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Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Launches Campaign to Stop Killer Robots After Winning Ban on Landmines

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In 1997 Jody Williams won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. In 2013 she helped launch the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Who is accountable? Is it the man who programmed it? Is it Lockheed Martin, who built it?” Williams asks in an interview at The Hague, where she has joined 1,000 female peace activists gathered to mark the founding of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Williams notes how some “spider-like” robots that spray tear gas are now used for crowd control, but could be stopped before they become widespread. She recalls how she was previously able to “force the governments of the world to come together and discuss [landmines]. They thought they would fly under the radar … A small group of people can and do change the world.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: But we’re here right now at The Hague, where women have gathered, about a thousand women from around the world. The Africa contingent here is large. A hundred years ago, there weren’t women from Africa as they were protesting World War I. So, about a thousand women are here. And among those are these women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize. They had a gathering this weekend, not far from here, of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Jody Williams, you’re the chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. What is the idea of this, why all you Nobel laureates, female Nobel laureates, have come?

JODY WILLIAMS: Why did we form the initiative? We recognized very quickly—it was an idea, actually, of Shirin Ebadi—that, you know, in the now 114-year history of the peace prize, after all of these years, we actually had like a handful of women alive who could, you know, maybe do something different. We—

AMY GOODMAN: There have been 16 women Nobel Peace Prize winners, something like that?

JODY WILLIAMS: There are 16. Now 16, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Nine now are—

JODY WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah. But we thought that we would use whatever prestige and influence and power we have by virtue of the prize to shine the spotlight on women around the world who are working for sustainable peace with justice and equality, which is a very different vision from just peace as the absence of armed conflict. And for me, personally—and I am sure for my Nobel sisters—I became joyous at having the peace prize, when we came together and recognized that we could use it, you know, to uplift the women who always carry the weight of conflict as men are out conducting it.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re wearing a shirt that says “unarmed civilian.”


AMY GOODMAN: Talk about it.

JODY WILLIAMS: I think its origin was around the Ferguson murder in the United States, the black man murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Brown, yes.

JODY WILLIAMS: Yeah. And that was the genesis. But I was at an international conference on humanitarian disarmament, which grew out of our Campaign to Ban Landmines, and I was given a gift. And this was the gift. And humanitarian disarmament is a whole different way of looking at getting rid of weapons, that it’s not just the military and the politicians can decide what should and shouldn’t be used, it’s that they have to actually follow the laws of war, which they don’t like, really, and look at weapons and look at the humanitarian impact, meaning how many people are you killing with these weapons over time, especially, compared to this so-called military game. And so, it was all of those things together.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk strategy for a minute, Jody.


AMY GOODMAN: In 1997, you won the Nobel Peace Prize for your work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, ICBL. Talk about how you started, how you formed this global fight against landmines, and now, almost 20 years later, you’re taking on what you call killer robots. Take us on that trajectory.

JODY WILLIAMS: Sure. To me, it was very logical. First of all, I was hired by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, who had seen the carnage of landmines during Vietnam, and a sister organization in Germany. And they asked if I could try to put together a political coalition of nongovernmental organizations to put pressure on governments to ban anti-personnel landmines. So we started out with the two and staff of one—me—and we called it the International Campaign, because it was Germany and the U.S. But logic said to me, go to the organizations that in one way or another have, you know, something to do with landmines. Human Rights Watch had written the first reports on the humanitarian impact of landmines over time, compared to their use. Physicians for Human Rights had been involved in those reports, as well. Handicap International from France, that was doing massive amounts of work with amputees and prosthetics, not—

AMY GOODMAN: Where were most of the landmines?

JODY WILLIAMS: In the world? Oh, God, Africa was the most mined continent. There were some in Central America, some in South America. But—

AMY GOODMAN: Many in Vietnam, in Asia?

JODY WILLIAMS: Many in Vietnam and Asia, Cambodia. Angola was a horrible one, Bosnia. I mean, anywhere that conflict—internal conflict, in particular, is where those weapons were used. They’re cheap. They’re easy to use. You plant them in the ground, you walk away, you don’t care who they kill.

But our strategy was to, you know, include organizations from the producer states, from the states where people were being killed, and bring them all together with a common cause. Even though we were working on many other issues individually, the common goal was getting rid of the landmines, getting countries to donate resources for victim assistance and to get the mines out of the ground. And we found a core group of governments that shared the same goal, because as much as we could protest—and I think it’s similar for what Leymah’s example—we could protest 'til, you know, the cows come in, as we would say in Vermont, but if the governments don't write the treaty, if the governments and the rebels don’t negotiate the peace accords, nothing happens. So we found governments that cared, and we—you know, we changed how people thought about weapons. We really made it not seem like an esoteric thing in the U.N., you know, on the conference on disarmament. This is stuff that affects people in their blood, in their bones, every single—

AMY GOODMAN: And unbelievably powerful PSAs that you put out.

JODY WILLIAMS: Yeah, yeah. This affects everyone. And we all—

AMY GOODMAN: You blow up people, children in a playground.

JODY WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm, yeah. But we brought the bombs to the U.N. One day I was so frustrated with them negotiating. You know, they’d spend a whole day on the—you know, talking about changing the treaty, and they’d change a comma to a semicolon, call it work. And I was so furious. I said, “I want to pick up your negotiating table and put it in the biggest minefield in Cambodia and not let you men out”—it’s similar—”not show you the safe lane out until you negotiate a treaty banning these weapons.”

It didn’t happen, so we had the most massive, creative—you know, everybody brought their own skills. We had people who came very shortly with a simulated minefield, and we put it in front of the door to the negotiating room so they had to walk through it. We had landmine survivors give them one million signatures from people around the world calling for a ban. We had a clock on the wall counting the number of victims as they droned away at negotiations that did nothing. And it’s all that refusal, except you and your diplomats who, in Geneva, looking at the beautiful Alps over the beautiful lake and pretending that your conversation means something—

AMY GOODMAN: So when did the treaty get signed?

JODY WILLIAMS: It was in 1997.

AMY GOODMAN: A few months before you won the prize, you were awarded the prize.

JODY WILLIAMS: Yes, yes. But—

AMY GOODMAN: So did you feel like on that day you had accomplished a tremendous amount, and it was done, you could move on?

JODY WILLIAMS: No. Just like Leymah was talking about earlier, that was just the beginning. You know, but words on paper, terrific, especially if you’re a writer. But a treaty, a law, a U.N. resolution non-implemented is fundamentally irrelevant. And I think the governments were cheering that the negotiations were done. We had the treaty. They thought we’d call victory and go home. Instead, we had part of our campaign planning out a strategy for the next year, saying, OK, this is what this—you know, this requirement of the treaty requires you to do this and this and this and this. And we wrote out a strategy for what this campaign was committed to doing to make sure this thing was implemented. And we handed it out as the negotiations were ending. So they had no doubt that we were in it for the long haul. And I think that’s one thing that real, you know, hardcore activists understands. It’s not like, oh, for six months we’re going to do a new campaign to make poverty history or any of the things that are, you know, a flash in the pan. You have to stay committed to the goal.

AMY GOODMAN: So take that to killer robots. Half the people who are listening right now are not even going to know what you’re talking about.

JODY WILLIAMS: Immediately, you think drones, right? A drone is not a killer robot, even though they’re—can challenge your conception of ethical and moral, just war, if such a thing exists—I don’t happen to think so; however, the drone flies semi-autonomously. You know, it can go for thousands of miles by itself. But there’s still a human being somewhere on the drone base looking at a computer. It looks at—the he or she looks at you, and they go, “Hmm, Amy Goodman, she’s not an appropriate messenger in the media. She doesn’t talk about war as a glorious thing. She’s therefore the enemy.” Pow! And a human being has to push the buttons to release the Hellfire missiles to blast you into eternity.

They are making weapons now that will take that human being out of the system. Imagine a drone that has now been programmed so that once it takes off, that drone, by itself, flies around, decides that this whole room is a target and blows it up, all by itself. Who is accountable? Who is accountable? Is it the man who programmed it? Is it Lockheed Martin, who built it? You certainly can’t bring the drone to trial. And to make us even more concerned, they are starting to use those weapons for crowd control. I recently saw a picture of a medium-size, spider-like drone, and it has been equipped with tear gas for crowd control.

AMY GOODMAN: Walking on the ground?

JODY WILLIAMS: No, flying, drone, fly. So we have launched a campaign to stop that. You know, and the U.S., of course, is in the lead of making them and thinks that we should keep the door open to them. We don’t—you know, there’s nothing wrong with drones, they say. There’s a human involved in real-time killing.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you also talking about robots that actually walk and kill?

JODY WILLIAMS: On the air—in the air, on the land and in the sea, yeah, absolutely, and swarms. Swarms. They have a vision of swarms of killer robot planes—we won’t call them drones, to be—swarms that can attack the opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: And who’s controlling them? For our radio audience, you’re—

JODY WILLIAMS: Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t lift my arms to the radio. Sorry, radio. It would be, you know, the commander who decided to use the swarm and push the buttons to release the swarm.

AMY GOODMAN: To begin with, but not now, once it’s flying.

JODY WILLIAMS: Not once it’s flying. They don’t want men in the middle, if you will.

AMY GOODMAN: So what are you doing about this?

JODY WILLIAMS: We launched a campaign in April of 2013 in London with our friendly killer robot, who we brought in front of Parliament. And within nine months, we were able to force the governments of the world to come together in Geneva and start discussing these weapons. And they thought they would fly under the radar and they would be out there before we knew what hit us. A small group of people can and do change the world.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion with three Nobel winners, three Nobel Peace Prize winners: Jody Williams, Leymah Gbowee and Mairead Maguire. This is Democracy Now! We’re broadcasting live from the World Forum at The Hague in the Netherlands. Stay with us.

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