Nobel Laureate's Long Trip From Vermont Farm to Fame
For Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, winning the peace prize is victory of individual activism.
PUTNEY, VT. — At her farmhouse in Putney, Vt., Jody Williams keeps farmer's hours, rising well before the sun pokes through the red maples and glints off her expanding beaver pond.
But while her neighbors are warming up tractors for baling hay, Ms. Williams is firing off yet another e-mail to colleagues in Paris or Phnom Penh, urging yet another nation to join a global ban on land mines.
After six years, the hard work is finally paying off. The awarding last week of the Nobel Peace Prize to Williams and members of the far-flung International Campaign to Ban Landmines represents a victory of individual idealism and grass-roots activism in an era when slick special interests often seem to dominate in the portals of power.
While past efforts to ban land mines had stalled in the United Nations and disparate parliaments, Williams and her colleagues bypassed the halls of power to build public opinion from the ground up. Her motto: "Have cause, will travel." Her tool of choice: a moral conscience.
To be sure, Williams is no angel. In interviews, her blunt language often lapses into cursing. But if she feels out of place among past Nobel laureates such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama, her supporters say that her campaign has done more than anything else to ban a weapon that kills or maims 24,000 people a year, most of them civilians.
"It's the most significant, grass-roots disarmament movement of my lifetime" says Rep. James McGovern (D) of Massachusetts, who met Ms. Williams in the prosthetics ward of a hospital in El Salvador, and lobbied the Nobel committee on her behalf.
In one sense, Williams's crusade is pure Vermont. The state has always been a fertile place for individual and quixotic protest, dating back to before the Revolutionary War when it was a haven for exiles from southern New England who felt the yoke of Puritanism. Today the state of 600,000 has more than 300 grass-roots activist groups, crusading for everything from bicycle lanes to legalizing hemp.
Genesis of a crusade
Williams herself has always been attracted to idealistic causes, and building coalitions has always seemed to come naturally. In 1981, she joined an activist group to build public awareness in the US about American policy in Central America. It was during her tours of war-torn Nicaragua and Honduras that Williams became aware of the human toll of a weapon that can lurk underground for decades.
Then at a Thanksgiving dinner in 1991, the International Campaign was born. Robert Muller, a disabled veteran and head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, asked Williams if she wanted to build a coalition to ban land mines. The rest is history - and will soon be international law.
For the next five years, Williams cajoled and exhorted diplomats and political leaders. Working mostly from her home in Putney, she would rise at 3:30 a.m. and not stop until dusk. Using e-mail when she wasn't traveling, she kept in touch with more than 700 humanitarian and nongovernmental groups in 40 countries. There were some early successes. In 1992, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont pushed through a law that banned the export of land mines from the US.
"That made other governments stand up and take notice, and it helped set up an irrepressible momentum," says Williams, who has two masters degrees in international affairs and a penchant for going barefoot.
By 1997, the land-mine ban had reached critical mass. Canada's foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy announced Canada's unilateral decision to ban the use and manufacture of land mines and led the initiative to negotiate a treaty banning land mines worldwide. Last month, 89 nations negotiated a treaty in Oslo to ban antipersonnel mines, and more than 100 nations are expected to sign that treaty this December in Ottawa.
"It's breathtaking what you can do when you set a goal and put all your energy into it," says Williams. "I think you have to believe that you're right. You say, 'This is what we're going to achieve, and this is how we're going to do it.' And if people get upset about it, tough."
The prestige of the Nobel Prize has already put pressure on one country to join the Ottawa treaty. On the day of the announcement, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said his country would sign it, even though Russia had boycotted the negotiations until then.
Now Williams and her campaign are turning their sights on China, the US, and other countries that have not endorsed the treaty. President Clinton, who supported the treaty as recently as this summer, now says the US will not sign it. The US military, he says, still needs antipersonnel mines on the Korean Peninsula and other hot spots.
Fewer farmer's hours
Such setbacks come as no surprise for Williams. "I hope this prize will help change his [Clinton's] mind.... He has abdicated his role as commander in chief, and let the military set foreign policy," says Williams.
For her part, Williams is trying to ease up her seven-day-a-week schedule. She plans to move to the Washington area by the end of the month, bringing along her horse, Frank, her cat, Max, and her dog, Stella.
"I've recently decided I need a life," Williams says.
RECENT NOBEL PEACE PRIZE WINNERS
Alfred Nobel, a Swede who made a fortune by inventing dynamite, endowed the prizes in his 1895 will. He initially thought dynamite would make war obsolete by making it so horrible. The first prize was awarded in 1901.
1996: Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor
1995: Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, Britain
1994: Yasser Arafat, Gaza, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Israel.
1993: Nelson Mandel and F.W. de Klerk, South Africa
1992: Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemala
1991: Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma
1990: Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet Union
1989: The Dalai Lama, Tibet
1988: The U.N. Peacekeeping Operations
1987: Oscar Arias Sanchez, Costa Rica
1986: Elie Wiesel, United States