Betty Williams

By: Jan Mazotti Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Nobel Defender of Human Rights

In the early 1970s, Betty Williams was a wife, mother, and office receptionist in Northern Ireland. But, by the mid-1970s, Williams was well on her way to becoming a Nobel Peace laureate committed to active non-violence. What started as a car accident on August 10, 1976, proved to be a turning point in her life. The car accident was the result of a shooting of an IRA member by British authorities. The IRA driver died at the wheel and his out of control car hit and killed a group of children. Moved by the events, Williams, along with fellow Nobel laureate Mairead Maguire, began their campaign for peace. Within two days, Williams obtained 6,000 signatures for a petition for peace. As their peace movement gained momentum, Williams began to organize mass protests and peace marches. In fact, the first march hosted 10,000 Protestant and Catholic women, but was quickly quashed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Undeterred by the IRA, the next march was attended by more than 35,000 protestors.

Today, Williams is the head of the World Centers of Compassion for Children (WCCC) International, founded in 1997, an international organization working to protect children’s rights and promote children’s welfare. The organization is committed to change how governments deal with children’s issues and is currently proposing the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Rights for Children by governments worldwide and the General Assembly of the United Nations. Her motivation to work with children is embodied in her thoughtful words, "I had no concept of the depth of the children’s suffering until witnessing their pain. Yet in a world that we know can feed itself, upwards of 40,000 children die every day from conditions of malnutrition. Surely we must question why we are allowing this carnage to continue." Headquartered in the Republic of Ireland, WCCC is building the first City of Compassion in southern Italy.

Williams is, perhaps, a beacon for those who believe active non-violence is the way through sometimes tragic and horrific circumstances. She says, "It is not enough to know what you want; you must know how to achieve it with integrity. No matter what the goal, if the path is without integrity, it will lose its way and be destroyed." Below, are thoughts shared by Williams with ICOSA.

ICOSA: With so many notable achievements, what motivates you?

WILLIAMS: Well, the hope for me, that's an easy one. I see hope in the young people, and I know, because I'm with young people on very regular occasions, that they're very displeased with the way their world is going at the moment. They desperately want to change that. So, if there's hope to be had, it'll come through the youth.

ICOSA: If you were to visit with young future leaders, what advice would you offer?

WILLIAMS: I hate to use the word responsibility, especially in terms of saying that youth have the responsibility of taking care of our mistakes. But the bottom line on it is that we have made so many mistakes and those of us—I'm in my 60's now—who see clearly those mistakes, and we've left the youth to deal with them. We must teach the youth how to deal with these problems, which is one of the things I love about our program in PeaceJam is that it does just that. I've never been at a PeaceJam yet where a youth or several (or more than that) ask questions that are so deep that they blow my mind. They're very aware of what's going on around them. We've got to empower them, to help them change what we've left them—we must change the legacy of violence and misunderstanding and mistrust. They're aware; it's just showing them how to do it.

ICOSA: What current issues/problems concern you the most and why?

WILLIAMS: My greatest fear at the moment is that the future looks like it's going to be pretty violent. We have countries that are surpassing themselves in terms of terrorism and acts of terrorism camouflaged under the name of governments. There is really only talk about one kind of terrorism. We should be talking about the terrorism of governments and that it’s got to be stopped.

ICOSA: You regularly address the issues of military spending and how if we even cut into the budgets in small percentages we could change things for the better. What could it mean to the world?

WILLIAMS: Right now military spending is out of control—the United States spends $420.7 billion and China spends $62.5 million. It's ludicrous that these incredible amounts of money are used for death and destruction when it could be put into life and creation.

ICOSA: Do you believe there are any problems that are "just too big" to be solved? Can any challenge be broken down to sub-parts and addressed incrementally over time and be solved? In other words is persistence or lack thereof a bigger problem than we think it is?

WILLIAMS: You know, everybody thinks that because the problems are so huge that there's really no way of addressing them. To me, that's a complete cop-out, because if you're not doing something to solve the problem, then you're very definitely a part of it. If you want to change the world, you have to do it one person at a time. Even in the work that we do—well, particularly in the work we do—it's amazing what happens, because in the beginning it's all over the place, and at the end it's totally interconnected. It's all a system of education, of showing youth how they can connect to build a better future and a better world for us all. I don't want to sound like an idealistic flip, but we see these programs of interconnection; when you make them happen, they work.

ICOSA: You said in a recent speech, "Peace in the world is everybody’s business. Turmoil is everywhere and the whole world is waiting for solutions to come from the top-down. That’s not how it works—community change from the bottom up is what makes a real difference." How do community members get involved in a bottom up approach?

WILLIAMS: We have to hold governments responsible for what they do, and that’s number one. I remember the days when the world looked at the United States and the Constitution of the United States of America—it was something that every country wanted. In fact, my own country of Ireland, and the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland was based very much on the Constitution of the United States. I think that the biggest threat to peace in our world is the fact that militarism rules the day. We have to get to the stage where pacifism rules the day. To be a pacifist doesn’t mean that you have to be non-violent, and when I say that, I mean I have a very violent tongue when it’s necessary. Violence comes in all forms, whether it be from a gun or a tongue. The gun destroys. I hope what I say provokes thought because I think dissention provokes thought. Your question is a very difficult question to answer because each day, we get some news from somewhere about mass destruction. It’s very hard to keep yourself stabilized and say to yourself, "I’ve got to be stronger." Every blow that is thrown at non-violence means we have to be able to take it on the chin and prove that non-violence is the weapon of the strong.

To learn more about the World Centers of Compassion for Children, visit