Nobel Peace Prize 1997

Jody Williams celebrated her 47th birthday last Thursday at her private retreat in Vermont’s Green Mountains, a "beautiful, modern home with lots of glass," as she describes it. There is a beaver pond out back and wild turkeys in the surrounding woods.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 20, 1997

Jody Williams celebrated her 47th birthday last Thursday at her private retreat in Vermont’s Green Mountains, a "beautiful, modern home with lots of glass," as she describes it. There is a beaver pond out back and wild turkeys in the surrounding woods.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 20, 1997

Nobel Peace Prize 1997

Jody Williams celebrated her 47th birthday last Thursday at her private retreat in Vermont's Green Mountains, a "beautiful, modern home with lots of glass," as she describes it. There is a beaver pond out back and wild turkeys in the surrounding woods. A day later, she celebrated a much bigger event in her life: the award of the Nobel Peace Prize jointly to her and the Washington-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Williams was the founding co-ordinator of the six-year-old campaign, which mobilized thousands of individuals around the world and culminated in a treaty negotiated last month in Oslo. "Yippee," said a jubilant Williams. "The Nobel Prize is formal recognition that the campaign changed the world in a breathtakingly short period of time."

The treaty will be signed by representatives of more than 100 countries in Ottawa in early December, a reflection of the pivotal role played by the Canadian government, and particularly Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who was also nominated for the Nobel Prize. But even its supporters admit that the treaty is, at best, only the beginning of the end of land mines. The cheap but deadly weapons kill about 10,000 civilians and maim another 14,000 annually, often years or decades after a war is over. The treaty must still be ratified and implemented by governments around the world. And several of the biggest users of land mines, such as the United States and China, have refused to sign the pact (after the prize award, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said his country would change its stance and sign). Then there is the issue of mine clearance, a slow, costly and dangerous undertaking that will take decades because there are an estimated 100 million buried worldwide. "The treaty is wonderful," Williams told Maclean's. "But it's just a piece of paper until it's in force."

Despite the challenges ahead, many activists are astonished at how fast political thinking on land mines changed. As recently as May, 1996, UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva failed to produce tighter regulations on the use of the devices. The Canadian government responded by organizing a conference in Ottawa in October, 1996, to discuss a ban. To the surprise of almost everyone involved, about 50 nations sent delegates and another 25 had observers in attendance. Still, those talks were floundering until Axworthy made a bold move: he challenged the participants to return to Ottawa in December, 1997, to sign a treaty.

A few months after the Ottawa conference, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, threw her support behind the issue, and helped immeasurably by travelling to Angola and Bosnia to meet civilians injured by land mines. By the time delegates and activists reached Oslo, the campaign was on a roll. "It's been exhilarating," said Celina Tuttle, co-ordinator of Ottawa-based Mines Action Canada, a domestic coalition of church, humanitarian and disarmament groups that worked for a ban. "I get covered with goose bumps just talking about the campaign."

Some Canadian foreign affairs officials are equally surprised at the sea change in thinking about land mines. "I've been here for a little over two years," said one senior bureaucrat who spoke on condition that he not be named. "When I arrived, my predecessor gave me the land-mines file and said 'Here's a real loser. Don't waste your time on it.' " Canadian policy, then set by the department of national defence, was that land mines were an indispensible part of the country's arsenal, and virtually every government in the world took the same position.

Canadian thinking began to change, the official said, largely because of the lobbying by Mines Action Canada. "They kept poking at our arguments," he said, "and the more they poked, the more we had to go back and re-examine our principles. We questioned DND, and they started questioning themselves." Activists in many other countries were prodding their own governments to act, with varying degrees of success. Axworthy's initiative, which came to be known as the Ottawa Process, had a galvanizing effect on many leaders who were facing resistance from their military chiefs. "We made a lot of enemies because we put governments in difficult positions," said the official. "They don't like to be forced to choose between their defence establishments and their foreign ministries. But the deadline forced governments to decide: yea or nay."

The Canadian anti-mines coalition and the Ottawa Process were small but significant parts of the huge Nobel Prize-winning international campaign. It was launched in November, 1991, when representatives of the Washington-based Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and the German humanitarian organization Medico International asked Williams, a longtime social activist, to co-ordinate an international campaign against the weapons. Williams, a Vermont native who holds two master's degrees - including one in international relations from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore - was initially reluctant after spending 11 fruitless years attempting to change U.S. policy in Central America during the Reagan-Bush years. But she hit a responsive chord with land mines. "The support for a ban didn't come out of nowhere," she said. "Hundreds of organizations were involved in the issue in the field. There was a natural constituency to pull together."

The constituency consisted of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs - groups devoted to promoting such things as human rights, disarmament and Third World development. Their workers kept encountering adults and children in dozens of African, Asian and Central American countries whose arms and legs had been blown off by exploding land mines. Williams organized the first international conference on the issue in New York City in October, 1992, and attracted representatives of six NGOs. A similar event in London the following May attracted 50 representatives from 40 organizations. Since then, the campaign has grown to more than 1,000 organizations in 60 countries.

The campaign's first significant political victory occurred in late 1993 when French activists pressured their government into requesting a review of a 1980 UN treaty that ostensibly regulated the use of land mines. The Geneva-based review, the same one that would disappoint the Canadians, lasted 2 ½ years and drew delegates from 54 countries before ending inconclusively in May, 1996. "It was a useless treaty," said Williams, "with loopholes so big you could drive a tank through them."

Sensing that there was no political will to strengthen the existing restrictions, Williams and other members of the campaign decided to do an end run around the UN talks. They organized a series of luncheons in Geneva, starting in January, 1996, and invited delegates from governments that had declared support for a ban. The first luncheon attracted representatives of nine countries, including Canada. A second in April drew 13, and at the final session there were delegates from 17 nations. "We said 'Let's do lunch meetings so we won't interrupt the review sessions,' " recalls Williams. "It wasn't a problem since delegates' lunches usually lasted two to three hours."

At the final luncheon meeting, Williams said, the Canadian delegates announced tentative plans for the Ottawa conference. That initiative led ultimately to the treaty negotiations that opened on Sept. 1 in Oslo with delegates from more than 100 countries. Less than three weeks later, they reached an agreement to prohibit the use, production, development, sale or stockpiling of land mines. Williams said that the campaign's next big challenge will be to convince the United States to sign. Under pressure from the Pentagon, President Bill Clinton refused to endorse the treaty after American negotiators failed to win an exemption for South Korea, where 37,000 American troops are stationed. Washington also wanted a nine-year implementation period. The treaty, however, will become effective for signatories six months after 40 countries have ratified it, a process expected to take two years. A White House spokesman said Clinton remained "rock solid" in opposing the treaty.

Despite the treaty's limitations, activists are immensely proud of it. For them, it represents a victory for ordinary people over the military planners and strategists who had long held the attention of their political masters. "This treaty, this whole process, is because concerned individuals around the world, whether they live in some remote part of Rwanda or Afghanistan, or downtown Ottawa or Vancouver, cared enough to get involved," says Tuttle, the Mines Action Canada co-ordinator. And for that, they could all claim to have shared in the Nobel Peace Prize.

Opening the World's Eyes

Italian playwright Dario Fo chose not to sit by a phone and wait for a call while the Nobel Prize for literature was being announced in Stockholm. In fact, he was driving from Rome to Milan. But the 71-year-old author of 70 plays - including Comic Mystery, Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Can't Pay, Won't Pay - is so well known in Italy that another motorist informed him he had taken the $1.4-million prize by holding up a sign that read: "Dario has won the Nobel." Fo later said he was "amazed" to receive the award, perhaps because critics rarely mentioned him as a potential winner. But the Swedish Academy was clearly impressed. "With a blend of laughter and gravity," it declared, "he opens our eyes to abuses and injustices in society."

There was another surprise choice for the Nobel Prize in medicine. A committee of Swedish scientists settled on Dr. Stanley Prusiner, a 55-year-old biochemist and neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco. Prusiner won for pinpointing rogue proteins called prions as "a new genre of disease-causing agents," the committee said. Prions have been linked to so-called mad-cow disease and other degenerative brain disorders. Many of his fellow researchers still do not accept his work. But Prusiner said he welcomes both scrutiny and skepticism. "It is very important," he said, "that people who propose new ideas be given a tough time."

Maclean's October 20, 1997