Off a Dirt Road, U.S. Honoree Leads Drive for Global Treaty


For once, Jody Williams was not already out of bed and working at her computer when the phone rang shortly before 5 a.m. Friday.

On a normal day, she would have been at work for at least an hour, sending appeals via computer to government offices from Mozambique to Moscow or e-mail instructions to allies in her international coalition to ban land mines.

The call from a Norwegian journalist was how she learned that she and the anti-land mine group she heads had won the Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement from Oslo was carried live on television, but she has no TV set.

The gadfly activist, who turned 47 Thursday, has come a long way since the days she worked for a Los Angeles-based charity--Medical Aid for El Salvador--that helped war victims during that country's 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. Her chief mission there evolved into raising funds and delivering prosthetics for thousands of children who lost limbs to land mines. And her experiences affected her so profoundly that she has focused on banning land mines ever since, according to Stephen Goose, an arms control expert with Human Rights Watch and her deputy in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Since the campaign was formed after a Thanksgiving dinner shared by Williams and fellow activists in Washington not quite six years ago, she has mobilized more than 1,000 groups in about 60 countries the same way she lives her life--on a shoestring.

The campaign's headquarters--in stark contrast to more high-profile interest groups that function from opulent Washington offices--is her home on a dirt road with no street name or number in sleepy Putney, Vt.

The identifying turnoff for camera crews trying to find her after the Nobel announcement was a beaver pond. She shares her place with Frank, Max and Stella--her horse, cat and dog. For many of the interviews Friday, Williams--who has two degrees in international affairs--was dressed in black jeans and was barefoot.

Her unpretentious surroundings match the generally low-key tactics that she employs on behalf of her cause. But others agree that she has had a profound impact, particularly for a crusade begun relatively recently.

"It's the most significant grass-roots disarmament movement in my lifetime," said Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who wrote the first Nobel nominating letter and helped rally international support for her and her organization. "I can't think of any other movement quite as credible or quite as powerful. The whole world is now aware of the campaign to ban land mines."

McGovern, a first-term congressman, met Williams when he visited El Salvador as a congressional aide.

"I remember kids lined up in front of Salvadoran hospitals as [far] as you could see, waiting in hopes of getting arms or legs. It was a turning point for both of us," he said Friday. "I admired her back then, and when she took on the enormous task of getting the world to ban land mines, I thought it deserved a Nobel Peace Prize."

In his nominating letter, McGovern described Williams as someone "who believes that people can move nations to take actions that benefit all humanity."

Williams received her undergraduate degree from the University of Vermont and is a graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Her experiences in Central America still echo through the poetry she writes--and also sends out by e-mail--in her spare time.

She has traveled extensively this year in behalf of her cause. In Austria and Mozambique in February, Tokyo in March, Bonn in April, Johannesburg in May, Brussels in June and Oslo in September, she has prodded, pressured and cajoled groups and governments into signing onto the land mine ban.

The year will be capped in December with the signing ceremony in Canada of the historic international treaty that she and her campaign put on the global agenda.

But the campaign is far from over. "In many ways our work has just begun," she said Friday. "ICBL has committed itself to the total eradication of this weapon and to assistance to those who must live with this lethal contamination. When the weapon is completely eradicated, our work might be done."

Outspoken and feisty, she used the sudden media attention now surrounding her to crank up the pressure on her own country to join the movement.

"The main obstacle is President Clinton," she told the Norwegian reporter who called with news of her award.

"I think it's tragic that Clinton does not want to be on the side of humanity and does not want to join the tide of history in bringing about a ban of this indiscriminate killer of civilians," she told ABC with typical bluntness.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World