Global Policy Forum

Singling Out Sierra Leone, UN Council Sets Gem Ban


By Barbara Crossette

New York Times
July 6, 2000

The Security Council voted today to impose a worldwide ban on the purchase of rough diamonds from Sierra Leone until its government can establish a system to certify the origin of stones being exported, and begins to assert its authority over the diamond fields.

Most of Sierra Leone's diamonds, considered to be of high quality, are under the control of rebels, who smuggle the rough stones out of the country through Liberia to international markets. Sales of diamonds falsely labeled as Liberian provide money to buy guns and other war matériel for continued fighting in Sierra Leone. The Liberian president, Charles Taylor, is close to the main rebel group in Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front.

The resolution, sponsored by Britain, is experimental and intended to get at the roots of war.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's representative at the United Nations, told reporters that the international diamond industry and governments were beginning to reach an understanding "whereby in areas of conflict, only diamonds that are certified as being authorized for sale by the proper government will go into the industry and be cut and sold."

"There's a lot of work still to do," Sir Jeremy said, "and this is only the beginning of a number of steps we need to take on Sierra Leone. But it's a good beginning. We have begun a system which will immediately make it more difficult for the traders to deal in conflict diamonds -- some people call them blood diamonds -- from Sierra Leone, which are making the lives of the Sierra Leone people a misery."

Sierra Leone's ambassador, Ibrahim Kamara, thanked the council for the step taken today.

"We have always maintained that the conflict in Sierra Leone is not about ideology, tribal or regional difference," he said. "It has nothing to do with the so-called problem of marginalized youths or, as some political commentators have characterized it, an uprising by rural poor against the urban elite. The root of the conflict is and remains diamonds, diamonds and diamonds."

The council also ordered a hearing on the role of diamonds in fueling the conflict, a situation the United Nations has also encountered in Angola and will probably face in Congo, where a survey is planned on natural resources and how they are used.

Council action on the Sierra Leone diamond trade was delayed for nearly a week by a dispute over placing a time limit on the embargo. France, concerned about sanctions that may be imposed and then never lifted, won agreement to a term of 18 months, after which sanctions would end but could be reimposed. The United States, while backing the resolution, opposed having a time limit, especially one so short.

Ambassador Nancy Soderberg, who led the American delegation today, called the time limit "arbitrary" and said it would only undermine the effectiveness of sanctions because those in illegal activities can simply sit out an embargo.

Some nations in the region have been reluctant to single out Liberia -- and by implication Mr. Taylor -- as a problem, just as they have been unenthusiastic about putting the Revolutionary Front's leader, Foday Sankoh, on trial in Sierra Leone, according to diplomats. Mali alone abstained and did not support the resolution, which passed 14 to 0.

Mr. Sankoh is now in the custody of the government of Sierra Leone, and the Security Council is working on a separate resolution establishing a method for trying him that will bolster a weak local justice system with international legal assistance. Mr. Sankoh engineered a 1999 peace accord that gave him a place in the government that he earlier tried to overthrow, in a campaign marked by atrocities.

In May he turned again on the government, and on United Nations peacekeepers sent in to enforce the 1999 truce. About 500 peacekeepers were taken hostage. The Security Council is also working on a resolution to increase the size of the peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone to 16,500 from about 13,000. But the Clinton administration, facing a refusal in Congress of money to pay the American share of such a peacekeeping operation, is reluctant to approve the increase, council members say.

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