By Avishek Dev
Diamonds mined in war-torn African countries—blood diamonds—are widely considered to be responsible for bolstering rebel forces, and perpetuating harrowing civil wars, which have claimed thousands of lives.
The proceeds from this diamond trade are used to finance the day-to-day operations, and consolidating the power of these rebel forces. This issue needs to be addressed, as it was never truly resolved. However, the “blood diamond” trade is reportedly alive and well, and it continues to be the backbone of many rebel-controlled economies.
Seven African countries have borne the brunt of wars fuelled by the diamond trade in the past two decades, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, the Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These countries have vast reserves of diamonds, and have been at the centre of conflicts between rival groups seeking to control the diamond-rich regions. It perhaps comes as no surprise that nations gifted with the most valuable natural resources are also appear to be the most cursed, in terms of being ravaged by war and poverty.
A brief history of the blood diamond trade
A report published by the Global Witness, a group which has previously campaigned to stop the conflict diamond trade, investigated the link between the civil war and diamonds in Angola in 1998. The report prompted the UN to impose sanctions on UNITA, the primary rebel group in Angola, the New York Times reported.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) urged the member states to freeze UNITA’s assets, and prohibit the import of diamonds mined from rebel-held territories through a certificate of origin scheme. However, these measures failed to curb the smuggling of blood diamonds out of the country. The UN-sponsored the Fowler Report to look into the loopholes exploited by rebel forces, in financing their war through illicit diamond trade. The report found a nexus between arms dealers and UNITA.
Despite sanctions, the illegal diamond trade accounted for 93% of the total diamond sales in Angola during that period. The UN however, did not have the authority to enforce compliance with sanctions, and so it aimed to publicly shame the people and organisations involved through these revelations.
The UN the approved the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, which attempted to track the entire trade cycle of conflict diamonds, from mine to market, and ensured strict compliance through legislation in the respective countries. However, the scheme failed to yield the desired results, due to widespread corruption among government officials who could be bribed to declare the blood diamonds as Kimberly Process Certified.
The main reason behind the scheme’s initial success was the US adoption of the Kimberly Scheme in 2003. The US is the largest importer of diamonds, and by identifying and banning huge volume of diamonds from conflict zones, the scheme was able to curtail the trade of blood diamonds.
The UN was also able to identify a few companies trading in conflict diamonds, and blacklisted them.
This has dealt a severe blow to the rebel infrastructure, resulting in the termination of civil wars in Sierra Leone, and Angola. However, there is little room for complacency as blood diamonds continue to appear in the legitimate market even today.
The challenges of curtailing the conflict diamonds trade
There is no scientific procedure to distinguish the source between two diamonds, which makes it harder to trace them. Diamond retailers must make the supply-chain infrastructure more robust to guarantee that diamonds are conflict-free.
“What is it going to take for us to find a diamond that is traceable that’s not from the developed world?” There’s no mechanisms and nobody seems to be looking at this,” said Harriet Kelsall, who sells diamonds in the UK, the Financial Times reported. “The big companies need to lead the way on this but I don’t think they really are.”
One of the challenges for organisations like the Kimberly Process is that it can only impose sanctions on rebel groups, and not ruling governments. The Central African Republic and Zimbabwe are reportedly plagued by inherent government corruption. These establishments exploit diamond workers, and even commit human rights violations. However, the organisation has little to no authority to impose sanctions on such governments.
The Kimberly Process has failed to adapt itself in the face of new challenges. It must ensure targeted sanctions, because legitimate diamond mining is still the primary source of livelihood for a majority of people in these regions. Previous bans on a country’s illegal and legal diamond exports have resulted in the proliferation of illegal smuggling across borders, and negatively impacted the economy.
Several NGOs have commented that the Kimberly Process should do away with its current consensus system, and instead opt for making decisions through a majority vote. This will make it easier for the organisation to act against one of its own members. The UN should grant more teeth to the organisation so that it can realise its original objective- to ensure diamonds in the open market are free from any blemish.