Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Blood" Diamonds Bring Peace and Feed the Poor

by Kieron E. Ryan

Naomi Campbell is in the ridiculous position of having to give testimony at the war crimes trial of former Liberian warlord Charles Taylor on the grounds that she received a blood diamond from him. One might question the company she keeps, but on the diamond issue she should tell her inquisitors to go to hell.

Blood Diamond was a fun movie and no doubt had elements of truth to it. Leonardo di Caprio’s South Africa accent was passable (actually he portrayed an ex-Rhodesian who had moved onto bigger, badder battles fighting the white African cause wherever that calling took him). His real crime was attempting to smuggle diamonds supposedly obtained by slave labour and destined for the grand arms bazaar that turned countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia into giant, open-air slaughter houses. A somewhat embarrassing sub-text to this story is that it was a company of South African mercenaries, called Executive Outcomes, that brought peace to Sierra Leone in the 1990s, allowing 300,000 refugees to return home safely before the World Bank forced the bankrupt government of the time to terminate its contract with the company. The result? Aluta continua ("the struggle goes on") as they used to say in Mozambique, as the warlords recaptured lost ground and the blood diamond trade flourished once more. If there were no diamonds in Sierra Leone, the warlords would have traded cassava, cows or rhino horn.

Today, we have a semblance of peace in these countries. Whether we like it or not, it was mercenaries who did the job in West Africa with the kind of resolve noticeably lacking by our peace-loving UN troops. Even Goma in eastern Congo enjoys a tentative peace. For these tender mercies, are we to thank the great minds that brought us the Kimberly Process Certification (KPC) that forces traders in rough diamonds to certify the source of the stones as conflict-free?

As someone who has toiled the rivers of Congo for diamonds and interacted with traders of many nationalities, I have a somewhat jaded view of the monopoly-seeking grubbers who have criminalised trading in these precious stones. It is possible to buy stones in Goma, Angola, Zimbabwe or even South Africa, ship them to Kinshasa in Congo and then have them sanitised by way of a locally-issued KPC. A few hundred dollars is all you need. That’s what happens when proscription enters the scene.

In truth, an experienced dealer will be able to tell you the source of the stones, since diamonds of every region carry their own unique DNA. But he will not be able to tell you whether that particular stone is conflict-free. Zimbabwean stones have flooded the market in recent years, and one has to marvel at the resourcefulness of Zimbabweans who scramble beneath the barbed wire of state interference. A few years back, close to the border with Mozambique, an enterprising Zimbabwean stumbled on what turned out to be perhaps the largest diamond field in the world and happily set about exploiting his find until the Zanu-PF big-wigs who control that country’s black markets decreed it state property. The state unleashed the dogs of war and killed scores of diggers trying to eke out a modest living. Still the traders find ways to smuggle and bribe their way to South Africa, clutching parcels of stones to trade and feed their families back home.

This is is the latest cause célèbre of the blood diamond lobbyists, though Zimbabwe’s case hardly fits the KPC template: the conflict, such as it is, is purely economic. That it sustains and nurtures a despicable regime is an argument without contest. The same diamond thieves who run that country also control the black markets in fuel and foreign exchange. Perhaps we need a Kimberly certification process for these too.

Reports from Mozambique suggest between 100 and 1,000 smugglers do errands for Zimbabwean army officers each day, taking stones to Mozambique’s Villa da Manica, across the border from Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe, where they are purchased for about $25 a carat by Lebanese traders and then on-sold to overseas buyers for as much as $1,000 a carat. That still does not classify these stones as blood diamonds. There is no on-going war to warrant such a label. The KPC website says "The Kimberley Process (KP) is a joint governments, industry and civil society initiative to stem the flow of conflict diamonds – rough diamonds used by rebel movements to finance wars against legitimate governments."

I scratch my head and try to think of a rebel war anywhere in the world currently funded by diamonds. Maybe there is one I haven’t heard about. Call Zimbabwe’s diamond trade it an economic crime if you will, but these are no blood diamonds. A Congolese friend was recently robbed of R100,000 (US$13,500) at gunpoint in Lesotho when attempting to purchase stones and smuggle them across the border to South Africa. Should we classify these as conflict stones, or simply a trophy of crime?

Read the rest here.


  1. Wenzel,

    Here is a good video as follow-up, explaining what happened in Sierra Leone when the human rights violating UN stepped in and kicked EO out:

    Tens of thousands of avoidable civilian deaths. All hail the great hypocrite human rights violators at the UN!