Swords to Ploughshares

An Interview with Jody Williams

In the last years of the Cold War, Jody Williams started a one-person organization devoted to ending the use of landmines. Within a decade, she had completely changed the global conversation on the issue and been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. We spoke with this eminent activist about how to be an effective change agent, killer robots, and Trump vs. #MeToo.

Octavian Report: How did you originally become involved with the campaign against landmines? Why did you think it was an important issue? 

Jody Williams: The reality is that I didn't think about landmines. My first foray into protesting U.S. foreign policy was the war in Vietnam. It shattered all of my youthful beliefs in the mythologies put forth by this country. Vietnam really changed my perception of the U.S. particularly in its interactions with other countries. It was also, of course, the time of the Civil Rights movement and the reemergence of the women's movement. That was when I was in university, from '68 to '72.

A decade later I was teaching at Antioch Law School in D.C. — teaching remedial English to farm workers. One day, I was coming to the Metro in D.C., on my way to Virginia, and this dude handed me a brochure. I looked at it, and it said: El Salvador, Another Vietnam? With a question mark. Had it not said Vietnam, I would have thrown it away, but I couldn't quite imagine the relationship of Vietnam and El Salvador.

I opened it; it invited the reader to come to a church basement meeting in a week's time and hear a speaker from El Salvador talk about what was being done in our name, and with our tax dollars, to prop up military control of the country of El Salvador. The thing that most amazes me about all of my work is the fact that a week after getting that creepy little brochure, I actually went to the meeting. I was expecting there to be 12 hippie types in folding chairs, which is exactly what it was. But I was absolutely transfixed by the speaker, whose father had been a killer Army colonel. He joined the democratic opposition. At the end of the meeting they passed around a sign-up sheet to volunteer to educate in some way U.S. citizens about what was happening in Salvador, and I signed up. That was February of 1981. My last trip to Salvador was in May of 1992.

After that I actually looked for a straight job. I was saved from that when I got a phone call from a man I knew from working in Central America. His name was Thomas Gebauer, and he was the head of a German medical humanitarian relief organization called Medico International. He tricked me into taking him to the office of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in D.C. He had a meeting with Bobby Muller. Bobby was the executive director.

When I got to the office, they were yammering on about landmines and their new project in Cambodia, where they were teaching former combatant amputees how to build prosthetics. I had brought a book, because I didn't see what the hell I was doing there other than waiting for Thomas to be done. I was reading, and they kept talking at me, and I kept thinking, "Why are they bugging me? I'm not involved in their prosthetics project." Suddenly Muller starts bouncing in his wheelchair with great enthusiasm and screaming that the only solution is the ban of landmines. They both looked at me and said, "Jody, we think you are the perfect person to try to bring together NGO's in a civil society/political coalition to try to pressure governments and military to give up anti-personnel landmines.”

That's how I got introduced to landmines. That's how I was introduced to the idea of the campaign. Muller very quickly helped me understand that landmines are different because they stay in the ground, or in the rice paddy, or on the river bank for generations after the end of a conflict, and everybody who is maimed or killed by them at that point pretty much are civilians. I thought it was fascinating. It would take me out of Central America. I would have to learn new things. I'd have to think more seriously about the laws of war and their application to weapons. I would get to meet organizations working around the world. So I agreed. That's how it started. Two NGO's, one in Germany, one in the U.S., and one staff member, me. But I could call it the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. That's how it's started.

OR: Can you talk about the Ottawa Treaty?

Williams: I think we're up to 163 nations that are part of the mine ban treaty. Because of the global stigmatization of the weapon, China, I think it was way back in '95, stopped production of landmines for export in recognition of their humanitarian harm. Under Obama, the country was moving to give up all land mines except those in the DMZ, which we always argued against. The mines in the DMZ are actually Korean mines, runs the U.S. line — they are not U.S. mines. It was a specious argument, and was even more specious because nobody in their right mind would ever believe that an anti-personnel landmine, or a landmine field, would stop an invading force from North Korea.

The real reason we always believed, and I still believe, and the campaign still believes, that the U.S. was so irate about the landmine campaign is that they feared that if there was a ban treaty, it would begin a slippery slope where other weapons which might be useful to the U.S. military would be put at risk. That was actually said in a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy, from the great state of Vermont, by then-Secretary of the Army General Gordon Sullivan: that it was a slippery slope. They didn't really care about the landmines, they cared about the fact that civilians thought they had the right to speak up and try to help shape our world. I believe that citizens have not just the right to do it. We have a responsibility.

OR: What is the current status of landmines in the world? How big of an issue is it still, and where?

Williams: The countries who signed the treaty have pretty much been spot-on in stopping trade production, use, and in destroying their stockpiles. I think it was up to 80 million land mines that had been destroyed in stockpile. I think it is a couple dozen countries that have completed mine clearance, which is an obligation under the treaty. It wasn't enough to just stop producing them and selling them and destroy your stockpile. Seriously contaminated countries are obliged under the treaty to de-mine. One of the biggest examples often used as a classic case of a country taking it seriously is Mozambique, which has completed mine clearance. I would say the countries that are still a mess, more or less, are countries like Cambodia, Angola, and Afghanistan, where they were just used in the millions.