AFRICA: Illegal Diamond Trade Funds War in Sierra Leone

Peace cannot be sustained in Sierra Leone until controls are imposed on the illegal selling of diamonds used to finance its civil war, according to a recent study.

The study, titled "The Heart of the Matter - Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security," was released in January by Partnership Africa Canada. Two of the study's authors, Ian Smillie and Lansana Gberie, discussed their findings at an April 18 briefing sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

In his introduction, the Rev. Paul Dirdak, chief executive of the board's United Methodist Committee on Relief, noted that the report is important to the denomination because of its churches in West Africa and an overall concern for public welfare in those countries, such as Sierra Leone and Angola, affected by the "conflict diamond" trade.

The study itself grew out of discussions held by the Sierra Leone Working Group, an informal organization based in Ottawa. The group considered the civil war in Sierra Leone from an economic perspective, rather than a political one, and realized the conflict would not have been as long or as brutal "if there hadn't been money to pay for it," Smillie said.

In fact, politics or ethnic conflict played a very small role, they discovered. Gberie, who spent six years covering the Sierra Leone war as a reporter, noted, "even when I was there, no one knew why the rebels were fighting. Everyone said it was a senseless war."

The decade-long war -- which has claimed more than 75,000 lives, resulted in half a million refugees and displaced half of Sierra Leone's 4.5 million people -- was not sparked by the failure of several post-colonial governments, according to the study. "Only the economic opportunity presented by a breakdown in law and order could sustain violence at the levels that have plagued Sierra Leone since 1991," it said.

"The point of the war may not actually have been to win it, but to engage in profitable crime under the cover of warfare," the study continued. "Diamonds, in fact, have fueled Sierra Leone's conflict, destabilizing the country for the better part of three decades, stealing its patrimony and robbing an entire generation of children, putting the country dead last on the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index."

Often, the atrocities committed in recent years by the rebels in Sierra Leone, such as hacking off limbs, are used as a means of driving others away. "There is a process of displacement and dislocation of people," Gberie explained.

The tools of war are being purchased with the illegal diamonds. "Small arms are getting into these places because people are exchanging them for diamonds," he said.

The DeBeers group, a mining company that acts as a wholesaler, controls 70 percent of the world's diamonds in a given year, and many rough diamonds are processed through the diamond industry in Antwerp, Belgium, represented by the Diamond High Council. "The diamonds that are stolen come into Antwerp unregulated, unchecked," Smillie charged. "There is a huge laundering business that is going on between Africa and Belgium."

He pointed out that 30 million carats have passed from Liberia - considered to be a transit point for conflict diamonds -- to Antwerp over the past five years, representing "billions of dollars worth of stolen diamonds." He estimated that at least 10 percent of the diamonds on the world market are stolen.

The report's key recommendations for breaking the hold of the diamond-fueled war include:

  • Creating a permanent and independent International Diamond Standards Commission, under the United Nations, "to establish and monitor codes of conduct on governmental and corporate responsibility in the global diamond industry."
  • Providing international help to the Sierra Leone government to, in Smillie's words, "get a grip on the diamond industry." Peacekeeping troops, for example, need to expand to the diamond mining areas currently held by rebels.
  • Conducting a high-level investigation into the criminal elements of the Belgian diamond trade.
  • Creating a legitimate channel for selling diamonds from Sierra Leone.
  • Putting an effort into basic human development in Sierra Leone, as well as the creation of jobs for young men otherwise lured into the illegal activities.
  • Instituting a full embargo by the United Nations Security Council on the purchase of any diamonds originating in, or said to originate in Liberia.

"Liberia has become a major criminal entrepot (center) for diamonds, guns, money laundering, terror and other forms of organized crime," the report declared.

"The astoundingly high levels of its diamond exports bear no relationship to its own limited resource base. By accepting Liberian exports as legitimate, the international diamond industry actively colludes in crimes committed or permitted by the Liberian government."

The report from Partnership Africa Canada - which was broadcast on national radio in Sierra Leone the day of its release - has sparked reaction and pledges of improvement from the diamond industry, according to Smillie, but the issue will need continued monitoring and pressure from outside groups.

"We feel the diamond industry itself has a lot of the power and influence to clean this up," he added.

In the meantime, consumers need to be educated about the issue and about where some of the diamonds in today's market come from. "The word 'boycott' does not appear in this report," the document said. "Certainly a boycott could damage the industry. But the idea of a campaign is different: it is about transparency, change and urgency.

"Where people's lives are concerned - as they are in Sierra Leone - time is of the essence. In the absence of clear and meaningful movement within the industry and among other international actors, the point of a campaign would be to help the industry 'take responsibility for its actions' - not damaging it, but improving it."

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
  • 104 Globalization
  • 106 Money & Politics
  • 185 Corruption
  • 190 Natural Resources
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