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Youth urged to act for peace

NCR Staff

It’s not enough to have a vision of peace - you have to take action, Nobel Peace laureate Jody Williams told more than 200 teenagers at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

“It makes me mental to hear people say, ‘Visualize peace,’ ” Williams said. “I can’t visualize peace. It doesn’t work that way. If you want to make a difference, work for it.”

The young people had gathered to hear Williams as part of an international program called PeaceJam, which brings youth together with Nobel laureates to learn about ways to work for peace.

Williams, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work on behalf of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, is one of 12 Nobel Peace laureates who participate in PeaceJam. The organization, which is based in Denver, has held more than two dozen events around the world since it was founded in 1994 by Ivan Suvanjieff and Dawn Engle. Conferences have been hosted by affiliates around the United States and in South Africa, Guatemala, India and Costa Rica.

In addition to Williams, the Nobel laureates on PeaceJam’s advisory board are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Rigoberta Menchu, Oscar Arias, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Betty Williams, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos Horta.

Williams was the featured speaker at the Nov. 6-7 PeaceJam conference at the Jesuit school in Kansas City. She said she hoped the example of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which within six years of its launch had achieved an international treaty banning the weapons, would inspire the youth at the conference to believe that ordinary people can make a difference.

Williams began her work to ban landmines as a “staff of one” for a coalition of a handful of nongovernmental organizations. She ultimately convinced more than 1,000 organizations and over 60 countries to support the campaign. In December 1997, 122 countries signed a treaty that bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of mines.

As of Oct. 27, there are 136 signatories to the treaty, and 89 countries have ratified it. The United States has not signed the treaty. Williams told NCR that the United States was an early leader, passing the first export moratorium in 1992, but as the movement picked up momentum, “the U.S. got left behind.”

In addition to pressuring countries that have not signed the treaty, the campaign is concentrating its efforts on making sure the signatories abide by the treaty. “Governments have short attention spans, and if you don’t stay on top of them, they backslide,” Williams said.

For six weeks before the PeaceJam conference, students in the Kansas City area studied the accomplishments of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines as a case study in peace work. At the conference, they spent about two hours asking Williams questions about the campaign and her experiences working for peace. The questions were interspersed with requests for hugs and photos with Williams.

Asked whom she admires, Williams expressed reservations about looking to well-known people for inspiration. “I’m inspired by anybody who tries to make a difference,” she said. “I have a real problem with ‘famous’ - people seem to think that famous people are somehow better or more important. From my point of view, the only thing that makes a person great is the work they do.”

Several students who said they planned military careers questioned the campaign against landmines, asserting that the devices protect soldiers and that a professional military is able to control their use. Williams said that attempts to control the weapons have not worked. She added that in April 1996, 15 high-ranking military officers, including General Norman Schwarzkopf, signed a letter in support of a landmine ban, calling the weapons militarily unjustified and inhumane.

After the session, Becca Konomos, 17, told NCR that Williams’ story “made me realize that it doesn’t take a famous person or a mayor or a senator to make a difference. … Sometimes you think, ‘I can’t do anything, I’m only one person,’ but you really can. She’s a good example of that. She just believed in her cause and went for it, and look at everything she’s done.”

Konomos, who was part of a student committee that drafted a pledge of nonviolence for her Catholic high school, Bishop Miege in Roeland Park, Kan., said she hopes to become more involved in the landmines issue.

Later in the weekend, students presented the plans for service projects, including food drives and diversity and nonviolence education, to Williams and their peers. They also participated in service activities that weekend at various charities and churches throughout the city. Local activists led workshops at the conference about topics such as conflict management, leadership and partnerships with adults.

Next spring, a “PeaceJamSlam” is planned, a one-day event in which the students will report on the results of their service projects.

Usually four students are chosen to represent their school at the conference, Suvanjieff said, adding that in older affiliates, competition to attend gets fierce. “We have kids sneak in, forge I.D.’s,” he told NCR. “People ask me, ‘Don’t you throw those kids out?’ No - those are the kids who want to be there. I like that energy. That’s certainly what I would have done.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999