UPDATE: THE LANDMINE CAMPAIGN
UPDATE: THE LANDMINE CAMPAIGN
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By JAMES BANDLER
FROM: The Boston Globe Magazine
Jody Williams opened the door of her office and looked in at an
Everything from the furniture to Rolodexes, Coke bottles, coffee
cups, and spoons was missing, and holes had been punched in the
walls and ceiling. It was November 1989, and rebel forces in El
Salvador had launched their most serious offensive on the capital
in 10 years of civil war.
Williams' San Salvador office at Medical Aid for El Salvador was
among several humanitarian agencies that were sacked and robbed.
Williams, an intense and determined Vermont native, had no doubt
about who was responsible for the looting. Government forces had
long suspected that humanitarian groups were sympathetic to the
rebel cause, and Williams believed they had used the rebel
offensive as an opportunity to search the offices for propaganda
and weapons. When the fighting in the capital eased, she drove to
the headquarters of the Salvadoran military's high command, a drab,
cement-block building atop a man-made hill, overlooking a
shantytown of cardboard shacks.
Escorted into a sparsely furnished room, she stood face to face
with six colonels in camouflage, the leaders of the armed forces in
``I remember clearly thinking that if they could kill me, then
and there, for what I represented or for what they believed I
represented, they would,'' Williams recalls.
Williams wanted restitution for the damages and a written
apology. She left without getting either, but a few days later, the
chief of staff of the Salvadoran defense forces, Col. Rene Emilio
Ponce, did the unthinkable: He wrote a letter of apology, in effect
admitting that the government had sacked the office and noting his
support for Medical Aid for El Salvador's work.
``You have no idea how important that letter was to us,''
recalls Mario Velasquez, Williams' boss at Medical Aid. ``We used
to call it the Golden Letter. With this letter, we gained the
respect of the military, so they were no longer messing with us.''
No one else in El Salvador had the courage to confront the
colonels, Velasquez says. ``Jody Williams did.''
Since her days as a young girl, when she defended her deaf and
schizophrenic brother from the tin cans and taunts of neighborhood
kids, Williams has cast herself as a foe of bullies and a Lone
Ranger for peace.
For years, she toiled in obscurity: first, trying to alleviate
the suffering caused by the ``Reagan-Bush wars,'' as she called the
conflicts in the '80s in Central America; later, in the job that
would win her world renown, as a top organizer of an international
coalition dedicated to the elimination of land mines around the
In six years, the coalition that Williams helped assemble grew
from a handful of humanitarian groups into a campaign that
encompassed more than 1,000 organizations. It enlisted the support
of mine victims and mine-clearance experts, peace and disarmament
groups, sympathetic politicians, diplomats, four-star generals and,
most famously, the late Princess Diana.
To recognize this extraordinary effort, the Nobel committee in
Oslo, Norway, bestowed its Peace Prize last year jointly on
Williams and on the coalition that she helped build, the
International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. Two months after the
prize announcement, 122 nations signed an international treaty in
Ottawa banning the production, sale and use of anti-personnel land
``Jody acted as the nerve center of the campaign,'' says
Susannah Sirkin, of Physicians for Human Rights, in Boston, one of
the six founding organizations of the campaign. ``She was driven by
a single-minded focus to keep this thing going, literally staring
down those who would stand in the way.''
But the same character traits that catapulted the now
47-year-old Williams to Nobel glory _ her brashness, bluntness and
lone-wolf style of leadership _ have made her a lightning rod for
She has been attacked in the press by former colleagues as an
imperious self-promoter and as an out-of-control employee who
hogged all of the credit and half of the prize money. She's been
accused of betraying the ideals of the land-mine campaign and
flouting the wishes of the campaign's steering committee by putting
herself forward for the peace prize.
At the center of this unhappy drama is Williams' rift with her
former employer, Robert O. Muller, the head of the Vietnam Veterans
of America Foundation, the Washington, D.C.-based group that hired
her to coordinate the land-mine campaign. Muller, whom Williams had
at one time described as her best friend and mentor, fired Williams
three days before the prize was announced. The dismissal was the
culmination of months of mounting tension between the activists.
``Jody is the ultimate loner,'' Muller says. ``You can only go
so far by yourself. That's part of the problem. She doesn't work
well at all with a team.''
Williams, lashing back, accuses her former colleagues of
jealousy and sexism, because, as she told one reporter, ``girls do
all the work, boys want the recognition.''
One of the unspoken commandments of humanitarian and peace work
is: Thou shalt not seek celebrity. And if fame comes, renounce it
quickly. Otherwise, beware thy colleagues' wrath.
U.N. mediator Ralph Bunche understood the importance of humility
when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his efforts
to bring an end to the war between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. ``I
am one man working for the United Nations,'' he said, firmly
rebuffing suggestions that he was a hero. ``Without the U.N., I am
Williams, critics say, has failed the Bunche test miserably.
They say she drove to Vermont from her apartment in suburban
Virginia just before the Nobel recipients were announced, so that
she could greet the international press corps alone, far from her
Washington, D.C., colleagues. Williams, who notes that she'd been
fired three days before the Nobel announcement, says that she drove
to Vermont to celebrate her birthday.
Whatever her intentions, the choice of location made for
brilliant theater: She stood alone in her grassy yard near a beaver
pond, barefoot and wearing a black tank top, blasting the president
of the United States as a ``weenie'' for refusing to buck the
Pentagon and support a land-mine ban.
Many of the articles that ran in the next day's newspapers
portrayed Williams as a hard-charging, backwoods hero who, by
tapping into the Internet from her ``rustic farmhouse,'' had
single-handedly galvanized citizens to rise up against an insidious
weapon _ all in defiance of the United States, the world's sole
The story made good copy, but it was, at best, misleading. Many
people played critical roles in the success of the campaign,
including Thomas Gebauer, of the German group Medico International
and Muller, of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, who
conceived the idea; sympathetic politicians such as U.S. Sen.
Patrick Leahy, of Vermont and Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian foreign
minister; Princess Diana, who focused international attention on
the cause; and hundreds of mine victims and mine-clearance experts
around the world.
But Williams _ who was an employee of Muller's foundation, which
paid her $70,000-a-year salary and travel expenses _ sees herself
as the key figure in the effort. ``It started with me,'' she
asserts, ``and five years later, there were 1,200 non-government
organizations in 60 countries involved.''
Williams also angered many colleagues by keeping her $500,000
share of the prize money, thereby violating another activists'
commandment: Thou shalt not get rich. And Williams' public
complaints about the $230,000 tax bill she faced struck a sour
Critics say she could have donated her share of the prize to the
campaign or to land-mine victims. Instead, almost half of her prize
money will go to the U.S. Treasury and much of it will be spent by
the Pentagon, which has opposed the land-mine treaty from the
Muller, a former Marine lieutenant, who was determined to rid
the world of land mines, had been paralyzed below the waist in
1969, while shot through the chest, charging a hill in South
Vietnam. His anger and activist fire were forged during his
rehabilitation at the Veterans Administration medical center in the
Bronx, where he was appalled at the filthy conditions and despair.
He joined the antiwar movement and was thrown out of the 1972
Republican National Convention for attempting to shout down
President Richard M. Nixon. He led the campaign to secure financial
restitution for U.S. soldiers who were victims of Agent Orange and
headed the first delegation of American veterans to return to
Vietnam, in 1981.
He was the hero of the 1975 Vietnam documentary ``Hearts and
Minds'' and a real-life inspiration for the ``cool rockin' daddy''
of Bruce Springsteen's anthem, ``Born in the U.S.A.'' A man of
almost messianic charisma, Muller inspires fierce devotion among
During visits to Cambodia in the 1980s, Muller was stunned by
the number of land-mine victims _ according to one recent estimate,
one out every 236 people in that country is an amputee _ and by the
appalling lack of care. Muller's organization, the Vietnam Veterans
of America Foundation, which he founded in 1980, set up a
prosthetics clinic in Cambodia, but the catastrophic toll exacted
by hidden mines convinced him that victim assistance was only a
Band-Aid for a problem that demanded much more.
All over the world, workers from humanitarian groups were
reaching similar conclusions. The Red Cross estimates that 24,000
people are killed or maimed by land mines each year, most of them
civilians and many of them children. According to the U.S. State
Department, there are between 80 million and 110 million land mines
buried in 71 countries around the world, most in developing
In October 1991, Muller and Thomas Gebauer, of the German aid
group Medico International, decided to try to unite numerous
humanitarian, development, and peace groups under the banner of an
international campaign. The goal, as framed by Muller and Gebauer,
was an international ban on antipersonnel land mines.
A month later, impressed by Williams' intensity and organizing
track record at Medical Aid for El Salvador, Muller asked her to
come on board as the campaign coordinator.
Within a year of the hiring of Williams, four other
non-governmental organizations _ Human Rights Watch, Handicap
International, the Mines Advisory Group and Physicians for Human
Rights _ joined the campaign. Together with Medico International
and Muller's veterans foundation, these organizations formed a
steering committee to provide direction to the effort to ban land
Volatile and self-assured, Williams had a famous exchange during
the Ottawa Conference, in 1996, a strategy session for banning land
mines that brought together representatives from 70 governments.
The head of the French delegation, Michel Declos, an Old
World-style diplomat, told the conference that France supported a
ban but reserved the right to use land mines when militarily
Several delegates signaled for Williams to stand up and rebut
him. Leaning toward the microphone, Williams said that the
``distinguished representative'' of the French delegation could not
have it both ways: supporting a ban in peacetime but using mines in
wartime. His proposal, she said, was ``better than a stick in the
eye, but not much.''
It was an extraordinary moment: a member of a non-governmental
organization lecturing a diplomat. With Williams leading the
charge, other participants at the conference began denouncing the
French proposal. On the last day of the conference, Lloyd Axworthy,
the Canadian foreign minister, astonished everyone with a heady
challenge: He called on the nations of the world to return to
Ottawa in 14 months to sign an international treaty outlawing land
However, once close friends, Muller and Williams were barely
speaking during 1997, and the gulf between their strategies was
The two had very different world views. Muller believed that a
treaty to ban land mines would be a hollow victory without American
support, because the United States was the only country in the
world with the clout and credibility to persuade nations such as
Russia and China to sign on and to ensure adherence to the treaty.
Williams disagreed. The most important countries to have on board,
she believed, were nations that used mines: the Angolas and
Cambodias of the world. The United States could sign later if it
The two also disagreed about tactics. Muller had hired a
lobbying team of pollsters and media experts, headed by former
White House aide Patrick Griffin. Williams called the group ``the
sleaze team.'' The campaign, she felt, was being cited as a new
model of diplomacy, one in which average citizens and
non-governmental organizations forced governments to agree to a
weapons ban. She did not think it needed a Beltway PR machine.
Muller thought Williams and her allies were naive about the way
Washington worked. Conservative members of Congress and Army
generals were not going to be swayed by grass-roots campaigning.
Still, he agreed that Griffin's work should be kept as low-profile
On Oct. 7, 1997, Muller fired Williams officially. Three days
later, at 4 a.m., the phones at her Vermont home started ringing.
Williams and the campaign had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In December, the historic Ottawa treaty was signed by 122 nations,
banning the use of antipersonnel land mines.
In May, in an important policy shift, the Clinton administration
announced that the United States will sign the Ottawa treaty as
soon as it finds alternatives to its mixed landmine systems. It has
set a goal of the year 2006.
Meanwhile, since the controversy over the landmine campaign and
the Nobel Prize hit the pages of the Los Angeles Times, the
Washington Post and The New York Times, Williams has been besieged
with requests for interviews. This is the last personal interview
she will be granting for a while, Williams promises; she will not
further indulge a ``media story gone amok.''
``I'm not interested in talking about me,'' she says. ``Contrary
to what some in the campaign think, I'm not into being a famous
Williams says she will spend her time working as one of the
campaign's official unpaid ambassadors, formulating political
strategies and giving speeches to ensure that the treaty signed in
Ottawa is ratified, implemented and enforced.
c.1998 James Bandler
(James Bandler is a free-lance journalist who lives in