Combating A Coward’s War: Acting Against Indifference



Stephanie LaCava

Indifference would be the emotional embodiment of a landmine. It lies silent, its very presence a product of its undetectable nature – that is, until it is provoked and explodes, then is no more…The head of the Croatian effort for de-mining the country’s land had once been a fighter and was now witness to the detritus of war. He went to the villages around a forest rumored to be filled with landmines, asking the residents – many past military men – to come forth with information regarding the placement of such weapons. No one answered his pleas. Weeks later, a young man went to the forest in question to gather wood. When he returned home he was without wood – or legs. Around the same time, the Croatian man who had visited the villages received a call from a distraught resident and former fighter. His son had been maimed in the forest on an errand to find firewood. It was a tragedy which may have been avoided had he responded to earlier inquiries. He was now ready to lead the man to the mines.Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jody Williams began her lecture Wednesday night at the chapel by challenging the audience’s indifference. In the lecture, which was co-sponsored by the Center for Ethics and World Societies, Dean of the College, the Sophomore Experience and the Peace Studies Program, Williams was invited to speak about her international efforts to ban antipersonnel landmines. She began with a poignant testament to many American’s naivety in taking for granted the luxury of safety.The lives of those residing in the United States are void of the daily terror that lays waiting in the earth of 82 countries. Lodged in the ground of these nations are the long-term legacies of war, armaments waiting to disable generations who no longer remember the war that first employed such weaponry. Long after the legions left, the landmines remain. Such horrific imagery was far from Ms. Williams’ mind 15 years ago when she began her work as an activist in South America. It was in a synthesis of historical timing and serendipity that the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) called her one Sunday afternoon in November of 1991. Bobby Muller, an acquaintance from her time in Latin America, wanted her help in campaigning to ban antipersonnel landmines. The VVAF had been privy to the power of their leftover weapons killing and dismembering innocent civilians long after the war was over. Muller sought Williams’ help in the organization’s sophomore effort, having realized the misguided nature of the foundations first endeavor to provide victims with prosthetics. The answer, he argued, lied at the root of the problem: the landmines themselves. Enter Williams, the power of civil society and the resulting creation of a political movement to eradicate landmines.In Professor Francis Sejersted’s, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, presentation speech for the 1997 Peace Prize he comments on the nature of William’s work, “Humanitarian work prevents war by seeking to eliminate the underlying causes of war, the causes in the human mind,” he said. Williams’ approach to landmines was to mobilize popular and political opinion into a network of international action. The post Cold War atmosphere aided this formidable task, as history served forth a world that realized perhaps change was indeed possible.Despite the unique historical moment, Williams maintains that activism begins with one person’s commitment to changing global perspective. Part of her success in beginning the International Campaign to Ban Landmines arose out of an effort to change international sentiment and to move towards an international mindfulness – something she maintains is lacking in America’s attitude of exceptionalism. Her landmine work began in 1991 with a self described, “staff of one,” the VVAF and German organization, Medico International (MI), effectively rendering the campaign an international effort. The addition of NGO’s, Handicap International (HI), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Mines Advisory Group (MAG) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) culminated in the issue of a “Joint Call to Ban Antipersonnel Landmines” in 1992. The Asia Watch of HRW and PHR had been the first to systematically document the impact of landmines in its seminal work, “The Coward’s War: Landmines in Cambodia.” In May of 1993, the first international conference brought 50 volunteer representatives from 40 NGO’s to London – the number nearly doubled the year after in Geneva. In five years, Williams’ efforts multiplied exponentially. An issue that in the past no one had spoke about had finally captured a receptive public conscious. Williams is quick to cite the importance of Canadian action in the success of ICBL. In October 1996, 75 governments met in Ottawa to develop an “Agenda for Action” against landmines. In effect, Canada and its Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy challenged the world to reach greater international involvement. In Oslo during the fall of 1997, the negotiations of 121 nations culminated in a comprehensive treaty to ban antipersonnel landmines. Soon thereafter, Williams received word that she had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with ICBL. It was then that Williams’ work truly began. In a discussion session with campus activists held the night of the lecture at Colgate’s Ralph J. Bunche Peace and International House, Jody explained the pressure of being a Nobel Laureate. “They [the Nobel Committee] give it to you because they want you to be a living example of paths to political change,” she said. “That’s a hell of a thing to be wearing. There were moments when I thought what if I never did anything again? What if I was a footnote laureate? I could never go out and start a stealth campaign again, the expectations would be tremendously different.” Throughout her lectures, Williams was adamant that the true test arises with the proposal of a detailed action plan for the maintenance of a campaign’s success. Too often, complacency leads to the unraveling of humanitarian progress. Williams was eager to cite her husband as the “intellectual architect” behind the documentation and continued assessment of compliance with the treaty. Moreover, the essential element was a commitment to a hybrid of international laws for arms control and the work of civil society. A process that Williams insists can be applied to any situation. “Make the government work for you,” she implores. What is necessary is “global community action… and a commitment to leave the world a little better than you found it.” At the Bunche house gathering, she continued, “There are multiple paths – if you can’t do it all the time, do it a little, help to facilitate the work of other people. It’s a constant journey. I still don’t know what I will be when I grow up.” Her final statement is resonant when one considers that so much in the international climate has changed since Williams’ work began some 15 years ago.Inevitably questions turn to the contemporary climate, one of post 9/11 concerns. In Professor Nancy Ries’ Weapons & War class, Williams depicted the connection between her work and the current challenges within the international landscape, alluding once again to her distaste for “the inconsistent consistency” of American exceptionalism. When originally broached with the elimination of landmines, the United States staunchly refused to cooperate with this “slippery slope.” Williams explained the American position, “weapon sales is a commodity, it’s a business, it has something to do with national defense, but a whole lot for making money. If this path [of eliminating landmines] prevails, it will set a precedent for changes to continue” which is something the American military and government fear may inhibit their favorable position as a hegemonic superpower. Williams argues that technologically advanced nations always try to find a high-tech answer, but the real answer lies in education and international cooperation which are the hallmarks of her ICBL campaign. “All the bombs in the world will not save you from a person who wants to die and prove a point,” she said. “That to me is common sense. Don’t listen to the jingoistic patriotic bull that says you can create an American fortress to protect yourself.”After 20 years of championing her cause, it is evident that Williams knows how to move an audience, an admirable feat in its call to activism. Despite such practice, her words seem genuine and unstudied. At the Bunche House lecture, sipping wine from a printed-paper cup, Williams answered students’ questions, assuring them that she often speaks to world leaders in the exact same manner. Few women can boast of keeping company with the likes of Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela, all past Nobel peace laureates, still Williams is the first to deny her ascension into such saintly ranks. “I am not a saint, nor selfless. I want to make the world better for others, to make it better for me too.” Throughout her lecture at the Chapel, Williams made mention of her own family: citing a stepdaughter with a penchant for talking on her cell phone, and parents that are finally satisfied with the ability to categorize what their daughter does, a task that wasn’t so simple during her days in Central America. In another example of her down to earth appeal, she brands the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu as “two of (her) favorite guys on the planet” – quite the superlative when the speaker keeps company with an endless list of prominent politicians and world leaders. In effect, her lecture leaves no one feeling inadequate and everyone reasonably empowered. At the close of her talk, she appears genuinely moved by the subsequent standing ovation – confirming that Nobel prize winners are, indeed, people too. It would be unjust to leave out William’s prescription for activism: get in touch with a legislator, work on your individual representatives, and push candidates on their positions. Above all, she cautioned, “You do not get cooperation by bullying…Fear only works for so long until it breeds hatred.” Her logical proposal for effective action focused on civil society’s role in cultivating channels of thought and communication conducive to global discourse. In a haunting reference to the United State’s hegemonic habits, she added, “Rome was the strongest city – and it still fell.”