Why Princess Diana's Fight Against Landmines Was So Remarkable
In January of 1997, just a few months before the tragic car crash that would take her life, Princess Diana stepped out onto an active minefield in Angola to learn how de-miners clear away explosives.
Never one to shy away from a difficult cause—her work with AIDS patients and the homeless in the 1980s and early '90s was also groundbreaking—Diana knew full well the publicity a trip like this would generate for the then-controversial issue, and she was right. Advocating against landmines has become her legacy, and there are few more iconic images of Diana than the one of her sitting alongside a young amputee or the photo of her decked out in body armor, face covered, standing next to a sign that literally reads “danger.”
“If you were going to do a montage of pictures of the 20th century, I think those two images would stand a chance of getting into the top 100,” Paul Heslop, who accompanied Diana in Angola with Halo Trust back in 1997, and now serves as the Chief of Programme Planning and Management section of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), said in a phone interview.
Princess Diana sits with 13-year-old Sandra Thijika, who lost her leg to a mine.
“They very much tell a story,” he continued. “A mother, a young mother with a little girl who’s lost her leg on a mine. And a beautiful woman who is not wearing a ball gown and diamond, but is wearing chinos and body armor doing a lonely walk through an area that and who was being cleared of mines. There are two very strong messages there. And I think she knew what she was doing.”
In 2017, it’s widely accepted that landmines are horrific weapons that disproportionally affect civilians—and that their destructive influence lasts long after armed conflict in a region is over—but during the late ‘90s, they were still a controversial subject. “Now, everybody goes 'mines, yes of course they’re banned, why would we have it?' But in the ‘90s they were still seen by the military as of value,” Heslop told me.
His sentiment is echoed by Amelie Chayer, acting director of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). “Antipersonnel landmines had been in widespread use for decades before they were banned in 1997. Back then, armies considered that antipersonnel landmines were a legitimate weapon somehow,” Chayer wrote me in an email. “By the mid-90s, there were so many landmine explosions killing innocent people around the globe every day, that the problem was called ‘an epidemic.’”
Diana's support for an international treaty banning landmines—and her public work with groups seeking to eradicate them—was seen at the time as a political stance, not merely a charitable one. Members of the U.K.'s Conservative party, which was in power at the time, accused Diana of going against the government’s official policy, and of indicating her support of one party over another.
Earl Howe, the UK's then-junior defense minister called her a "loose cannon," and said she was uninformed about the issue of landmines.
Peter Viggers, a Tory member of the defense select committee at the time, also spoke out, saying, “We all know landmines and other weapons are vicious and nasty. The question is how best to negotiate so they are not used in future. The government’s policy on this has been an extremely careful one and the statements made by the Princess of Wales have not been in line with that policy.”
I am not a political figure. My interests are humanitarian. —Princess Diana
Despite the controversy, Diana insisted that her interest in the cause was not politically motivated. “I am not a political figure. As I said at the time, and I'd like to reiterate now, my interests are humanitarian. That is why I felt drawn to this human tragedy," Diana said during a speech in June of 1997 about her trip. "How can countries which manufacture and trade in these weapons square their conscience with such human devastation?"
Diana, Princess of Wales, at Neves Bendinha, a Red Cross orthopedic workshop in Angola.
Diana's position on landmines was doubly notable because it was one of her first major efforts since her official divorce from Prince Charles in August of 1996. She was still officially the Princess of Wales, but no longer "Her Royal Highness." Diana remained a royal insider—the mother of the future king—but it was unclear exactly what her royal mandate would be.
Her actions spoke clearly: Just 20 days before her death, Diana was in the former war zone of Bosnia, visiting with victims of mines and meeting with rehabilitation specialists.
Princess Diana in Angola
Diana's involvement was undeniably influential. Both Heslop and Chayer are quick to credit her with contributing to the passage of the Ottawa Mine Treaty (also known as the Mine Ban Treaty), which was signed by 122 states—not including the United States—on December 3, 1997, just a little over three months after the princess was killed. According to the ICBL, the treaty is "a legally binding international agreement that bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel mines."
Heslop put it this way: “I’m not saying that Diana made it happen, but I am saying that I think her involvement made it a lot harder for it not to happen,” Heslop said. "Diana’s involvement in the Mine Treaty and then her untimely death, and the timing of that death around the treaty being signed, I think certainly pushed it across the line."
Today, the international effort to eradicate landmines around the world continues. "The battle is being won against mines, but it’s not over," Heslop said. "I think we could put this awful weapon system from the 20th century behind us by 2025, if we just have a really big push to make it happen.”
In recent years, Prince Harry has taken up the landmine cause as a patron of HALO Trust, the organization for which Heslop worked when Diana visited Angola. This past April, Diana's younger son put his support behind that 2025 deadline at a reception at Kensington Palace, a commitment to keeping his mother’s legacy alive.
In 2010, Prince Harry visited Mozambique to see the mines cleared by the Halo Trust.
"[Twenty years ago], the attention my mother brought to this issue wasn’t universally popular; some believed she had stepped over the line into the arena of political campaigning—but for her, this wasn't about politics; it was about people,” he said. “There is no question that a huge amount has been achieved in the last 20 years...But in marking how far we have come, we must also acknowledge that there is much more which needs to be done to fulfill the commitments of the Ottawa treaty."
Heslop was glad to have Prince Harry's help as an advocate, precisely because he was one of the only people who could, as he put it, “pick up his mother’s torch."
"I think the fact that Diana was involved intimidated a few people. That’s part of the downside—people didn’t want to be seen as stealing Diana’s thunder, but the one person that can’t be accused of that is her son,” Heslop said. “Harry’s a former soldier; he’s flown in helicopters; he’s been in Afghanistan and served; he’s seen how lethal these mines are. He works very closely with injured servicemen, people who have had amputations. I think of the royals who really understand the issue, I think Harry is a fantastic choice.”
Like Harry, Heslop and Chayer were very clear in wanting to emphasize the work that still continues today.
“The anti-landmine movement has been supported by famous people like Princess Diana, Angelina Jolie, and others, and this has brought a tremendously helpful spotlight on the issue. But what makes the strength of the movement today is the tireless daily work of thousands of less visible people worldwide,” Chayer wrote in an email.
Heslop agreed. "I’m incredibly proud of the work we do. I’m very proud of the de-miners from Cambodia and Mozambique and Angola, who are the real heroes, on their hands and knees every day clearing mines and risking their lives to make their communities and countries safe again," he said.
"But the real legacy would be for me to wake up one day and realize I didn’t have have a job. That would be the most amazing thing, to work myself out of a job would be incredible.”
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.