Getting to the Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds, and Human Security

Article excerpt

IN JANUARY 2000, THE CANADIAN NON GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATION, PARTNERSHIP Africa Canada (PAC), released a report entitled The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds, and Human Security. The report grew from discussions among members of an informal group in Ottawa that called itself the "Sierra Leone Working Group." Meeting under the auspices of PAC, the group concluded that diamonds were central to the conflict in that small West African country, and that no peace would be sustainable until problems related to mining and selling diamonds had been addressed, both inside Sierra Leone and internationally.

Diamonds--small pieces of carbon with no great intrinsic value--have been the cause of widespread death, destruction, and misery for almost a decade in Sierra Leone. In the 1960s and 1970s, a weak postindependence democracy was subverted by despotism and state-sponsored corruption. Economic decline and military rule followed. The rebellion that began in 1991 was characterized by banditry and horrific brutality, wreaked primarily on civilians. Between 1991 and 1999, the war claimed over 75,000 lives, caused half a million Sierra Leoneans to become refugees, and displaced half the country's 4.5 million people.

The point of the war may not actually have been to win it, but to engage in profitable crime under the cover of warfare. Certainly, over the years, the informal diamond-mining sector, long dominated by what might be called "disorganized crime," became increasingly influenced by organized crime and by the transcontinental smuggling of diamonds, guns, and drugs, as well as by vast sums of money in search of a laundry. Violence became central to the advancement of those with vested interests.

De Beers, Antwerp, and the Origin of Diamonds

Until the 1980s, De Beers was directly involved in Sierra Leone. It had concessions to mine diamonds offshore and maintained an office in Freetown. Since then, the relationship has been indirect. Until much more recently, however, De Beers maintained buying offices in neighboring countries where diamond production is much lower. Through its companies and buying offices throughout Africa, and in its attempts to mop up supplies everywhere in the world, De Beers not only sustained the artificially high price of diamonds, it also undoubtedly bought diamonds from war zones. Such diamonds, produced by rebel groups in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone, have come to be known as "conflict diamonds" or "blood diamonds."

Antwerp (Belgium) is the world center for rough diamonds. As much as 75% of the world's rough diamonds -- valued at about seven billion dollars per annum -- pass through Antwerp. A factor that has eased large-scale diamond smuggling and inhibited the tracking of diamond movements is the manner in which Belgium (and other countries) record the import of rough diamonds. Rather than recording the country of origin, they record the country of "provenance" -- the last country through which a diamond passes. At least 40% of the diamonds going into Britain, for example, are recorded as being Swiss, because they stopped in Switzerland on their way to Britain. From Britain, many go back to Switzerland where they are recorded as "British," and so on. Because the first countries of import, notably Belgium and Switzerland, give import documents only a cursory glance, it is not difficult to disguise "conflict diamonds" as something else.

Sierra Leone Diamonds

The first Sierra Leonean diamond was found in 1930, and significant production commenced in 1935. Sierra Leonean production is characterized by a high proportion of top-quality gem diamonds. Siaka Stevens became prime minister seven years after independence in 1968. A populist, he quickly turned diamonds and the presence of the Sierra Leone Selection Trust (SLST), a colonial inheritance with a monopoly on the best diamond fields, into a political issue He tacitly encouraged illicit mining and became involved in criminal or near-criminal activities. …