Real Leaders

Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams Admits, “I’m No Mother Theresa.”

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash
  • Words of wisdom from 1997 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams who led the movement that successfully banned the use, production and sale of anti-personnel landmines.
  • Feel-good, sentimental feelings around peace are a waste of time.
  • Peace is hard work and starts with the needs of the individual.
  • Weapons of war do not make us secure, but jobs do. It’s time to place human security over national security.
  • Diversity among decision-makers will help shape the world for the better. 

Real Leaders interviewed Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, who shared her refreshingly blunt view on war, peace, jobs, diversity, and getting off our butts.

On war and peace and human security

The image of peace with a dove flying over a rainbow and people holding hands singing kumbaya ends up infantilizing people who believe that sustainable peace is possible. If you think that singing and looking at a rainbow will suddenly make peace appear then you’re not capable of meaningful thought, or understanding the difficulties of the world.

Most people, when confronted with these images of peace, and the derogatory terms that go with it, such as “tree-hugger,” “liberal” or “granola-eating hippie,” become ashamed to say they believe in peace. It’s critical that we reclaim the meaning of peace and that it’s not seen as just an absence of conflict or personal serenity.

Peace means actively engaging in the world to create one in which we all want to live. It’s hard work everyday. It’s about making a commitment to a greater good, even with the people you don’t like in the world. I certainly don’t like everyone in the world; the Nobel Peace Prize did not suddenly turn me into Mother Theresa.

There are those whose politics and worldview I don’t like at all. However, if I only wish for a greater good for my friends or those who think like me, I’m no different from the people I dislike. I want to see a world in which everybody benefits from sustainable peace. To achieve this we need to focus on human security, not national security. Theoretically, within a national security framework, if the state is secure then the people are secure, but I don’t believe that. I look at my own country where democracy is under siege. A huge number   of people live on, or below, the poverty line and the things I consider important to making a nation secure, such as job security, are collapsing under the weight of global corporatism. A lust for more and the selling of weapons of war do not make us secure.

If I were to ask people if being kept safe from an ISIS attack in their hometown in Nowheresville, Oklahoma was a priority, most would answer no. They would most likely want a job to be able to pay their mortgage. Security should be based on the needs of an individual, which will make a nation stronger and the whole world more secure.

Be an active citizen

I don’t believe you need to be a full-time activist to be an involved citizen and to bring about positive change. The media wants us to believe that the problems of the world are so overwhelming that there’s nothing we can do; to leave it to people in power to solve, the so-called “experts.”

When I speak with people of any age, I suggest they think for a few moments about what issue upsets them the most and what change they’d like to see. When I started the International Campaign to Ban Landmines in 1991, it wasn’t about changing our world from a planet of war into one of peace overnight. It was about banning one weapon, which started a process of change. The campaign grew within six years to 1,000 organizations in 60 countries and resulted in the signing of The Ottawa Convention by 120 states, banning the use, production and sale of anti-personnel mines.

Convert your concern to action

There’s nothing magical about bringing about change – it’s about converting your concern into action. To young people especially, I say that without taking action your concerns become irrelevant. If you don’t own that issue and find a way to contribute, how are you different? Imagine a world where everybody who cared about doing something to better the planet volunteered a couple of hours a month; imagine what the world would be like?

Glorify conflict resolution, not war

There are many small things that have shaped my personality and led me to where I am now. My eldest brother was born deaf and when I was 6 years old our neighbours took particular pleasure in bullying and tormenting him. One day while we where riding our bikes they threw stones and tin cans at him and he started bleeding profusely. I was so enraged that I threw down my bike and wanted to beat the crap out of them. I felt such righteous indignation that they could happily torture a person, who through no fault of his own, couldn’t speak.

This incident slowly translated into speaking up for other kids being bullied in the playground. Later, this indignation became the driving force behind my activism against the Vietnam War. Peace education should start in kindergarten and conflict resolution should be taught throughout school. Instead, we are taught the glorification of war, something we see throughout history. The glorious American Revolution and the taming the West is glorified, instead of seen for what it really was – genocide.

Violence breeds violence… so stop it!

I believe that violence breeds violence, breeds violence, breeds violence. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a desire to punch people. I’m a typical human being after all. However, from my work I believe that an act of violence never goes unpunished. There are cultures that believe that revenge is fundamental to honour. If murdering and torturing other people brings honour, I don’t want to be part of that group. It’s not that difficult to destroy a community but it’s hellishly difficult to rebuild a society after war.

Women of the Nobel Women's Initiative (from left): Leymah Gbowee, Mairead Maguire, Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams, Tawakkol Karman and Rigoberta Menchú Tum.
Women of the Nobel Women’s Initiative (from left): Leymah Gbowee, Mairead Maguire, Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams, Tawakkol Karman and Rigoberta Menchú Tum.


Women and diversity

I think women think differently about conflict, yet I’m unsure that if the world were run by women there’d be less war. I do believe that diversity in decision-making would help shape the world for the better: men, women, white, black, brown, transgender, lesbian and gay. If everyone had an equal opportunity, from a position of power, to help shape the world, rather than a bunch of old, white men, we can help avoid the misunderstandings that create conflict. When only one part of humanity makes all the decisions the world will, of course, only know one way of doing things. It’s also fundamental that women no longer have to ask men to be treated equally.

In 2004, fellow Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi of Iran and I realized there were seven women in the world who were living recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. We decided to come together and use our power and influence from the Peace Prize to promote the work of women around the world working for sustainable peace. We formed the Nobel Women’s Initiative. This is a powerful symbol of how women are different from men. Since 1901 there have been more than 790 Nobel prizes awarded to men, and less than 50 to women. Yet, men have never gotten together to create a Nobel men’s initiative.

My next challenge: Banning killer robots

I’m very aware that maintaining peace is an endless job. As one threat is averted another arises. I’m currently working on a campaign to ban killer robots. These are unmanned weapons that mark their own targets and the decision to kill without any human intervention. It’s something I’m doing with my husband Steve Goose, who runs the arms division of Human Rights Watch. Within nine months we had freaked out governments to such a degree that the first governmental discussions on killer robots was held in Geneva last year.

Now get off your butt!

If you teach people different ways of looking at this little planet we all share, you can change the world. Anything is possible if you believe it. You’ve just got to get up off your butt and participate in creating change.

Have you ever taken any action, however small, to create peace? Tell us about it below.