Swords to Ploughshares

An Interview with Jody Williams

We had a woman from Hungary. Dalma was her name. She could write a five-word slogan that captured the critical element of a discussion in the negotiations on a particular day. She'd make little slips of paper with the slogan. As the delegates were coming to go into the room, we would give them the slogans. Some of them tried to avoid us, because they were sick of us making them think. At one point, I was so angry at them, I said, "I wish I could pick up this conference room" — this was when we were still in the U.N. — "and put it in the middle of the biggest minefield in Cambodia, and not let you out until you do a mine ban treaty. Then you will understand why people living in minefields care about this issue. You think if you study the existing protocol and change a comma to a semicolon, you've done a hell of a lot of work in a day."

Campaigners built a fake but realistic minefield, and they put it in front of the conference room doors, and diplomats had to walk over the minefield. That was put in front of the door. Diplomats would have to go across it to get into the room, except for the ones that were chicken and found side entrances, and didn't even have the courage to walk across it. In the U.N., we were able to get a clock set up that counted the number of new victims of landmines. At that point, we were saying that once every 20 minute, somewhere in the world, somebody is either maimed or killed. The clock would be keeping count as the diplomats were doing nothing. Every 20 minutes there would be an explosion sound, the sound of the landmine somewhere in the world maiming or killing.

OR: Can you talk about what you are working on now?

Williams: Yes. Killer robots.

The use of drones in declared war is legal, although people have a lot of issues with it. But if you're out just whacking people because you don't like them in undeclared war zones, it's a crime, it's murder, it's extrajudicial execution. It made me agitated. I started doing the research for a piece, and in so doing, I came upon something that should have been obvious and logical, but wasn't to me: the fact that drones were considered the Model T of what would come with fully autonomous weapon systems in the future. It totally freaked me out. I grew up in the duck-and-cover generation in Green Street Grade School. We used to have to crawl under our desks and practice how we would survive a direct hit from a nuclear bomb.

I was terrified of nuclear war. I remember Kennedy on the television during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My family, when we were young, was on the ragged edges of the middle class. We didn't have money, and I wished my family had money, not because I wanted a cute sweater-skirt set but because I wanted us to have a bomb shelter.

When I found out about the move towards fully autonomous weapon systems, I said, "We have to start a campaign. This is beyond the pale. Human beings think it's okay to create weapon systems that on their own can target and kill humans with no human being involved in the target-and-kill decisions."

I just thought it was crossing a moral and ethical Rubicon that should not be crossed.

We launched the campaign in front of the Parliament in London in April of 2013, with a robot. It was a friendly robot. He was carrying a tray with brochures about the campaign to stop killer robots. He spoke. He said, "I'm a friendly robot, please don't weaponize me." As you can imagine, in front of Parliament, there's tons of people walking around, and everybody wanted to come over and meet the robot. That was how we launched, and it's been a very similar process to landmines. Growing the NGO community that is involved, pressuring the U.N. To be honest, governments were so freaked out when we launched the campaign. By that, I mean the United States.

The majority of nations want to see a treaty somehow prohibiting the weapons, but it's still going nowhere. It's not that we are Luddites, it's not that we don't think there are appropriate uses for robotic systems in the military. We do not think that target-and-kill decisions should be made by algorithms programmed into a weapon.

There's also hacking to consider: the Pentagon itself has been hacked. There's also spoofing. We have a lot of roboticists that are part of the campaign. Many of them are feeling like they do not want to be the nuclear physicist who tarnished the reputation of nuclear physics by contributing to the atomic bomb. Thousands have signed letters calling for a ban on killer robots. We're making a lot of progress, but as you can imagine, the money involved in landmines was chump change. The billions involved in robotic systems are not chump change.

OR: You were one of the founders of the Nobel Women's Initiative. Do you think there's been progress, or are we moving backwards on the issues that the group works on?

Williams: In the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, which was first awarded in 1901, there had been 17 women. The entire purpose of the Nobel Women's Initiative is to use the influence and access that we have as Nobel Peace laureates to shine a spotlight, if you will, on the work of women around the world — grassroots women's activists working for sustainable peace, justice, and equality. Primarily in conflict zones. We do a lot of work in the DRC with women are who struggling against rape as a weapon of war, which is of course what Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad received the Prize for.

It's a hell of a group, and I love it. I would point out that there has never been a Nobel Men's Initiative of any type. It is pretty amazing. I just think it's indicative that women approach things differently.