Illegal Diamond Trade Funds War in Sierra Leone

(UMNS) - 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 & 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.

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."

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 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 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, 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.

"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."

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