“What was targeted in Timbuktu was not just the heritage of one region or people, it was World Heritage,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova during the award ceremony on Wednesday, when French President François Hollande was awarded the 2013 Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize.
“It’s a symbol of ancient Islamic wisdom, spanning all of the Sahel, and of a common culture spanning all of West Africa,” she added, “from the ancient empire of Ghana to the Toucouleur empire and the Peul and Bambara kingdoms, that has been carried to our time for dialogue between civilisations.”
President Hollande received the award at UNESCO headquarters in Paris for taking action in January to end the control of insurgents in Northern Mali and bring peace and stability to the region.
Several presidents of West Africa and countries of the Sahel region attended the ceremony: Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin; Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso; Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire; Dioncounda Traoré of Mali; Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania; Idriss Déby Itno of Chad; and Macky Sall of Senegal. Niger was represented by its Prime Minister, Brigi Rafini.
During the ceremony, Malian President Dioncounda Traoré expressed his gratitude to the French President, praising the French operation in Mali as “a new chapter in human solidarity,” and asserting that “Francois Hollande left Timbuktu as a liberator, acclaimed by the Malian people.”
President Hollande was presented with a peace diploma, a gold medal, and $150,000. He will donate the money to two charities – one to support women in Africa and one to assist war veterans. In his acceptance speech, he underscored the urgency of the French intervention in Mali. “In the face of hatred, we had to intervene… Any delay would have been disastrous… It was for the women and children of Africa that France intervened,” he stated.
During his acceptance speech, he praised the strength of UNESCO’s work, saying: “When UNESCO practices multilingualism, dear to the French-speaking world, it is true to its mission. When UNESCO puts the emancipation of women at the heart of education, it is exemplary. When it places culture at the heart of its work, it is visionary. When it defends pluralism and access to information everywhere, UNESCO is liberating. So, receiving the Houphouët-Boigny prize here at UNESCO takes on a special meaning.”
“Your decision to stand by Mali -at the request of President Traore and with the support of the United Nations – and to protect the peoples and culture of the country inspires us all,” said Director-General Irina Bokova. “This is a reminder that what brings us together is greater than that which sets us apart, be it our identity, language or religion,” she said, before adding: “UNESCO saved the temples of Egypt and rebuilt the Mostar Bridge. UNESCO will rebuild the mausoleums of Mali.”
For the Director-General protecting heritage is about building a culture of peace. “Culture is not just about monuments,” she stated. “Protecting culture means protecting people, giving them the strength and confidence to rebuild and to look into the future.”
Created by UNESCO in 1989, the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize honours individuals and organisations that have made a significant contribution to peace and stability around the world.
President Hollande joins a list of illustrious past laureates that includes Nelson Mandela, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.