Today (Thursday 16th November), the sixth and final series of The Crown will stream on Netflix. It features a scene depicting Princess Diana’s famous walk along a cleared path in a minefield in 1997, just before her untimely death later that year.
I lead the global landmine clearing charity that hosted Diana in an Angolan minefield 26 years ago, and her legacy continues to affect my professional life on a daily basis. Had she not used her determination to shine a light on the appalling impact of landmines on civilians, The HALO Trust would be significantly poorer for it today.
Prior to Diana’s visit, there was very little awareness about the devastating impact of mines and unexploded ordnance, but the striking images of Diana walking through the minefield and comforting child amputees was transformational: both for the people of Angola and for global mine clearance in general.
These were the days before the smart phone and social media, but the images catapulted the issue onto the world stage. I am grateful to this day that a quick thinking HALO manager had the foresight to cut up a pillowcase, draw on our logo in felt tip and stitch it on to her body armour. The same manager then delivered a safety briefing to the princess in his trademark Yorkshire deadpan which left her understandably nervous: Listen to what I have to say and or you could be killed.
It wasn’t just her bravery though. Diana was, of course, a mother herself, and was obviously moved when she met children who had lost their limbs to landmines. The young girl famously photographed on her knee in Angola was called Sandra Tijica and she was thrilled to meet Prince Harry some 22 years later, when he retraced his mother’s footsteps by visiting the same region of Angola in 2019.
Diana’s visit not only raised global awareness of landmines but increased pressure on states, including the United Kingdom, to agree to a treaty ban that banned them. The Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention – also known as the Ottawa Treaty - was drafted after her death in September 1997 and entered into force on 1 March 1999.
Indeed, over the past 26 years, lives have been saved by landmine clearance in approximately 90 countries. More than 55 million landmines have been destroyed and many states have completed clearance of all known minefields, including Mozambique, once formerly one of the most densely mined places on earth.
Diana’s legacy has undoubtedly benefitted millions, but the full impact will be felt by generations to come. Of course, the conflict in Ukraine has seen an appalling resurgence of mine laying at catastrophic levels. It would be easy to be disheartened by the enormity of the task in clearing its minefields in the years ahead. But recalling Diana’s 1997 minefield walk inspires hope. When I visited the exact same spot in Angola with Prince Harry four years ago, the ground was tarmacked and flanked with homes, shops and hundreds of cheering schoolchildren. Only their parents could remember the landmines that once laid in wait beneath. Diana’s walk lasted mere minutes, but decades on it still helps us strive for a future in which landmines are gone for good.
James Cowan, CEO, The HALO Trust