Diamonds Are the Heart of the Matter – Ian Smillie and Lansana Gberie on role of diamond trafficking on funding war in Sierra Leone

Diamonds Are the Heart of the Matter – Ian Smillie and Lansana Gberie on role of diamond trafficking on funding war in Sierra Leone – Interview

Horst Rutsch

Africa has long been ravaged by major civil wars. Only recently has it become clear to what extent armed conflicts are fuelled by greed for a country’s wealth in natural resources, rather than by political, ethnic or religious grievance. In particular, the role of the diamonds-for-arms trade has come under world scrutiny. For years, the conflicts in Angola and Sierra Leone have been funded by “conflict diamonds”–extracted from diamond areas under rebel control.

The United Nations is fighting the culture of impunity by imposing sanctions targeting the rebels’ ability to trade diamonds for small arms. In 1998, the Security Council banned all Angolan diamonds traded by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Earlier this year, it strengthened its sanctions against UNITA by establishing a monitoring mechanism on sanctions violations. Similarly, the Council on 5 July 2000 banned diamonds from Sierra Leone. It established an expert panel to explore the link between Sierra Leonean diamonds and the arms trade. The Council also recently decided to form an expert panel on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The shared concern for deaths, destruction and devastation caused by the diamonds-for-arms trade has led to a global coalition pushing for reform of the diamond industry. Together with the United Nations, leading diamond-producing countries, concerned Governments, civil society, as well as the diamond industry itself, have generated an enormous momentum to outlaw all conflict diamonds. At the recent World Diamond Congress, the industry proposed a number of measures to improve transparency and accountability in the diamond trade, including the establishment of an International Diamond Council, with representation from Governments, the diamond industry and outside expertise. The Security Council Sanctions Committee on Sierra Leone has just held its first-ever public hearing to assess the role of diamonds in the conflict. The exploratory hearing, chaired by Committee Chairman Anwarul Chowdhury of Bangladesh, was attended by representatives of interested States, regional and international organizations, the diam ond industry, civil society, as well as individual experts in diamonds and arms. Ambassador Chowdhury remarked that the broad spectrum of presentations revealed the “complexity and magnitude” of the problem but also made clear that the international community was “ready to participate in a global certification of origin regime” to control the illegal diamond trade.

The key role of diamond trafficking on funding the war in Sierra Leone was detailed in The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security a far reaching report released earlier this year by Partnership Africa Canada, Authored by Ian Smillie, Lansana Gberie and Ralph Hazleton, the report also recommends ways to curb the dissemination of conflict diamonds. The momentum spurred by the report has intensified calls by leading representatives of the main diamond trading organizations to self regulate the industry and tighten controls on the illicit diamond trade.

On l8 April 2000-two weeks before the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attacked UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone–Horst Rutsch of the Chronicle spoke with Ian of Smillie and Lansana Gberie about some of the larger implications of their findings for the diamond industry and the international community. At our request, Mr. Gberie also contributed an article which takes a look at the UN involvement in Sierra Leone; it follows this interview as the Chronicle Essay “Fighting for Peace: The United Nations, Sierra Leone and Human Security”.

Your report on Sierra Leone has very broad implications on the role of diamonds in financing Africa’s wars.

Ian Smillie: When we began, we were not sure how big the issue really was. What we discovered was how tightly organized the diamond industry is. De Beers, as everybody knows, is a very large company–it controls about 70 per cent of the world’s diamonds. De Beers sells a high proportion of its diamonds to traders, cutters and polishers in Antwerp, Belgium-the world centre for rough diamonds. And because Antwerp also buys them independently, the combination of the diamonds that it gets from De Beers and from independent sources means that 70 per cent of the world’s diamonds also go through Antwerp. So De Beers and Antwerp serve as two very narrow funnels through which all of the world’s diamonds go.

Most of these diamonds are legitimate, most of them are mined and exported legally from countries like Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. But what we discovered was that a great many of them are coming from countries that have very few diamonds at all. So we have a huge discrepancy in some places between what is being mined and what is being exported. The reality is that if you take Belgian import statistics seriously, huge amounts of diamonds are going out of countries that actually produce very few themselves–like Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Liberia.

Liberia is probably the most flagrant example of the problem. Over the last five years, Liberia is on record as having exported something like 30 million carats worth of diamonds to Antwerp. These are Belgian import statistics; the industry records there are open and available to anybody–30 million carats from Liberia. Liberia over that period of time probably did not have the capacity to export more than half a million carats. This suggests that huge amounts of illicit diamonds are going out of Liberia into Antwerp and the legitimate trade, where they are laundered, sold onwards to Tel Aviv, New York and elsewhere for cutting and polishing, and then on into the jewellery stores. De Beers estimates that about 4 per cent of the diamonds that are being bought in jewellery stores are “conflict diamonds”, but there is probably another 10 per cent that are misrepresented as African diamonds simply to avoid European taxes.

What impact has the illicit diamond trade had on the conflict in Sierra Leone?

Lansana Gberie: The impact has been devastating for the people of Sierra Leone. The RUF could not continue fighting if it did not have control over the major diamond areas. The rebels are mining these diamonds and exchanging them for small arms that are used against civilians. Close to 70,000 people have been killed since the armed conflict began nine years ago. Some 10,000 people–mostly women and children–have been maimed and mutilated by the rebels. The Government of Sierra Leone is very much handicapped; its reach does not extend much beyond the capital Freetown. And the United Nations peacekeepers assigned to the country following the Lome Peace Agreement of July 1999 have still not gained access to the key diamond areas; the rebels are still there. So, in short, whoever has control over the diamonds has the power–and all the power to cause destruction.

Extending Government control over the diamond-producing areas is thus the key to a lasting peace in Sierra Leone?

Smillie: In my view, the Lome Peace Agreement is a dubious one. It was pushed onto a democratically-elected Government of Sierra Leone which had its back to the wall, militarily speaking. And because the Western powers were not very interested in Sierra Leone at the time, the Government basically had to make a deal with the rebels. In any other country, as in Angola, the rebels would have been the pariahs and considered the villains. In the case of Sierra Leone, the RUF was treated as a legitimate player and, therefore, the Government was encouraged to make a deal with the rebels.

The rebels really have no interest in anything except gaining control over the State-they are not interested in peace, they are interested in power. And the way they intend to reach their goal is through buying guns and shooting their way into office, which they have been trying to do for several years. Or they will use the diamonds to pay for the creation of a political party and try to win the next presidential elections in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leoneans could well do what Liberians did: out of pure desperation to end the war, they could elect the bad guys into power and give them what they have so far not been able to get with the guns: legitimacy.

One way or the other, what is happening now, almost a year after the peace accord, is that the rebels have not given up the territory they took. The RUF leaders have been given Cabinet positions, they have been given everything they have asked for, but they have not given up one iota of their own power and their own resource base. The rebels are actively mining diamonds and exporting them to Liberia, just as they always have. Everybody knows they are doing it-there are aerial photographs of them doing it. And the longer it takes the UN peacekeepers to get into the diamond areas and put an end to it, the more violent and bloody the outcome will be.

Are the rebels fighting an ethnic war, or a war based in history, or some kind of tribal conflict?

Gberie: Absolutely not. This is not about tribalism or ethnicity or ideology. The war has been entirely about destruction and loot and diamonds. There may have been political grievances on the part of many Sierra Leoneans. At the time that the rebels invaded the country, in March 1991, Sierra Leone was ruled by a one-party dictatorship. So there was genuine cause for reforms. But there is absolutely no ideological basis for the armed struggle; the RUF does not represent any of the people calling for reforms. It is made up of almost all the ethnic groups in the country and even outside the country The original rebel group was made up of people from Liberia, Burkina Faso, and a very small number of Sierra Leoneans. Although successive governments have directly appealed to the rebels to lay down their arms the RUF has never done this, simply because its motive is pillage not politics. The rebels are plundering the country’s resources-and they have been sponsored by foreign powers for the same reasons.

You recommend the institution of an international oversight body to monitor the diamond trade.

Smillie: In our study, we were looking at Sierra Leone, but we saw how much broader the problem was. Certainly, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and Liberia are also involved in the region; Belgium is involved, De Beers and South Africa are involved, and so on. Diamonds, which at one time were available only in two or three countries, are now available in many countries. It is a very big export from Australia. They are very big in Russia. There are diamonds in Botswana and Namibia. There are now diamonds in Canada, and there are going to be a lot more. Diamonds are a global resource it seems that they are becoming a global problem. There are now so many wars and so much destruction and growing crime associated with diamonds, not to mention the translation of diamonds into weapons or the translation of drug money from Latin America into diamonds in West Africa.

There is already a ban on conflict diamonds from Angola. But it seems to us that there really has to be some kind of international oversight. There are meetings coming up in the near future which will help to give some weight to this idea. The World Diamond Congress in Antwerp will discuss the issue in July, and Governments, led by South Africa, are also taking the issue of international regulation much more seriously. An effective international oversight body would need the support of the United Nations. But it would need the involvement of Governments, the industry and outside expertise as well. The diamond industry itself is very tightly organized and it isn’t very big-people in the diamond industry know a lot of other people in the diamond industry. We feel that the legitimate diamond industry would have much to gain from this and a lot to add to such an oversight body. It is not about policing everybody; it is really about trying to prevent the worst excesses of criminality on the fringes of what is ess entially a legitimate industry.

Since the release of the report, you have established connections with other international organizations …

Smillie: What we began to see in the process of writing the study was that everything is connected-the more you dig, the more connections you find. We didn’t realize how many broad international implications there are. We didn’t talk about guns, we only talked about diamonds, but there is a big correlation between small arms and diamonds, as there is between drugs and diamonds. We looked at the Belgium diamond industry and we looked at De Beers, but we didn’t look at the American or the Israeli diamond industries, and there is a big diamond industry in India as well, and all of these are related. The fact is that there are so many countries producing diamonds-most notably in Africa but also elsewhere-that, in essence, we only touched the tip of the iceberg.

Since the report came out, De Beers has announced that it won’t buy any more conflict diamonds. The Belgians have also announced a number of sweeping changes in the way they do business. What we want to know is: Are these changes real? Are they sincere? And how can they be monitored and verified? We want to make sure that the industry really does change, and we think it is worth continuing the project for a while longer. There is a huge vested interest in the industry staying more or less the way it is.

What we want to do is work with other organizations–in Europe and Africa–that are concerned about these issues and start to follow up and monitor the diamond trade. We maybe able to involve some organizations within the diamond industry itself that are concerned about this, because I think they have as much to gain from a better regulated industry as some people have from one that is not regulated. But it is not going to happen overnight.

In the end, what we want is to make sure that someone who buys a diamond ring-a symbol of love and purity-in New York or anywhere else in the world would be sure that this diamond did not come out of a war situation in Sierra Leone; that it did not cause the death of 5 or 10 or 15 people; or didn’t result in a little child having her hand cut off. We want to make sure that all the diamonds that come into jewellery stores are clean.

Point of Fact: A new World Bank report, Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and the Implications for Policy, which looked at 47 civil wars from 1960 to 1999, shows that the most powerful risk factor for civil war is heavy national reliance on exports of primary commodities. The looting of such resources explains many civil conflicts, from Sierra Leone to Colombia. They create profitable opportunities for a minority at the same time as they destroy them for the majority.

The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security, by Ian Lansana Gberie and Ralph Hazleton, is by Pa Partnership Africa. Canada-A coalition of Canadian and African organizations which work development policies benefit African and Canadian societies. The complete report can be a accessed at

Ian Smillie has worked in international development for over 30 years. Since 1997, he is an associate with the Thomas J. Watson Institute at Brown University on issues relating to humanitarism and war. He started his international work in 1967 as a teacher in Koidu, the centre of Sierra Leone’s diamond mining area. On 1 August 2000, Mr. Smillie was appointed as the diamond expert to the Panel of Experts established by the Security Council to investigate violations of the arms embargo in Sierra Leone and to explore the trade in Sierra Leonean diamonds and the arms trade.

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