. So we commit ourselves.

Nearness has another aspect to it, however, which a person like Rigoberta Menchú Tum obliges us to think about. It appears in the general humanity of our deepest needs, our dreams of peace and reconciliation, our longing for the good life, our right to live and to be respected. We have needs and we have rights simply by virtue of our humanity, across ethnic, cultural and geographical divides. A moment like the present also serves to remind us of this nearness, inherent in our common humanity. By maintaining a disarming humanity in a brutal world, Rigoberta Menchú Tum appeals to the best in all of us, wherever we live and whatever our background. She stands as a uniquely potent symbol of a just struggle.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a Quiché Indian. She was born in a poor Indian village in the Guatemala mountains, and grew up in the Indian culture, only learning Spanish as an adult. As she describes her childhood in her autobiography, it was marked by great closeness in the family and in the village, but also by extreme poverty. In order not to starve, she was forced as a child to join in the cotton-picking on the big plantations, where the Indians were treated little better than animals. “I started thinking about my childhood,” she writes in the autobiography, “and I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t had a childhood at all. I was never a child. I hadn’t been to school, I hadn’t had enough food to grow properly, I had nothing. I asked myself: ‘How is this possible?'”. This is her account of how at an early age awareness began growing on her of the road she must take in life. How will a world turn out that steals childhood from children? That is a question we must ask ourselves today. A few people nevertheless seem to be born with reserves of inner strength and humanity that defy the worst conditions. What such people have to tell us is worth listening to.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum was to experience the confiscation of Indian land. Her village was one of several hundred that were levelled to the ground. Massacres were normal. Guatemala acquired a civilian government in 1982, but even so innumerable massacres have been registered since then in rural districts. Several hundred mass graves are known. Since the beginning of this year alone, American and Canadian human rights organisations have registered 380 summary executions and 80 cases of torture. The guerrillas, themselves a response to the brutal expulsion from the land, have in their turn been used as an excuse for a blind brutalisation of the whole society. That extreme brutalisation struck at Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s own family. Her father, who was the elected leader of his village, was active in starting the CUC, the Committee of the Peasant Union, which soon won widespread support. He was burnt to death. Her mother and brother were bestially tortured and killed by the military.

It is five hundred years this year since Columbus “discovered” America, as we have been brought up to say, or since colonisation began. The celebration of the anniversary has at least produced one benefit, in the spotlight it has so effectively focussed on the worldwide problem of the rights of aboriginal peoples. Developments in America demonstrate the problem more clearly than anywhere else. This was a whole continent, the population of which in Columbus’s day may have numbered as many as 100 million. Today only a fraction of these Indian peoples survive, and any truly Indian culture can only be found isolated in small pockets. Why was the Indian culture less able than others to resist the European pressure? Any processes elsewhere resembling the one in America have only taken place in more marginal areas of the world. Such processes are complex, and this is not the place for a more detailed analysis. What is clear, however, is that at certain times and in certain places we are confronted by a different force from infectious diseases and mortality or the haphazard outcome of wars and rapacity, and that is the systemic “ethnic cleansing” of the aboriginal population – better known as genocide. There is a most urgent need to define the rights of aboriginal peoples and to respect those rights in a manner which makes it possible to live in peace and mutual understanding. To succeed in this, we need people like Rigoberta Menchú Tum. For the Norwegian Nobel Committee it was a happy coincidence that it was precisely in the year of Columbus that she emerged as such a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum chose to dedicate herself to political and social work for her people. In charming and characteristically forthright terms, she tells us in her autobiography what a difficult choice it was not to have a family. She was engaged, she tells us, and felt an obligation to the ancestral principle of seeking happiness not only for oneself but for one’s family. A threat of ethnic cleansing of course lends extra weight to such an obligation. But she chose otherwise. “I was very confused,” she writes, “Society and so many other things wouldn’t leave me alone, I always had a heavy heart.” She became an active member of the CUC. Then she participated in the founding of the organisation called the Revolutionary Christians. “We understood ‘revolutionary’ in the real meaning of the word: ‘transformation’. If I had chosen the armed struggle, I would be in the mountains now.” Owing to her political activity, she has had to spend twelve years in exile in Mexico. She became one of the first Indian delegates to the United Nations, and is a member of the UN group that works for human rights and the cause of the Indian peoples.

In her book A Strategy for Peace, the Swedish-American moral philosopher Sissela Bok describes what she calls the “pathology of partisanship”, or the brutalising effect of the use of violence. Whoever commits acts of violence will lose his humanity. Thus, violence breeds violence and hate breeds hate. She quotes the English poet Stephen Spender, who experienced this process in himself when he took part in the Spanish Civil War: “It was clear to me that unless I cared about every murdered child impartially, I did not care about children being murdered at all.”1 But how can one break out of the vicious circle of the pathology of partisanship? It is easy enough to keep out and call for non-violence or an end to hatred when one is not oneself confronted with the blind violence of the other side. Nor is it indeed our responsibility to judge or to condemn in such cases. What we can do, however, is to point to the shining individual examples of people who manage to preserve their humanity in brutal and violent surroundings, of persons who for that very reason compel our special respect and admiration. Such people give us a hope that there are ways out of the vicious circle.

I have had occasion to mention Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s autobiography a number of times. It is an extraordinary human document. It describes cruelty in sober and matter-of-fact terms. Its driving force is moral indignation. In some connections, she also mentions her hatred of those responsible for the violence and repression. But at the same time, the account reflects a disarming humanity. Almost gaily, she notes funny little concrete details in an otherwise ruthless existence; with love, she describes Indian customs. I know no better example of her disarming attitude than her description here in Oslo last year of her meeting with Colonel Roderigues: “We greeted each other and exchanged a few words. The man who killed my mother congratulated me on my nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize and called it a national honour. I realised then that at bottom we are all human beings. It was like meeting a distant acquaintance. I had a feeling of calm as I spoke to him.”

It is stupid to meet the world with too much trust, but even more stupid to meet it with too little. The goal of Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s work, as she has said on many occasions; is reconciliation and peace. She knows, better than most, that the foundations for future reconciliation are laid in the manner in which one conducts one’s struggle. Even in the most brutal situations, one must retain one’s faith that there is a minimum of human feelings in all of us. Rigoberta Menchú Tum preserved that faith. It is with the deepest respect and in admiration of her efforts that the Norwegian Nobel Committee today awards her the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thank you.

1. Sissela Bok, A Strategy for Peace. Human Values and the Threat of War (New York: Pantheon, 1989): pp. 8–9.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1991-1995, Editor Irwin Abrams, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1999


Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1992

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