Alumna Helps Achieve Nobel Prize--Winning Land Mine Ban
by Emily Harrison WeirIt was 5:20 am last October 10 when Susannah Sirkin '76 was awakened by a reporter's phone call. "Congratulations," he said. "You all have just won the Nobel Peace Prize!" Adrenaline shoved sleepiness aside. Sirkin (left) gave an interview on the spot about the role Physicians for Human Rights -of which Sirkin is deputy director-played in The International Campaign to Ban Land Mines, which the Nobel committee had just honored.
It was particularly fitting that Sirkin got the call, since six years earlier, she had been at the table when the ICBL was formed. Back then its ambitious goal-a worldwide treaty outlawing production and use of land mines-seemed distant and possibly naive. Winning a Nobel prize wasn't even on its radar screen.
As ecstatic as winning the Nobel made Sirkin and her ICBL colleagues, the real achievement was passage of the 1997 Ottawa treaty. That agreement has now been signed by 125 nations who agree to ban land mines. For Sirkin, the Nobel was "icing on the cake" of human rights progress.
How did a small group of activists mobilize the world in six short years? "The issue is so compelling," Sirkin says, "that when people see the devastation mines cause, they know there is only one solution." The facts speak loudly for themselves.
Land mines, Sirkin argues, violate the "rules of war" codified by the Geneva Conventions. "International law requires combatants to do all they can to ensure that civilians are not harmed, but land mines are completely indiscriminate. They can't distinguish between the footfall of a soldier and that of a child."
In 1991, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) researchers calculated that one in every 236 Cambodian civilians was a land mine amputee. That sobering statistic "made us realize there was no alternative but to call for a total ban," Sirkin recalls. "We had no idea that people would rally 'round to the degree that they did."
Sirkin helped organize investigations by PHR physicians in countries including Somalia, Mozambique, El Salvador, and the former Yugoslavia to gather evidence on the medical effects of land mines and other human rights abuses. Reports based on their findings helped sway millions. PHR and other ICBL colleagues circulated gruesome photos and hard statistics. And around the world, grassroots movements flourished, influencing organizations, petitioning governments, and building support for an end to land mines. The ICBL eventually grew to include more than 1,100 human rights, humanitarian, children's, peace, veterans', medical, development, arms control, religious, environmental, and women's groups in more than fifty nations.
"It was a unique time in history to have a treaty move so quickly and an issue that galvanized so many people in so many countries," Sirkin says. "Mine victims in wheelchairs, on crutches, or with only one leg crossed their countries getting people to sign petitions. Millions begged their governments to support the treaty. It was so moving."
Yet when the Ottawa treaty was finished, America did not sign. "Polls have shown that the U.S. population strongly supports the treaty, and that should have given Clinton enough political ammunition to sign it," she says. "But the military doesn't like to give up any weapon in its arsenal. Every American who cares about the reputation of the United States as a leader on human rights should urge Clinton and Congress to support a total ban and sign the treaty."
Sirkin has spent twenty years in human rights work and was aware of the need for it even as a child. "My father was a diplomat, and I was confronted head-on by poverty when I was about eight and we lived in India," she recalls. At MHC, she created a major in modern European studies and witnessed her first human rights demonstrations during her junior year in Paris. Back in the United States, Sirkin's volunteer work with Amnesty International evolved into a full-time job as director for membership programs. She helped form Physicians for Human Rights in 1987. Thinking back on her MHC experience, Sirkin says, "The international atmosphere and values promoted by my mentors kept me engaged in contemporary issues and committed to working for a better world."
Sirkin regularly speaks around the world about genocide, torture, wretched prison conditions, mass killings, and land mines. While this might depress or disturb some people to the point of paralysis, Sirkin says she would be more upset if cruelty stopped disturbing her. "With gruesome stories and images crossing your desk every day, you could become inured to the personal level of the violence. So it's important that I continue to be upset. I actually force myself to sustain painful emotions because they keep me motivated."
Although the treaty is a reality and the pace of demining efforts has quickened, Sirkin's work is far from over. She plans strategy and coordinates PHR's continuing efforts in the land mine campaign as well as their work in documenting other human rights abuses.
And recently her group had an unusual problem: The Nobel prize came with one million dollars attached-half for ICBL, half for its coordinator, Jody Williams. But the ICBL was so decentralized that it had no common bank account in which to deposit its prize money! Solving that was easy; eradicating land mines-even with the Nobel funds-will take much longer.
For more information about PHR, contact them at (617) 695-0041 or email@example.com.
Photos: 1) Brooks Kraft; 2) Keith BernStein; 3) Courtesy of Physicians for Human Rights