Jody Williams

 

Co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for her role as the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines

Profile by Cate Malek
July, 2005

Jody Williams calls land mines "the perfect soldier."

"Landmines sit and wait for their victim for years and years and years," she says. "They don't need new orders; they don't need food or a uniform. [It is] possible for a man to lay a mine that could kill or maim his own children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jody Williams at a Hudson
Union Society event in May 2010. 
Photo by Justin Hoch.  CC BY 2.0

In 1992, Williams worked with six other nonprofit organizations to start the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines (ICBL). Their goal was to ban the use, production, stockpiling and sale of antipersonnel landmines. It was a goal that most people told them was utopian. Land mines were a common weapon and, at the time, no widely used weapon had ever been banned internationally. However, the ICBL's goal quickly turned from an idealistic dream to a reality. Just five years later, in December 1997, the ICBL produced the Mine Ban Treaty, signed by 122 countries. About one week later, Jody Williams and the ICBL were co-recipients of the Nobel Prize for their work. The treaty was ratified faster than any in the history of international law, and, as of July 2005, some 145 nations are party to the treaty.

Williams began her trajectory to the ICBL at the University of Vermont. She was in college during the Vietnam War and it was then that she began to question US foreign policy. After college, her first job was as a dental assistant. She told the Montreal Gazette that she fainted seven times on her first day. [1] She then went back to school and got a Masters Degree in teaching Spanish and ESL, which took her to Mexico. It was after she had returned to the United States that she learned about US involvement in El Salvador. She spent the next eleven years working against the United States' involvement in Latin America. After the U.S. pulled out, Williams found herself completely burned out. Still, when Bobby Muller of the Vietnam Veterans of America approached her and asked her to create a campaign against land mines, she agreed.

Antipersonnel landmines are designed to explode when a person walks over them or picks them up. Other types of landmines are built to destroy tanks and it takes much more weight to trigger them. Landmines were widely used during the Cold War and by the early 1990s the millions of antipersonnel landmines that had been left in countries around the world were causing a humanitarian crisis. Although the exact numbers of landmine victims are unknown, the Red Cross estimates that in 1994, at the height of the landmine crisis, "2,000 persons per month were killed or injured by anti-personnel [landmines]." [2]

Consequently, many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stepped in to try to help landmine victims.

Williams writes, "Human rights organizations, children's groups, development organizations, refugee organizations, medical and humanitarian relief groups--all had to make huge adjustments in their programs to try to deal with the landmine crisis and its impact on the people they were trying to help." [3]

This meant that once the ICBL got started, it grew very quickly. Along with the Vietnam Veterans of America, the five other founding members were Handicap International, Human Rights Watch, Medico International, Mines Advisory Group and Physicians for Human Rights. Now, there are over 1,200 organizations involved in the campaign.

There are several factors that made the ICBL successful.

First, the ICBL was a loose coalition of groups with no centralized leadership. Each organization operated independently. This allowed the campaign to "belong" to all of its members. It also allowed the members of the campaign to adapt their strategies to fit their different cultures and circumstances.

Second, as the ICBL grew, they made sure to communicate regularly by phone, fax and when it became possible, e-mail. Williams writes that, "Sharing stories of their successes and failures empowered all organizations and lessened the possibility of isolating any one group." It also meant that the members of the ICBL often knew about developments in the international mine ban movement first, making them an information clearinghouse.

Third, they met often to plan the next steps of the campaign. Williams writes that these meetings were successful because they weren't just talk; each one resulted in "concrete plans of action."

Finally, Williams writes that the ICBL was able to overcome the traditional distrust that NGOs and governments usually have of each other.

Over time, the members of the ICBL had developed personal relationships with a number of governments. These were mostly small and medium powers and many of them were struggling with the effects of landmines in their own countries. In 1996, the ICBL facilitated a number of meetings with these governments. In October of that year, Canadian prime minister, Lloyd Axworthy issued a challenge to negotiate a treaty banning land mines in one year. At first, the other governments involved in the talks were hesitant to agree, but in the end they stepped up to the test. In December of 1997, 121 countries signed the treaty.

As the founding coordinator, Williams has been one of the leaders in the campaign since the beginning. Today, she serves as an ambassador for the ICBL working to make sure participating governments implement and comply with the conditions of the treaty. She is also trying to persuade more countries to sign the treaty, including her own, the United States. In 2004, the U.S. abandoned its plan to sign the mine ban treaty if alternatives to anti-personnel landmines were found. It has become the first country to state that it will never sign the treaty.

The Mine Ban Treaty was a breakthrough in international diplomacy. Williams writes,

When it announced that the International Campaign to Ban Landmines had been awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace, the Nobel Committee recognized not only the achievement of the ban, but also the promise of the model created with the ban movement. The Committee noted that the Campaign had been able to "express and mediate a broad range of popular commitment in an unprecedented way. With the governments of several small and medium-sized countries taking the issue up...this work has grown into a convincing example of an effective policy for peace." The Committee concluded: "As a model for similar processes in the future, it could prove of decisive importance to the international effort for disarmament and peace."

Q and A with Jody Williams

Q: Are there any stories of people you've met who have been affected by land mines that really stand out in your memory?

A: When I first started the ICBL, I would explain that landmines are different from other conventional weapons because once deployed, they remain able to kill or maim for generations -- quite literally. Often called the "perfect soldier," landmines sit and wait for their victim for years and years and years. They don't need new orders; they don't need food or a uniform. I would say that it was, then, possible for a man to lay a mine that could kill or maim his own children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. Then, a couple of years ago I was visiting minefields in Croatia with the Croatia Mine Action Center, which coordinates mine clearance operations for the country. The director was telling me about recent efforts at that time to get information about where mines had been laid in a forested area that was targeted for clearance. There were no maps of the mined areas, no records. So people from the Mine Action Center asked villagers living near the forest who might have been involved in the fighting during the war to come forward with information about where mines had been laid to help speed up the clearance process. No one responded to the call. Not long after that, a young man went into the forest to collect firewood. He stepped on a mine and lost both legs. About a week after that a man showed up at the Mine Action Center's office and asked to speak with the director. The man said, "Remember that young man who stepped on a mine last week and lost his legs? Well, he was my son. And after the accident, I went into the forest to see where he had been wounded and I realized that the mine he stepped on had been laid by my own men when I was a fighter in the war. And if I had come to you when you asked for help and information, maybe today my son would still have his legs......" And the man proceeded to provide as much information as he could about where mines had been laid in that forest. It still makes shivers run up and down my spine to tell that harsh reality.

Q: Is there any other advice you'd like to give to people who would like to address some aspect of violent conflict, but are unsure where to start?

A: The only way to contribute to making the world a better place is by taking action for positive change. If you care about peaceful resolution of conflict, find an organization that works on conflict resolution and conflict prevention -- and begin by volunteering your time to the organization. That way you can learn about the work and about other individuals and organizations working for non-violent resolution of conflict. Just worrying about the world won't make any difference at all. Concern about an issue without taking action to make it different is quite irrelevant.


[1] Sherry Beck Paprocki, "Land-mine Issue Her Passion: 'A Normal Person Can Do Extraordinary Things,' Nobel Laureate Jody Williams Says," The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), September 6, 1999, D6.

[2] "Ending the Landmine Era - Victim Assistance," International Committee of the Red Cross, January 8, 2004. Can be found here.

[3] Jody Williams, "The International Campaign to Ban Landmines - A Model for Disarmament Initiatives?" Nobelprize.org, September 1999. Can be found at: http://nobelprize.org/peace/articles/williams/index.html

[4] Jody Williams, "Politics Unusual: A Different Model of International Cooperation," International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Can be found here.

[5] Steve Goose, "Briefing on U.S. Landmine Policy," From a speech at the Nairobi Summit on a Mine-Free World, December, 2004. Can be found at: http://www.icbl.org/news/summit-update-2/u-s_landmine-policy

[6] ibid. Jody Williams, "Politics Unusual."