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Jody Williams and the campaign to ban landmines A Nobel Peace Prize Laureate shares her story

By Julia Peristerakis

A woman sitting on a chair with hands clasped looks thoughtfully ahead, as if answering a question.

Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen

Story details

A sudden, explosive blast. It’s the tragic result of someone accidentally triggering a hidden landmine. Those who survive the explosion often suffer life-altering injuries from these brutal weapons of war.

Jody Williams was determined to eliminate these threats to civilians, and her work was instrumental in mobilizing people and organizations across the globe to convince their governments to ban landmines outright. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her incredible efforts.

Williams has spent most of her life involved in activism for peace and human rights. She believes in human rights and human responsibility – to make positive change and create the world we want to live in.

I believe that people can do extraordinary things when they think about the greater good.

Jody Williams

Jody Williams during an oral history interview conducted at the Museum in 2018. Photo: CMHR, Aaron Cohen

Growing up in Vermont, Williams became involved in Vietnam War protests as a university student. During this time, she discovered that United States policies often had serious negative consequences for other countries. This led to her work with different campaigns in Central America including with Medical Aid for El Salvador, directing a program that brought children injured during the war to the United States for medical care.

Williams then became the coordinator of an international campaign that resulted in a global ban of landmines. In recognition of her efforts, she was awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines “for their work for the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines."

A global movement for peace

Anti-personnel landmines (mines placed in the ground that detonate upon contact with a person) became commonly used during the Second World War and then throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Landmines are found and marked in a minefield in Croatia.

Photo: Associated Press, Miso Lisanin

In the 1980s and early 1990s, landmines were increasingly singled out as a particularly brutal weapon of war due to their devastating impact on civilians and communities long after conflicts have ended. Landmines are not typically removed from the ground after conflict and so they pose an ongoing threat to communities, including cutting off citizens from water, land and other resources, and limiting social and economic development. During the 1990s, it was estimated that over 20,000 people were killed by landmines each year. Countless others were left with devastating injuries.

Williams tells the story of being approached by Bobby Muller of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and Thomas Gebauer of Medico International to lead a campaign to ban landmines.

Video: Oral history interview with Jody Williams from CMHR

With Williams on board as the founding coordinator, six non-governmental organizations (NGOs) came together to launch the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). They represented several different nations and various areas of expertise related to landmines:

  • Mines Advisory Group
  • Handicap International
  • Human Rights Watch
  • Physicians for Human Rights
  • Medico International
  • Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation

They had recognized very quickly that if you didn’t move to ban the weapon, prohibit it completely, it’s like putting band-aids on a wound that never heals.

Jody Williams

Over the next several years, the ICBL was able to grow global support for a complete ban of landmines. The work of the ICBL included:

  • educating the public about the impacts of anti-personnel landmines and mobilizing citizens to take action;
  • building a coalition of support among hundreds of NGOs around the world;
  • pressuring governments to end their role in the use and production of landmines and to support a complete ban of the weapon.

The ICBL also emphasized the devastating ways in which landmines impact human lives, including death or debilitating injuries, as well as the social and economic consequences for communities. As awareness grew, citizens petitioned their own governments to cease using, producing and exporting the weapon. As a unique campaign that brought together people and organizations from around the world to push for change, the ICBL provided a new model for ways in which ordinary citizens can be active and effective for a cause, even impacting international law.

As support increased among individuals, NGOs and governments around the world, the Canadian Government took a lead role in ensuring these efforts resulted in a formal treaty. Named the Ottawa Process, the Canadian Government first hosted a conference in Ottawa in 1996, bringing countries together to discuss a pro-ban strategy. At the end of the conference, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy issued a challenge to those in attendance to negotiate a treaty within one year to completely ban landmines and to then return to Ottawa to sign it. Several governments had already committed to a complete or temporary ban of landmines at this time, and other nations were very involved in the Ottawa Process, including Norway, Austria and South Africa. 

The Nobel Peace Prize

On October 10, 1997, less than two months before the planned treaty-signing in Ottawa, the Nobel Committee awarded the 1997 Peace Prize jointly to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Jody Williams. The Committee described their decision in Oslo:

The ICBL and Jody Williams started a process which in the space of a few years changed a ban on anti-personnel mines from a vision to a feasible reality. The Convention which will be signed in Ottawa in December this year is to a considerable extent a result of their important work.

There are already over 1,000 organizations, large and small, affiliated to the ICBL, making up a network through which it has been possible to express and mediate a broad wave of popular commitment in an unprecedented way. With the governments of several small and medium-sized countries taking the issue up and taking steps to deal with it, this work has grown into a convincing example of an effective policy for peace.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to express the hope that the Ottawa process will win even wider support. As a model for similar processes in the future, it could prove of decisive importance to the international effort for disarmament and peace1.

In this interview, Williams considers the Nobel Committee’s decision to recognize the role of individual citizens working together towards a global landmine ban.

Video: Oral history: Jody Williams – 2

Obviously I work for human rights, but I as firmly believe in human responsibility for positive change.

Jody Williams

A treaty is signed

On December 3 and 4, 1997, the Mine Ban Treaty2 was signed in Ottawa by 122 nations. The international agreement prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel landmines, while additionally outlining mine removal efforts and calling for assistance to victims of landmines. The Treaty has been very effective, with widespread implementation and compliance from nations around the world. As a result, millions of landmines have been removed and destroyed, new landmines are now rarely produced and there are fewer victims of explosions every year.

Minister Lloyd Axworthy after signing the Mine Ban Treaty in Ottawa. Jody Williams (left), President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Cornelio Sommaruga, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien applaud.

Photo: The Canadian Press

The day has not yet come when people everywhere can walk in a world without fear of stepping on landmines. But as I come from Africa—the most mine-contaminated continent of our planet, I can say that our people never thought for a moment that we would be as close to that goal as we are today. [3]

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Women working for peace

Williams is now focusing her efforts on supporting other women working for change. She co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group comprised of seven women Nobel laureates who are working together for peace, equality and justice. They use their position as laureates and activists to help bring attention to women who are struggling for peace, including participating in fact-finding missions, acting as witnesses to ongoing conflicts, and launching a campaign to end rape and gender violence in conflict.

Nobel laureates (left to right) Leymah Gbowee, Mairead Maguire, Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams, Tawakkol Karman and Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

Photo: Associated Press, Paul Faith

In 2016, Williams and fellow Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum travelled to Guatemala to bear witness and lend support to women during the Sepur Zarco trial. The trial involved 15 Mayan women bringing charges against the military for sexual slavery during the civil war. Two former military officials were convicted for crimes against humanity in what was a ground-breaking judgement related to sexual violence during armed conflict.

As a Nobel laureate, Williams often speaks to students, who ask her how they can make a difference in a world that sometimes feels out of control.

Video: Oral history: Jody Williams ­­– 3

Williams asks them in return: What is it that makes you the most righteously indignant about injustice? She advises them to volunteer with an organization working on that issue to better understand what it takes to participate in bringing about change. For Williams, the way forward is to figure out what problem you personally care deeply about, and then to decide what you are willing to do to make it different.

At the end of the day, you look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I’m not perfect. But I know, in my work world, I am doing the best I can do with other people to make the world better for everybody’.

Jody Williams

Reflective Questions:

What is your responsibility to get involved?

What injustice moves you the most?

What organizations could you connect with to make positive change?

Further Readings

Matthew, Richard A., Bryan McDonald, and Kenneth R. Rutherford. Landmines and Human Security: International Politics and War’s Hidden Legacy. Albany: SUNY Press, 2004.

Williams, Jody. My Name is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

Williams, Jody, Stephen D. Goose, and Mary Wareham. Banning Landmines: Disarmament, Citizen Diplomacy, and Human Security. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.

_____________________________________________________________________

1The Nobel Peace Prize 1997. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2018. Fri. 26 Oct 2018. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1997/press-release/

2While commonly referred to as the Mine Ban Treaty, the formal title is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction. The agreement is also referred to as the Ottawa Treaty or the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.

3Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Foreword” in Banning Landmines: Disarmament, Citizen Diplomacy, and Human Security edited by Jody Williams, Stephen D. Goose and Mary Wareham (Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), ix.