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.

OR: What came together that made this campaign so successful, given its small initial size?

Williams: Landmines affected many aspects of life, right? Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights had just released the standard brilliant work on the impact of landmines — Landmines in Cambodia: The Coward's War. I started going to organizations that in some way or another either are connected to landmines or should be if they thought about it. The first meetings we had were with Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Human Rights. Then I started thinking: "Okay, are there non-governmental organizations that do mine clearance?" There was MAG, the Mine Advisory Group. They were former British soldiers who started working in de-mining in Afghanistan and then went and created MAG. I started talking to them. I started talking to an organization called Handicap International, based out of France, that was working with amputees and prosthetic limbs.

I started really fully in May of '92 with the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe because we knew the political culture. Then, very quickly, we started moving into Cambodia, Central America, Nicaragua, because we wanted the countries most affected by landmines involved. I was the coordinator  — that was my title. I really viewed my role as coordinating the information and actions of the other NGOs that were part of the campaign. I did not see myself as some important executive director telling people what to do. Information is power. Some people in my position would have controlled the information to enhance their own power. I made sure that everybody had the same basic information and coordinated the activities.

About every six months, we would get together and do a strategy review. My job then was to make sure that everybody who committed to participating in an action did (and calling them out if they didn't). I used the then-very sexy technology of the fax machine. With thermal paper. I would get up at about 4:30 in the morning and as the campaign grew, I would fax the leadership in each country, the latest developments, updates, thoughts on actions. I would spend a couple of hours faxing in the morning. To me, it was practical. I did not have the human power to stuff envelopes and stamp and mail them. Who would know if mail ever arrived in Cambodia, Angola, or Mozambique? If you have a fax machine and you get a fax, the implication is that it's something important and you have to pay attention to it. It also gave me the power, so to speak, of having a paper trail. I did not talk on the phone, hardly ever.

I did not like governments, particularly after my experiences in Central America. We obviously recognized that we could push for a treaty but we could not negotiate it. Governments have to do it. We started, right from the start, meeting with governments and beginning to talk to them about banning anti-personnel landmines. I went to New York City. We didn't have much money, and you could go to the U.N., and that would be where you'd be able to meet governments relatively easily. There was a long process of building a core group of governments that believed as strongly as we did that landmines should be banned. Individual governments started taking steps that were the building blocks to a treaty. Belgium in March of 1995 was the first nation in the world to pass national legislation banning the use, production trade, and stockpiling of landmines. Other Western countries were freaked out that Belgium dared to be first, and so there was a mad rush and competition to follow suit.

In 1996, Canada stepped forward and announced it would be hosting a meeting in Ottawa that year to bring together supposedly truly pro-ban nations to map out a timeline of how to move forward to ban the weapon.

We were there. It was exciting, and scary, and I don't know what we would have done if Canada had not done that. I'm sure we would have figured something out, but Canada had actually moved from being a U.S. surrogate on the issue to taking a leadership role. We go to the conference, it's three days, it's in Ottawa. I think there were about 50 nations, and they had to sign a statement that they were working toward a ban of anti-personnel landmines.

The night before the conference ended, we got a call from some aides of Lloyd Axworthy, who at that point was the Foreign Minister of Canada. They said, "We need to tell you that tomorrow, after Lloyd speaks to the group and thanks them, he's going to challenge them to negotiate a mine ban treaty within one year, and Canada will sign it, even if there's only one other nation." It was truly monumental.

Canada spent a hell of a lot of political capital in a period between that October meeting and a three-day meeting in Bonn in, I think it was January of 1997. The treaty was not negotiated in the UN, it was negotiated in a standalone series of meetings in Bonn and Brussels. The last session was three weeks in Norway. The treaty was successfully concluded in September of 1997. Three weeks later, it was announced that the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines and its coordinator — me — were sharing the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. My parents were in heaven. Neither of my parents finished high school, so you can imagine what it was like for them. Being at the ceremony with them was just outstanding.

OR: Did grassroots education work the most effectively during the campaign? Did educating political leadership?

Williams: It was both. Meaning we had strong campaigns in many countries. You can talk with diplomats in the U.N., and they write reports, but if there are not people back in the capital pressuring the government to pay attention, it just goes into a stack of reports. We had huge campaigns in France, in Cambodia, in Mozambique, Canada, the U.S. Those campaigners were always pushing.