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Diana's Landmine Legacy



GENEVA, Switzerland--In Shakespeare's time--and even later--the blood feud now proclaimed by Princess Diana's brother, Charles, would have been settled on the battlefield, a resounding re-match of Plantagenet versus York. It was Erasmus, writing in the early sixteenth century, who said that wars occurred because they were a way of life among a militarized, aristocratic, ruling class. Humanity has moved on since then and today the alleged dishonoring of the house of Spencer by the house of Windsor will be fought in the newspapers and on television, above all in the court of mass public opinion.

The British, one of the most warlike of nations, as Margaret Thatcher showed not so long ago with her war against Argentina over the inconsequential Falklands Islands--two bald men fighting over a comb, as one wag at the time put it--are now undergoing a discernable sea-change in their attitudes. Martial virtues are being sublimated. Even the football hooligans have faded into the background. Tony Blair's Labor government, while not pacifist, is imbued with strong moral values, as the prime minister showed the world with his passionate rendition of St. Paul's admonition to "love," in his reading from Corinthians during the funeral service for Diana.

The anti-landmine movement is her immediate legacy, the campaign she was most engaged in when she died. It was both important in itself and important in that it is chipping away at mankind's long tolerance of the evils of war. War, the systematic and organized use of violence, is peculiar to the most advanced of animals, man. To quote Erasmus once more: "Whoever heard of 100,000 animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?"

Before Mr. Blair came to power in May the attitude of the British government towards landmines was the same as that of the U.S.--they are a necessary part of the modern armory. Mr. Blair changed that and now President Bill Clinton, after an initial policy of resistance, has signalled an important departure in the U.S. negotiating position. Washington has agreed to be party to a Canadian government initiative which--without waiting for the laggards, China, India and Russia--will commit those who are of a like mind to ban the use, production, sale and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines. In Oslo this week and next negotiations are in process with a target date of December for the signing of a treaty.

This is an astonishing turnaround for both Britain and America. Until very recently--last month in Mr. Clinton's case--the Canadian initiative was regarded as high-minded but unrealistic. Now with Diana's death can anything stop its satisfactory conclusion?

For the moment Washington is still seeking a number of let-out clauses, in particular to be allowed to keep its mines in Korea on the "demilitarized" border between north and south. Yet in a telling piece of reportage last week a New York Times correspondent couldn't find one American soldier in Korea to speak in favor of landmines, such is the modern, more educated, soldier's abhorrence of a weapon that is more likely to maim and kill children than any other weapon of war, long after a conflict is over. Diana's death ought to be the nail in the coffin for Washington's reservations.

Diana, we now learn, was campaigning for a treaty that would go even further than a ban. For this knowledge we have to thank Bill Deedes, the former editor of the right-wing British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, who surprised everyone by becoming the Princess' confidante and speech writer on these matters. In August they travelled together to visit landmine victims in Bosnia and when she died they were working on a speech for the Oslo meeting that would "stress that a ban on producing landmines was not itself a solution. She realized that, even with the whole world agreeing to 100% ban, we would still have 110 million mines in the ground and still have thousands of people in Bosnia, Mozambique, Cambodia and elsewhere being killed and wounded by mines." In this speech that never happened she was planning to say, "if we could pool the best methods of bringing up mines--finding them possibly by satellite--we could speed the work." She believed, says Mr. Deedes "that governments that had invested so much in making mines should now use their best scientific talent to find ways of getting rid of them." Yesterday, I interviewed Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the International Committee of The Red Cross, initiator of the original anti-landmine campaign. He added this sombre point to Diana's would-be observation: "If the proliferation of landmines were stopped in 1997 it would still take hundreds of years at current rates of detection and clearance to rid the world of the mines already laid." Diana was lobbying us, pushing us, to take a small but significant step towards the outlawing of war and the improvement of peace. If the time when kings and dukes fought wars and knights duels over nothing more than their reputations now seems part of a distant past, it is time overdue, as the millenium approaches, to progress even further. With the abolition and removal of landmines it will be a small step for the generals but a very important one for mankind.


September 10, 1997, GENEVA

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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