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Rights and responsibilities

Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Vermont native, Jody Williams reflects on decades of activism

GUILFORD—After 11 years working in Central America on humanitarian projects while meeting members of U.S.-trained “death squads” and counter-revolutionaries in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, Jody Williams felt truly “fried.”

Before she became a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Williams started looking for a “straight job.”

Luckily, says Williams, she was saved from that path when two friends asked her to help them ban anti-personnel land mines.

Land mines sit buried, waiting for activation. They can hurt generations of people.

“It stunned me when I understood that,” she said to a full house on a muggy evening at the Guilford Community Church on June 26.

Williams read from her new memoir, “My Name is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Williams, a Brattleboro native, spoke about growing up in Vermont and affectionately teased her mother and family, who were sitting at the front of the church.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 — which she shared with International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), for her work to ban land mines — resulted from a series of steps and even a few missteps.

At the time she received the prize, Williams was the 10th woman, and third American woman, in the Nobel’s almost 100-year history.

In 1992, the ICBL started as two organizations, one in the United States and one in Germany, with Williams as sole staff member.

Slowly, she reached out to other organizations like Human Rights Watch.

Within five years, the number of organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working toward the ban grew to 1,300 organizations working in 95 countries to negotiate the treaty, said Williams.

The treaty to ban land mines was negotiated during a diplomatic conference held in Oslo, Norway in 1997.

According to Williams, it was the first time in about 100 years a conventional weapon had been banned.

The crowd went wild after the treaty was signed, she said. She hugged everyone.

“I don’t like to hug diplomats normally,” she said.

In an email to The Commons, Williams wrote, “When we began the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the immediate reaction of essentially every government was that it was a nice idea, but was never going to happen. It took time, raising awareness about the long-term impact of the weapon, and building a sense of the inevitability of a ban to begin to turn things around.”

The negotiation process and eventual land-mine treaty showed “ordinary people they had a place” in changing government policy, she said.

“I’ve been privileged to be part of a movement that did create significant change,” said Williams of the days in the life cycle of a movement when activism is just hard work. “And it is a privilege.”

Learning to do the right thing

Williams credited her parents’ love and their deep Catholic faith for teaching her what doing the right thing looks like.

The best part of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she said with a laugh, is that her parents stopped asking when she’d get a job they’d understand, like law.

Williams recounted her childhood indignation that she couldn’t become the Pope (or even an altar boy).

As a child, she witnessed her older brother taunted by neighbors because he was deaf.

In grade school, Williams faced a playground golden boy who picked on the scrawny new kid. The incident taught her the power of standing up. How different the world would be “if people had the courage to stand up to their own fear,” she said.

After she won the Peace Prize, Williams said a routine question was, “How did you get to be the way you are?”

The question annoyed her for a while, she said, and she joked that after a while she fabricated answers.

Yet, a few experiences stood out for Williams and shaped her journey: family, the “good parts” of her religion, Woodstock (she promised her mother that she only watched the performances), and the Vietnam War.

The war shook Williams and her belief in what the United States stood for.

“If we want it to be the best [country] it can be, then we need to accept the fake part of the mythology so we can change it,” Williams said.

After earning a masters in teaching from the School for International Training in Brattleboro in 1976, Williams taught in Mexico before returning to the United States. She worked and attended John Hopkins University.

The university’s conservative ethos and Williams’s beliefs were not fully compatible, but she stayed and earned her master’s degree in international relations in 1984.

Her career as an activist began on a miserable afternoon as she left a miserable job in Washington D.C.

On the street, someone shoved a mimeographed pamphlet into her hands. Annoyed that the ink stained her hands, she held onto the paper. The headline, which asked if El Salvador was the new Vietnam, caught her attention.

She attended the meeting, learned about the number of attempts by the U.S. government to crush democracy in El Salvador, and never looked back.

Decades later, Williams says she was amazed she followed through and attended the meeting — that it would have been easy for her to settle back into her routine once the initial burst of indignation wore off after reading the pamphlet.

Treaties, violence, and drones

To date, 161 countries have signed the United Nations treaty banning the use of land mines. The United States, however, is not among them.

“God only knows why not,” Williams said.

Despite its failure to commit, the U.S. government has abided by the terms of the treaty, she said. It has not used land mines since the first Gulf War in 1991. The government has also destroyed stockpiles of land mines.

Williams posits that the U.S. military balks at being “bound” by treaties.

“Specifically in the case of the U.S. military, they don’t really care about land mines; what they care about is not ‘giving in’ to people’s demands about weapons, because they fear other weapons will be under threat for the same reasons used for banning land mines, i.e., humanitarian concerns,” Williams wrote in a separate email.

Williams, along with the Nobel Women’s Initiative, now works with women’s organizations toward sustainable peace and to end violence against women in conflict areas.

“It is important for women to work together for change because too often there is little space for women’s voices to be heard or our opinions to be given any meaningful consideration,” wrote Williams in a later email.

“In other words, although we make up half of the world’s population, in much of the world women are treated like second-class citizens or worse,” she wrote. “But when we raise our concerns together, it is harder to ignore women.”

Rape is often part of the agenda of war, she said.

“Violence against women is accepted everywhere,” she said.

The goal of the Nobel Women’s Initiative and its partners is to turn the spotlight on the perpetrators.

With one out of three women experiencing sexual abuse, humanity is facing a “global crisis,” she said.

Rape is an uncomfortable subject, but must be discussed.

Men, too, can stand up and say “I stand with women,” said Williams.

“Knock them on their butt,” said Williams of people perpetrating violence against women. “Peacefully, of course.”

Williams is also focused on stopping “killer robots” — unpiloted drones programed to kill anyone “acting like terrorists.” She described drones as “ugly, morally confused weapons.”

According to Williams, 76 countries have drones or other machines that are used in making life and death decisions.

Although not a fan of drones, Williams said that at least they have human pilots required to check their targets before striking, pilots who can choose not to shoot.

According to Williams, once programmed, the unpiloted drone is turned loose to carry out its mission.

“What kind of human beings sit around thinking this stuff up and think it’s okay?” she said.

Comparing the political climate she started in as an activist before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Williams wrote in a separate email, “Since 9/11 and the subsequent penchant for labeling almost anyone or any group opposed to ‘official’ policy as a ‘subversive’ at best and some sort of ‘terrorist’ at worst, activists are both under increased threat and more necessary than ever.”

As a result of this assault on “our civil liberties, through the PATRIOT Act, blanket spying on U.S. citizens and others, and other ways we likely aren’t even aware of,” she wrote, “citizens must stand up and take action to defend our constitutional rights before it is too late.”

“Complacency and/or blind acceptance of anything the government does to ‘defend’ us is very dangerous to our rights and liberties and to our democracy overall.”

The need to stand up

For Williams, rights and responsibilities go hand in hand.

“For me, being responsible means working together with others to contribute to making the world a better place for us all,” she wrote.

“We are always ready to talk about our rights, but less aware of the importance of understanding and acting on our responsibilities as citizens at the community, state, national, and international levels,” she wrote in an email.

“There are many ways to contribute — many issues to work on,” Williams wrote. “But the point is if we just worry about issues and do nothing to bring about change, our worrying is completely irrelevant.”

And people don’t have to be Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks. They can be anyone, she said.

“There’s nothing magic about participating in making change,” Williams said. “It’s about getting off our royal butts.”

Sitting, talking, complaining are not strategies for change, she said. Especially if the complaining about an issue is about feeling superior to people who don’t think about an issue.

Imagine what would happen if every person volunteered on a project they were passionate about two hours a month, Williams asked.

“It truly doesn’t matter how you feel, unless you turn that feeling into a positive action for change,” said Williams. “In my own activism, I’ve used reasoning and logic, humor, fear, shaming, and other such tools and methods to help bring about change. The challenge is knowing when and where each or a combination would be the most effective.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #210 (Wednesday, July 3, 2013).

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