Global Policy Forum

Two African Nations Said to Break


By Blaine Harden

New York Times
August 1, 2000

American and British officials accused the presidents of Liberia and Burkina Faso today of taking personal roles in trading arms for diamonds in violation of a United Nations embargo. The officials also said the two leaders had helped Sierra Leone rebels to continue fighting their civil war.

The American ambassador to the United Nations, Richard C. Holbrooke, compared President Charles Taylor of Liberia to President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, who has been indicted for war crimes.

"Taylor is Milosevic in Africa with diamonds," Mr. Holbrooke said in an interview, contending that outsiders have been much too passive in identifying African leaders who foment war for personal gain. "Taylor is fueling the conflict in Sierra Leone for his own benefit," Mr. Holbrooke said. "He is threatening to destabilize western Africa, and there is deep division in the region about how to deal with him."

A British diplomat said today at a United Nations hearing on the role of diamonds in the Sierra Leone war that Mr. Taylor had personally taken command of rebel forces fighting there against United Nations peacekeepers and that he has in recent weeks sent arms to the rebels and taken smuggled diamonds in payment. "In effect, President Taylor has been directing strategy meetings of the rebels," said the diplomat, Stephen Pattison.

Mr. Pattison also made unusually specific allegations against President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, saying that in return for diamonds Captain Compaore has sent mercenaries from Burkina Faso to fight with rebels in Sierra Leone against United Nations peacekeepers. Captain Compaore has repeatedly allowed airports in Burkina Faso to be used for supplying the rebels with arms bought in Ukraine, Mr. Pattison added.

Diplomats from Liberia and Burkina Faso denied the allegations, demanding that hard evidence be presented.

Foreign Minister Monie R. Captan of Liberia categorically denied that Mr. Taylor had been trading arms for diamonds this year, although he acknowledged that the president had "in the past" dealt with the rebels. Mr. Captan said Mr. Taylor was working for peace in Sierra Leone. In an interview, he accused Mr. Holbrooke of making accusations against Mr. Taylor to advance his campaign to become secretary of state if Vice President Al Gore wins the presidency.

Mr. Taylor, a former warlord who terrorized voters into electing him in 1998, has played a singularly influential role in the making and the unmaking of a crisis this year in Sierra Leone. Before rebels there seized 500 United Nations troops in May and held them hostage, Mr. Taylor was their principal ally in letting them smuggle diamonds and buy arms. After the troops had been detained, Mr. Taylor's intervention secured their release. The Liberian government, Mr. Captan said today, had expected to receive international credit for its role in defusing the crisis.

But in mid-July, Thomas R. Pickering, under secretary of state for political affairs, had a combative meeting with Mr. Taylor in Monrovia. Mr. Pickering warned Mr. Taylor that unless his government quickly halted its support for the Sierra Leone rebels, the United States will invoke unilateral sanctions, including denying American visas for Mr. Taylor and other Liberian officials and seizing their assets in the United States, an American official said.

At the meeting, Mr. Taylor acted defensively, denying the allegations and demanding to be shown proof, the American official said. That proof was not supplied. But an American official said today that evidence included photographs of trucks that were carrying arms and supplies to Sierra Leone and electronic surveillance that showed Mr. Taylor as he met commanders of the rebels, the Revolutionary United Front.

In his testimony today, Mr. Pattison said Mr. Taylor had recently ordered an increase of diamond production in rebel-held areas of Sierra Leone. "Taylor has assured the R.U.F. of his support and of increased military aid," he said. "This has included supplies of arms, ammunition, fuel, food and medicine. These are regularly transported across the Liberian border in trucks and occasionally in helicopters."

After the peacekeepers were taken hostage in May, the Security Council banned trading in Sierra Leone diamonds until a certification procedure could be established. The diamond industry -- led by De Beers, the world's largest trader -- has moved to tighten trading and toward branding diamonds to make provenance clear.

Human rights groups have said, however, that there is no way of knowing whether the industry can police itself. In March, a scathing United Nations report condemned the central diamond clearinghouse in Antwerp, Belgium, for "extremely lax controls" in handling banned diamonds sold by rebels in Angola.

Mr. Holbrooke said the Clinton administration now supported the creation of a system for global certificates of origin. It is not clear how such a system would work.

The United Nations embargo on Sierra Leone diamonds does not ban the sale of diamonds exported from Liberia. Industry experts said most of Liberia's exports originated in Sierra Leone. An American official said that Liberia itself had the capacity to mine $10 million of diamonds a year, but that last year it exported $300 million worth of the stones.

Mr. Pattison said Burkina Faso had become a major player in exporting smuggled diamonds from Sierra Leone. He said the best recent estimate is that in return for arms and other supplies 60 percent of rebel-mined diamonds were moving from Liberia and 40 percent from Burkina Faso.

Mr. Holbrooke said Washington hoped to persuade American consumers to demand certificates of origin that could prove that they are not taking home "blood diamonds" from Africa. "I hope," Mr. Holbrooke said, "that people buying a beautiful stone will start asking questions and be sure not to buy unless they see a certificate of origin."

American consumers have shown little interest in the provenance of the stones, industry experts and shop owners said. Sales of diamond jewelry jumped 11 percent last year, and De Beers had record worldwide sales of more than $5 billion.

President Compaore of Burkina Faso was also singled out in March for violating a United Nations embargo in 1998 to stop Angola rebels from using diamonds to pay for their war. That report said Captain Compaore had sent fuel to the rebels and received "substantial contributions" for his political campaigns. A representative of Captain Compaore's government dismissed the charges.

Anticipating that some African countries will respond to his accusations as neocolonialism, Mr. Holbrooke emphasized that he was not making a universal condemnation of African leadership.

"We should have been saying these things a year ago," he said. "We need to move past perceptions based on race. This is not about race. This is very difficult for the Africans, because it means there has to be a candid admission that some of the African leadership has failed its people."

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