Global Policy Forum

The West Hopes to Curtail Diamond Trading,


By Blaine Harden

New York Times
August 2, 2000

Diamonds have become unfashionable as never before among Western powers struggling to snuff out civil wars in Africa. Appalled by pictures of children with limbs hacked off by diamond-smuggling rebels in Sierra Leone and humiliated when those rebels kidnapped international peacekeepers in May, the United States, Britain and several other countries are making control of the diamond trade a foreign policy priority.

The United Nations recently imposed an embargo on diamonds from Sierra Leone, and the United States is threatening sanctions against other West African countries accused of trading guns for gems. And a consensus has emerged for a strict certification regime to keep the stones that have been used to fuel Africa's civil wars out of the world's jewelry shops. What has been conspicuously missing from all this is international support in the form of money, arms or troops -- to force the rebels in Sierra Leone out of their lucrative diamond mining turf.

"The real critical thing is that someone has got to go in there and get the rebels out," said Ralph Hazleton, a Canadian expert on diamonds who testified today at a United Nations hearing on the diamond embargo in Sierra Leone. "No matter what the international community does, the rebels will always find ways to sell their diamonds. There are a lot of not-so-honest people around."

Evidence of the existence of unscrupulous diamond traders can be found by looking south in Africa to Angola, where the Unita rebel movement, despite a United Nations diamond embargo, has made hundreds of millions of dollars a year by selling stones into the international market.

Robert R. Fowler, the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and chairman of a committee that investigated violations of the embargo in Angola, has said the embargo did little to put Unita out of the diamond business. Rather, he said, it was a military offensive last year by Angolan government forces that chased Unita away from diamond mines and finally crippled its smuggling operation.

In Sierra Leone, though, military analysts say the government cannot hope to push rebels out of diamond mining areas without substantial help from United Nations peacekeepers or a major injection of military aid from the West.

But American and British diplomats made clear in interviews here today that there was neither the political will nor the money to rout the rebels from Sierra Leone's diamond country. "We are not working to militarily defeat the rebels," said Jeremy Greenstock, the British ambassador to the United Nations. "It is unrealistic in the short or medium term to expect that either the Sierra Leone government or the United Nations peacekeepers will be capable of taking over the whole of the country."

Britain, the former colonial power in Sierra Leone, is spending $40 million to train security forces in the country and has plans to supply them with some weapons, Mr. Greenstock said. But he added that British help was not intended to make the government able to go on the offensive.

What the British, the Americans and the United Nations hope to do, then, is to make rebels in Sierra Leone say uncle by applying an economic and political squeeze.

Diplomats said they expect that strict enforcement of the embargo, which has won broad public support from diamond traders, will make smuggling much less easy and profitable than it has been in the past. In recent years the rebels have been making $30 million to $50 million a year from smuggled diamonds, an American official said.

Cracking down on the diamond trade is particularly difficult. Millions of dollars worth of the stones can be smuggled in a sock, and it is often impossible for experts to determine the country of origin for small parcels of diamonds.

In Sierra Leone the problem is compounded by a long open border with Liberia. American and British diplomats say the Liberian president, Charles Taylor, is a principal player in diamond smuggling. Officials accused Mr. Taylor of formulating military strategy for the Sierra Leone rebels and personally profiting from the sale of illicit stones.

The United States sent an envoy last month to Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to warn Mr. Taylor that unless he immediately halted the trade, he would be subject to American and international sanctions.

But Liberia may have little to lose from sanctions. Its economy is already in ruins from a savage civil war prosecuted by Mr. Taylor. Although it was once the largest per capita recipient of American aid in Africa, Liberia now receives little money from the United States and the World Bank. Diamonds, in fact, may be more valuable in Liberia than international good will.

An American official said the tiny country exported about $290 million in smuggled diamonds last year, a huge windfall for a near-bankrupt state. "We have seen no diminution yet between the almost daily contracts between senior leaders in Monrovia and senior leader of the R.U.F.," said Mr. Greenstock, using the acronym for the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone.

Echoing views of American diplomats, Mr. Greenstock predicted that strict enforcement of the diamond embargo would, over time, impoverish the rebels and make them willing to discuss a political settlement. "You are lowering the price of diamonds going out and therefore de-motivating the R.U.F.," Mr. Greenstock said, adding that there was evidence that the price of smuggled diamonds had fallen 30 percent since the United Nations imposed an embargo on stones from Sierra Leone six weeks ago.

The British ambassador dismissed a comparison to the largely ineffectual diamond embargo in Angola. He said other nations and the world diamond trade were now much more motivated and united in their desire to halt violence in Africa.

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