Africa's bloody diamond trade

Print edition : April 23, 2004

Polished diamonds from the De Beers collection. -

A public campaign against international diamond trade fuelling and thriving on the civil wars in Africa achieves limited success but there is no end in sight for the people's misery.

DIAMONDS have been a potent symbol of luxury consumption for some time. And as economic inequalities are fostered by the international pattern of growth, the lust for such symbols has grown as well, creating a buoyant world market for diamonds in the last decade, which has spread also to developing countries.

Thus, advertising campaigns to promote diamond sales have been surging recently even in India, where De Beers and other international diamond merchants, as well as retailers, have been presenting this as the latest emblem not only of material success, but also, apparently, of purity and commitment.

But of course, most things in the world today are not what they seem to be, so it is probably not surprising, even though it is still ironic, that the world diamond trade is substantially based on, and feeds into, the most gruesome violence and terror in a tragic continent. The history of diamond extraction is known to be cruel, as evidenced by the ravaging of native populations and severe exploitation of workers especially in southern Africa in the 19th century. But the more recent trade is based on what is probably an even more cynical exploitation and reinforcement of vicious local conflicts in the sub-Saharan region by multinational processing and trading companies.

Some of these murky activities have become the focus of international public attention due to the efforts of a small London-based non-governmental organisation, Global Witness, which has highlighted the role played by the diamonds trade in financing the destructive civil wars in sub-Saharan Africa. The wars fought in that resource-rich continent have added to the poverty and desolation of its people, but it is important to remember that many of these wars have really been about control over these resources, and have also been financed by the proceeds of their sale.

In all the civil wars that have occurred in diamond-rich countries, the most bitterly contested areas are the diamond fields. For rebel movements, as much as for governments, it is only too easy to smuggle the rough stones out of the country and sell them to dealers in major diamond centres such as Antwerp.

Control over diamond territory has, therefore, determined the resources available to the different sides, and has often helped to determine even who finally wins the war. But this means that such natural wealth brings nothing for the local population, and instead provides for instruments of destruction, which further ravage their existence.

In Angola, for example, illegal diamond sales were crucial in funding Jonas Savimbi's rebel Unita forces over the 1990s. (Of course, Unita also received some support from Northern governments such as the United States, which were eager to destabilise the supposedly Marxist regime.) Sales of uncut diamonds from fields seized by them in the conflict earned Unita at least $3.7 billion between 1992 and 1997, allowing it to rearm even as it spoke of peace, and eventually to wage war again. Mobutu Sese Seko, then President of neighbouring Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and another major U.S. ally, bought the stones and allowed huge consignments of arms to be smuggled through his country to Unita.

After growing protests from human rights groups, the United Nations imposed sanctions on such diamond trade in 1998. But sanctions were ineffective without the backing of the international diamond business, which continued to use these diamonds with impunity.

The appalling tragedies enabled by illegal diamond sales were highlighted again in Sierra Leone, where the rebel forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) practised a particularly vicious form of coercion of the local population, enforcing their control by terror through systematic amputation of the limbs of adults and children, along with other practices.

The RUF began its devastating campaign by first acquiring control over some important diamond fields, and it increased its resources for further extension of its violent activities by smuggling the rough stones through neighbouring Liberia and selling them at cheap rates. (Incidentally, the profits from these diamond sales also allowed the RUF to hire the services of expatriate mercenary paramilitary groups such as the ironically named "Executive Outcomes", which have been hyperactive in the destructive conflicts of the African region.)

Such experience allowed Global Witness and other advocacy groups to make a strong case for insisting on corporate action to avoid purchasing diamonds from designated "conflict zones". Such continuous pressure affected the diamond industry, where "image is everything", to adopt international arrangements aimed at reducing criticism.

THE Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was negotiated by 61 governments, civil society organisations such as Global Witness and representatives of the private diamond trade and was formally launched in January 2003. The KPCS is an international governmental certification scheme, which requires governments and the diamond industry to implement import/export control regimes on rough diamonds, in order to prevent "conflict diamonds" from fuelling conflicts and human rights abuses. In addition, there is self-regulation required of all sectors of the diamond industry to implement a system of warranties and a code of conduct to keep "conflict diamonds" out of legitimate trade.

At the time, the scheme was hailed as a major breakthrough, because it had apparently got the major corporate organisations involved in diamond trading to respond to public pressure. However, some analysts pointed out that the largest such company, De Beers of South Africa, which controls 60 per cent of world diamond supply, found the scheme to be in its own interest.

From the 1930s, De Beers had been buying up surplus diamonds to ensure its stranglehold on global supply. But it has recently been faced with increased competition and the prospect of increased popularity of synthetic diamonds. The company may have decided that it now makes commercial sense for it to market itself as a "clean" diamond company, guaranteeing "bloodless" stones. Some analysts have also noted that if the supply of African diamonds dries up, it might suit De Beers, which would then be able to sell some of its own diamond stockpile, currently valued at more than $4 billion.

However, a recent report from Global Witness, which has been monitoring the implementation of the Kimberley Process, finds that the diamond retailers' contribution to a United Nations-backed initiative to prevent illicit diamond sales from fuelling Africa's wars has amounted to little more than "a public relations manoeuvre". This is based on a survey carried out in the retail market for diamond jewellery in the U.S., which accounts for over half of global diamond jewellery retail sales at a value of $24 billion in 2002.

The survey revealed that the major players in the U.S. diamond jewellery retail sector are not carrying out the basic steps of self-regulation envisaged in the Kimberley Process. In general, very few of the major luxury retailers had an explicit policy on diamond purchase, and there were low levels of awareness among employees about the issue of "conflict diamonds". The report also shows that the World Diamond Council, which is responsible for co-ordinating the industry's efforts to combat "conflict diamonds", has not adequately monitored compliance with the self-regulation, nor have other trade associations.

All this could perhaps have been expected - it is rare that cynical corporations actually comply with any rules or even "self-regulation" that touches the bottom line of profits. And the tendency to pay lip service to social concerns or to whitewash their own activities remains as strong as ever. But the public campaign against using natural resources of a country to finance devastating and brutal wars and simultaneously provide profits to multinational companies, has already been more successful in a shorter time than was expected.

Continued pressure may actually bring about some positive change in this relatively limited goal. However, the basic tragedy of a continent whose natural wealth has generally brought about even greater misery for its own people because of the rapaciousness of native and expatriate profiteers may not end so easily.

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