Mourning: it's a minefield

Mourning ends. And however much the tabloids seek to shake life into the corpse of the Diana story at this tag-end of summer, the fickle public has moved on, which, as more coherent cultures than ours understand, is the purpose of ritual grief.

Thus the plan for a memorial garden at Kensington Palace including a 300-foot statue now seems faintly ridiculous and has been abandoned by the Diana Memorial Fund, whose committee of worthies seldom meets. The tabloids report her mother's distress, while her brother is said to be disappointed at the public's loss of interest. Shame on him and on the tabloids. Why, other than for financial profit, should they seek to wring out of us any more mawkish tears? If Diana's family wish there to be a permanent memorial, that is up to them. Her place in the memory of her family is not our business - it never was. Moreover, her public legacy may turn out to be more lasting than mausoleums and museums - greater, too, than the cynical republicans among us may care to admit.

Earlier this year, on 1 March, the Ottawa treaty on the prohibition of anti-personnel mines came into force as the 40th nation ratified its provisions, banning the use, manufacture and sale of landmines. As part of her work for the British Red Cross, Diana played a significant role in bringing the scourge of these weapons to public attention, infuriating politicians as she went and bringing a hitherto unglamorous cause under the spotlight.

Her visit to Angola, in January 1997, seven months before her death (and four months before the fall of the Tories), was a turning point in the campaign - first, because of the powerful pictures of Diana with limbless children and the unnerving image of a usually heavily guarded royal walking through a minefield, and second, because her comments put the Tory government seriously on the spot. Despite careful briefing, Diana spoke artlessly of the urgent need for a total, immediate ban. The government had supported only a policy of "working towards" such a ban. Her widely publicised remarks angered the government and provoked Lord Howe, then junior defence minister, to call her "a loose cannon" - a weapon that sounded benign, compared with the life-threatening landmines to which Diana's visit was drawing attention.

Now, two and a half years on, few doubt that her death speeded up the treaty process by several years. In October 1997 the six original founders of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines received the Nobel peace prize. By December the treaty was ready for signature. The United States (while quaintly persisting in announcing its full support for the treaty) remains the only major nation not to have signed up. Its "special security concerns" - South Korea - have prevented them, officials say, but a date has at least been set, albeit the year 2006.

But clearing the world of landmines requires far more than signatures. There are believed to be around 110 million anti-personnel landmines in the ground around the world and a further 100 million stockpiled for future use; their removal will cost upward of $33 billion (more if landmines continue to be placed). Worse, at the present rate demining would not be completed before the year 3000. It is ludicrously cheap to make and place landmines, while their removal is disproportionately dangerous, time-consuming and expensive. A mine can cost as little as $3 to make and place but around $1,000 to remove.

Every day 70 people are killed or injured by landmines, an average of one every 15 minutes. Half of all adults who step on a mine die before they reach hospital. Children, because of their size, are even more likely to die. Injuries are horrific, routinely requiring amputation of limbs. Some 300,000 children have been left severely disabled.

These are shocking statistics. In some countries the reality is even more shocking. As Antara Dev Sen reports on page 14, in Angola there are more landmines than citizens. They add to the existing tragedy of a country ravaged by war, preventing farming and even the transportation of food aid.

It would be wrong to be too optimistic. But the Ottawa treaty now has 133 signatories and has been ratified by 84 states. Among them are past producers of mines such as Britain, France and Italy, as well as nations that have suffered from their use, including Angola, Cambodia, Bosnia and Mozambique.

Every landmine that isn't laid is a better legacy than a saintly statue or a ramped-up display of grief.

This article first appeared in the 30 August 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Gordon Brown, the great feminist