Fitting tribute

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 1997, 12:00am

No one did more to raise awareness about the horrors of landmines than Princess Diana. Organisers of the Oslo conference aimed at banning these terrible weapons have lost their most powerful advocate, but it is doubtful if even she could have helped the world to realise such an obviously-desirable goal.

What the princess did, as shown by the political outrage her comments caused, was to focus attention on the carnage mines inflict on 2,500 victims yearly. Seeing mutilated children and civilians in Angola in January, Diana was called naive and uninformed when she backed calls for a total ban.

There was more to the problem than pointing to amputees and saying how terrible, said a Conservative minister in Britain at the time. That indicates why there was a reluctance to fulfil the princess' wish to become an ambassador for her country. Her tendency to react to issues in emotional terms meant that she could be blissfully unaware of crossing the fine line between human and political concerns.

Although Britain does not export landmines, government policy then was to agree to a ban if it became internationally acceptable. The United States deploys anti-tank mines in the de-militarised zone between North and South Korea, where 37,000 US troops are stationed, and argues that 'smart' mines, which de-activate at a specified time, remain necessary.

Since major exporters of landmines will not attend the conference, prospects for an international ban are very remote. Russia, China, Iran and Iraq are among those nations who manufacture and supply landmines. Armies use them because they are cheap, and can divert and delay an invasion force. The fact that one million landmines are still buried, maiming and killing civilians in countries like Cambodia, will not move the military strategists. They believe that in lands with long-disputed borders, mines are an indispensable tool of defence. While some experts argue that all landmines could be banned, half the world is committed to their use. For all the defensive arguments, Princess Diana's revulsion is shared by ordinary people. It would be a fitting tribute to her if the Oslo conference led to a world ban. But it would be more realistic to remember her by increasing funds to clear minefields which still exist.