By: Judith B. Taylor Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Nobel
Jody Williams, the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner is a woman with a global mission. As a teacher and aid worker, she is a relentless proponent for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and has helped save thousands of lives.
Williams’ first position as an aid worker was in the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project as a grocery worker. Following that, she became the deputy director of a Los Angeles–based charity, Medical Aid for El Salvador. Then, in 1992, she accepted a position with the ICBL, whose goal was to free the world of antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions.
At the onset of her work at the ICBL, Williams felt the need for global recognition and a resolution to ban landmines. After almost five grueling years, the organization achieved one of its goals—The Axworthy Challenge. The Axworthy Challenge was the momentum gaining point where 50 governments and 24 influential observers met to craft an agenda for action which highlighted steps to reach a global ban on landmines. Just over a year later, in 1997, a series of meetings occurred around the world to develop the diplomatic channels and negotiations to put a worldwide treaty in place. Later that year, The Ottawa Treaty was signed in Canada by 122 nations and was in force within two years—faster than any treaty of its kind in history.
Williams said about the treaty, "A treaty is merely words on a piece of paper; unless you force governments and militaries to comply, to obey their own words on paper, then things don’t change. None of us in the campaign, none of civil society saw that as victory. We actually saw it as the first step toward the possibility of victory. It was our responsibility to continue public pressure, to make sure that governments obeyed the treaty, and to make sure that armies no longer used the weapons."
"We didn’t start the campaign in order to get the Nobel Prize. I don’t think I ever thought much about the Nobel Peace Prize. We started the campaign because it was a crisis situation—landmines were killing people all over the world. We thought it was something, a little contribution that we could make, making the aftermath of war easier for poor people to deal with. That’s why we did it. We thought it was right," she emphasized.
Personally for Williams, the work was bigger than the treaty that was signed, the awards that were won, and the accolades that were bestowed on the organization. It was about accountability and responsibility. It was about the rule of law. "Every time the international community and governments come together and make beautiful words on paper that they do not obey, it fosters belief that armies can get away with whatever they want—that soldiers, the military, and the police can act with impunity, and are above the law," Williams said. She emphasized the importance of re-educating soldiers, police, military, governments, as well as people like you and me—that laws apply to everybody.
She described her work in El Salvador as the "scariest country I have worked in" because there was no law that applied to the army. She said that there was no law that applied to the soldiers, the police, the paramilitary, and the "fake military." They could do whatever they wanted, to whomever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and nothing would happen to them, she expressed.
While outlawing antipersonnel landmines is impactful, Williams, along with other female Nobel Peace Prize winners founded The Nobel Women’s Initiative. The Initiative consists of six brilliant and influential women representing North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. All have brought together their experiences in a united effort for peace with justice and equality by supporting women’s rights around the world.
Today, Williams teaches Global Justice Patterns: Perspectives and Strategies at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. The class builds a practical and theoretical understanding of international political, economic, and human rights issues with a focus on the rights and responsibilities of global citizenship and effective citizen-advocacy strategies for achieving social justice goals. She continues to serve with the ICBL as a campaign ambassador and editor of the landmine report, as well.
Jody Williams is a humble woman with global reach, a global voice, and a Nobel Peace Prize. She says, "I’m an ordinary gal from Putney, Vermont, a town of 1200. Who would believe that I would change the world on this issue? But, I have. It is important to remember that ordinary people, when they believe in themselves and the things they want to do, can achieve extraordinary things. It’s what makes a person extraordinary."
Interestingly, at the end of our interview, Williams said, "Don’t be me; be better than me. I’m not all that great. I’m not Mother Theresa." Perhaps Jody Williams is not Mother Theresa, but she is extraordinary in many ways. She is certainly a woman who has changed the world for the better and made it safer for us all.
Note: Although not a party to the treaty, the United States remains the world’s largest donor to humanitarian de-mining and has banned all persistent antipersonnel mines.
Judith Brissette Taylor is a journalist, speaker and speech writer. She has been a practitioner in the women's market for over twenty-five years as a writer, editor and publisher. She served for two years as president of the Women's Regional Publications of America. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.