Modern Day Patriots: Jody Williams

This Independence Day, FOX Fan is honoring modern-day men and women who have devoted their lives to a cause. From feeding New York’s hungry to healing the smiles of children around the world, the contributions of these five people are vast. Their work serves as an inspiration and a reminder on this Fourth of July to fight for what you believe in.

In 1998, Jody Williams became the tenth woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She was awarded it for her work to ban antipersonnel landmines. To this day, she continues to work to eliminate landmines, and has broadened her humanitarian efforts to include working to end the war in Darfur and fighting for women's rights around the world.

FOX Fan: In 1992, you started the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Describe your goal at the time.

Jody Williams: The goal was simple in many ways — it was to achieve an international treaty to completely and forever ban antipersonnel landmines. The Campaign was also calling for increased resources for mine clearance and for assistance for mine victims. The more challenging part was trying to convince enough nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in countries around the world to work together with a coordinated strategy toward achieving the goal, and in a way that built enough public awareness and pressure on governments that they would sit down and negotiate a meaningful treaty that would have an impact on the ground.

FF: How did you get involved in this cause initially?

JW: I was asked by Bobby Muller, of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, and Thomas Gebauer, of Medico International of Frankfurt, Germany, if I thought it would be possible to bring together NGOs and create a global political movement to ban landmines. At the time I was doing humanitarian relief work in El Salvador, and I knew Gebauer from that work. I'd not really had anything to do with Muller before the little, unexpected meeting between the three of us at the very end of November in 1991. By then, I'd been involved in work on Central America for a decade and was ready for a change and a new challenge, so I said yes.

FF: Describe the emotion of both winning the Nobel Peace Prize and reaching an international treaty banning antipersonnel landmines within 3 weeks.

JW: To be totally honest the most incredible day of my activist life was the day the treaty negotiations ended successfully on September 17, 1997. When the gavel came down closing the three weeks of negotiations that had gotten very, very tense near the end, "the crowd went wild," as they say. We — the landmine campaigners — were on our feet clapping and cheering the diplomats for their work, for their determination to make it happen, and for staying strong in the face of a lot of pressure to gut the treaty. I've never felt anything like it before in my life and never will again. It was absolutely, positively, totally outstanding.

It really was an amazing accomplishment — the first time in history that a conventional weapon used by virtually every fighting force in the world for about a century was completely banned—the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel landmines was prohibited. The Peace Prize was sort of icing on the cake, or something like that. We knew we'd been nominated, but most definitely were not expecting the recognition for our work. It had a very positive impact on the Mine Ban Treaty and we all believe a lot more countries signed the treaty that December than would have otherwise. The Nobel Ceremony in Oslo was a blast.

FF: At the time, did you feel like you had accomplished your goal?

JW: Landmines (known as antipersonnel mines) are weapons that do not discriminate between civilian and military personnel, adult or child, war or peacetime. It is estimated that more than 110 million active mines are scattered in 68 countries with an equal number stockpiled around the world waiting to be planted. In fact, every month over 2,000 people are killed or maimed by mine explosions. Most of the casualties are civilians who are killed or injured after hostilities have ended.

Have we eliminated landmines? No. But a great deal of progress is being made, thanks in large party to the treaty. At the time the treaty was signed, we felt like we now had the real basis for accomplishing the goal of a world free of landmines. The treaty provided the framework to make that reality happen. The Campaign continued—and continues still—its pressure to make sure the treaty was implemented and complied with. The whole process has been an example of what can be achieved with civil society and governments working together. And using that model again, a new treaty banning cluster bombs was successfully negotiated in 2008.

FF: You were only the 10th woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. How did that factor into your decision to establish the Nobel Women’s Initiative?

JW: By the time Shirin Ebadi (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work on human rights in Iran) brought up the idea of women recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize working together to promote the work of women around the world working for peace with justice and equality, the number was now twelve. It was at the end of 2004, and Wangari Maathai (from Kenya) had just been awarded the Peace Prize. We realized that seven of the twelve women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize were alive today. Only twelve women in the entire 103-years (at that date) of the Nobel Peace Prize, which more than arguably indicates some rather serious bias over that century! But we'd reached some "critical mass" and it seemed like it could be a very useful effort to work together.

FF: What is the primary goal of this organization?

JW: I think our mission statement captures it best: It is the heartfelt mission of the Nobel Women's Initiative to work together as women Nobel Peace Prize Laureates to use the visibility and prestige of the Nobel prize to promote, spotlight, and amplify the work of women's rights activists, researchers, and organizations worldwide addressing the root causes of violence, in a way that strengthens and expands the global movement to advance nonviolence, peace, justice and equality. The vision of the Nobel Women's Initiative is a world transformed — a nonviolent world of security, equality and wellbeing for all.

FF: How has your personal mission changed over the years?

JW: My first stirrings of activism happened when I was at university during the Vietnam War, in 1970. Then it was the wars of Central America from February 1981 until May 1992, and by that point I'd already been working on creating the International Campaign to Ban Landmines for about six months. Landmine work was absolutely flat-out more than full time for about a decade and while I still do some landmine work, it is very little for quite a long time now.

These days, I'm more interested in reclaiming the meaning of peace — not the dove, the rainbow and "Kumbaya" moments, but what it really is and that is hard work every single day. It's millions of people working in multitudinous ways to create a better world for us all. It's not simply the absence of armed conflict, but also the presence of justice and equality, writ large. I believe human security is fundamental to global security — and that isn't accomplished with more weapons, more "sophisticated" weapons, and trillions more dollars misspent on "weapons development" and war.

Real security is based on meeting the real needs of people for security in their daily lives —drinking water, for example. People need food, decent housing and jobs. They also need education and the freedom from fear of their children dying of preventable diseases. The world’s resources should be distributed more equitably. Meeting those basic needs for the majority of the peoples of the planet makes for a more secure and stable global environment for us all.

FF: What inspires you on a daily basis?

JW: Probably not what you'd expect. It really isn't all the famous, iconic leaders of peace. It's the people I've met in so many places and so many difficult circumstances around the world who do their part to change the world. It's those people who don't sit back and wait for somebody else to solve the problems, but who is an active part of the solution themselves. Those who seize the initiative and make things move forward sometimes even when it seems change will never ever come. It's gang members I met in the US who started a cross-gang peace group and as a result have had a two-year moratorium on violence in their school. It's an Armenian teacher who earns $100 a month and volunteers her spare time to help create the Armenian Campaign to Ban Landmines. It's Ms. Nora Sheet's fourth grade "Proud Students Against Landmines" who go out into their community in West Virginia to educate older kids and adults about getting rid of landmines—and also raise money to contribute to making it happen. It's women in the Darfur refugee camps in Chad who come together to try to stop violence against women there. And I could go on and on and on and on. How could I stop when there are people like that in this world?

FF: What is your biggest challenge?

JW: Finding and keeping balance for myself. I've "burned out" more than once and that isn't good for anyone. I think I'm getting better at balance, but it is a constant struggle.

FF: You’ve been involved in a number of causes…from landmines, to women’s rights, to the war in Darfur. What comes next? Will you continue this kind of work throughout your lifetime?

Retirement isn't in my cards. It is impossible to walk away from the work I know must be done. Also, I think about all those people who inspire me, and feel like I can't let them down either. I think all of what I do and will do has to do with what I described in the answer to your 7th question — which is reclaiming the meaning of peace and working for peace and trying to help people understand what will bring us all real security in our fragile and very threatened planet.

For more information on the Nobel Women's Intiative, click here.

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