Blood Diamonds and Non-State Actors

By Smillie, Ian | Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Blood Diamonds and Non-State Actors


Smillie, Ian, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law


TABLE OF CONTENTS  I.   WAR II.  ACTIVISM III. REGULATION IV.  POLITICAL WILL AND POLITICAL WON'T V.   CONCLUSIONS 

I. WAR

During the 1990s and into the 2000s, rebel armies in several African countries--bereft of the great-power backing that proliferated during the Cold War--began to finance their efforts through the illegal exploitation of natural resources. (1) While he controlled the Port of Buchanan, for example, Liberian warlord Charles Taylor sold tropical hardwood and even iron ore to eager and unprincipled international buyers. (2) In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), rebel armies are still looting gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten. (3) Diamonds, however, were central to the funding of the most brutal and protracted wars in a generation.

In Angola, Uniao Nacional para a Independencia Total de Angola (UNITA), thwarted in the run-up to independence in 1974, fought a brutal war against the government for almost two decades thereafter. Almost half a million people died, and half the population was displaced. (4) Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, this was a proxy war, with nearly a thousand Russian officers and 45,000 Cuban troops backing the government against the South African forces and American money supporting UNITA. (5) But by 1991, the game had changed, and UNITA turned more industriously to an asset that it had dipped into in the past--diamonds. By the mid-1990s, UNITA was said to be exporting over a million dollars a day worth of diamonds to pay for weapons, ammunition, and heavy armor. (6)

Between 1991 and 2002, a terrible war took place in Sierra Leone, lasting as long as the First and Second World Wars combined. While the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) claimed it was fighting for justice and democracy, it waged its war almost entirely against civilians, chopping the limbs off innocent children and adults who happened to get in its way. (7) The brutality, often characterized as unfathomably mindless, had a clear objective. Once bitten and twice shy, terrorized civilians fled from towns and villages if they heard the RUF were coming, allowing the rebels to forage with impunity, (8) More importantly, the country's diamond fields were abandoned to the RUF giving it access to the resources required for a protracted conflict. (9) Sierra Leone's war was closely allied with Charles Taylor's rampage to power in Liberia and with the additional conflicts he helped foment in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire. (10)

In the DRC, a country rich in mineral resources, diamonds played a central role in sustaining the venal government of Mobutu Sese Seko for three decades through the mid-1990s. (11) Over the following decade, diamonds sustained his successor, Laurent Kabila, and a series of warlords, rebel factions, and marauding armies from neighboring countries. (12) The International Rescue Committee has conducted detailed studies in the DRC and estimates that 5.4 million more people died between 1998 and 2007 than would have if there had been no conflict. (13) To make matters even worse, with the breakdown in law and order, rape became a common terror tactic. According to a recent study, as many as 1.8 million Congolese women have been raped during their lifetimes. (14)

Diamonds did not cause this carnage. The rebel armies and their leaders were much less interested in wealth than in power. Diamonds were simply the means to an end, but without them the wars would not have lasted as long as they did, and the human cost would not have been nearly so high.

There are three aspects to diamonds that have made them so attractive to warlords. The first is their very high weight-to-value ratio. Diamonds are tiny, and a small pouch of quality stones could finance a rebel army for days if not weeks. The second is that, unlike the deeply buried diamonds of Canada, Botswana, and Russia, those of Angola, Congo, and West Africa are mostly alluvial in nature, found very close to the surface, and scattered over hundreds of square miles.

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