Conflict Diamonds And the Global Fight


by Lansana Gberiea *

Concord Times
October 23, 2001

On September 11 this year, representatives of more than 30 governments, along with industry and NGO representatives, met in London to discuss ways of stopping the illegal trade in conflict diamonds, a source of war and terror in a number of African countries. The discussions, part of the Kimberley Process - named after the city where South African diamonds were first discovered - had been held before in Belgium, Southern Africa and Russia, without agreement on substantial matters relating to the production and trade in rough diamonds, industry self-regulation, and credible international monitoring and oversight.

The September meeting stalled again on these points. The diamond industry balked at the idea of independent monitoring, and the European Union raised an unexpected obstacle, arguing that national controls in and between EU member states would violate EU legislation on open borders.

This kind of foot-dragging is only possible where African lives, or issues that bear upon African lives, are concerned. Conflict diamonds are gems mined in war-affected African countries and traded by 'rebel' armies. De Beers, which maintains a near-monopoly on the international diamond trade, claims that they constitute only 4 per cent of the trade; international activists, including UN-appointed experts, suggest figures that are considerably higher. Whatever the case, this 'marginal' aspect of the trade - involving as much as US $125 million a year in earnings for Sierra Leone's neurotically brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guerrillas, and tens of millions more for Angola's murderous UNITA - has fuelled widespread death and destruction in at least four African states. Angola's long-running war has killed over a million people; Sierra Leone's over 60,000. The more complicated war in the Congo (with extractive resources, including diamonds, playing a major role) has already killed more than a million. And recent 'rebel' incursions into Guinea, influenced in large part by the country's diamond reserves, led to the death of thousands and the destruction of entire towns and villages.

There are now indications, however, that much-needed action on the issue may occur as a result of the catastrophic terrorist attack on the US. American investigators and officials have confirmed what many African governments, crumbling under attacks by terrorists posing as 'rebel movements', have long known: that there is a direct link between the capacity of terrorists to wreak havoc, and their ability to raise money through shady business, especially business involving valuable export commodities and illicit drugs. On Oct. 10, two US politicians, Tony Hall (a Democratic Congressman from Ohio) and Mike De Wine (a Senator from the same state) argued forcefully in the US Congress that bin Laden's al-Qaida network 'benefited from trade in conflict diamonds'. According to Hall, 'clearly...there is a direct link to terrorism,' so regulation of the trade in conflict diamonds 'fits into our anti-terrorism efforts'. Congressman Hall has been campaigning on the issue with scant notice on Capitol Hill for a long time; if the attacks on the financial capital of the world help him to bring respite to some of the poorest people on earth, then one might say that something good might come out of an appallingly evil circumstance.

On the day of the terrorist attack on the US, I was in Koidu, once a prosperous town of 200,000 in Sierra Leone's chief diamond mining district. Today it is an utterly desolate landscape, the handiwork of the RUF rebels. There, I witnessed another kind of horror, another source of distress: hundreds of young men digging diamonds in the centre of what used to be a bustling city, supervised by RUF commanders who for years chopped the hands off children and women in order to frighten people away from the diamond fields.

If I had arrived a few weeks earlier, I would have seen something more dramatic: the RUF commanders would have been standing over the diggers with automatic rifles. Today, with a cease-fire in place, they dig with impunity, their mines actually patrolled by UN peacekeepers who have no mandate to do anything but watch. My informants told me that many of the RUF's diamonds are traded through Lebanese dealers, who in the past have used money accrued from the trade to fund various factions in Middle Eastern wars.

The government of Sierra Leone is wobbly and some senior officials are reputedly corrupt; it is in any case too weak to deal with the diggers. Sierra Leonean civil society groups are actively campaigning against conflict diamonds, some of them supported by the Canadian International Development Agency. But they are frustrated because their activities are barely noticed by a press which, with a few exception, is more incompetent and corrupt than state officials.

(CIDA has also invested substantially, through the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, in rebuilding the Sierra Leone press.) Diamonds are a global resource. For countries like Sierra Leone they are valuable only insofar as they remain attractive to outsiders. Those outsiders, particularly North America (which accounts for over 50 per cent of global diamond sales) and Europe, dominate the Kimberley Process, and they are also the main obstacle to its success. There is no doubt that positive international action, by way of reformed trading practices and credible, independent monitoring, would significantly transform the trajectory of terror in places like Sierra Leone.

Western governments and much of our media tend to look at conflicts in Africa and the so-called Third World as far-away occurrences, with no relevance for us except as occasions for humanitarian support.

Hopefully, recognition of the trans-continental nature of the 'businesses' that support such conflicts, and their destructive linkages to those that now touch at the heart of the western world, will change that self-centred attitude.

*Lansana Gberiea is a research associate of Partnership Africa Canada, an NGO at the forefront of the campaign against conflict diamonds. He is the co-author of the report 'The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security.' Mr. Gberie's latest report, 'Destabilising Guinea: Diamonds, Charles Taylor and the Potential for Wider Humanitarian Catastrophe,' will be published later.

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