Conflict resource - Diamonds

Blood diamonds - hardly any key word is more to the point when describing the interrelation between war and resources. The term relates to civil wars in which rebels finance their bloody fight through the sale of diamonds. In the 1990s, this was particularly the case in the Western African states of Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone. But are these conflicts really resource-related conflicts? Not necessarily. The causes of these civil wars were a lot more complex. Rather than being the cause of the outbreak of violence that had political and socio-economic reasons, diamonds were the source of income decisive for the course and continuation of the conflicts.

Sierra Leone: Causes of the war

The atrocities of the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991 to 2002) have been presented vividly in the 2006 movie "Blood Diamond." In his role of the villain, the actor Leonardo Di Caprio embodies the entanglement of international diamond and weapons traders in war crimes. The pictures of the child and young adult soldiers high on drugs that patrol road blocks and diamond fields remain in one's mind. But how did it come so far that the trade in diamonds was able to fuel such a brutal war? Was it really the valuable precious stones that the rebels were after when they started the war?

The war in Sierra Leone started in March 1991 with the intrusion of a rebel group that called itself the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and that was supported by the Liberian warmonger (and later president of Liberia) Charles Taylor with the aim to overthrow the government. The rebels of the RUF fought against the government troops for a few years. To protect themselves against these fighters, the population formed local self-defence militias. In 1995, the government hired the private military company "Executive Outcomes" from South Africa to repel the RUF. But also a regional ECOWAS monitoring group, as well as a UN military team and the British Army, intervened in the war, which finally ended in 2002. The UN peace mission UNAMSIL (1999 to 2005) supported the peace process with at times more than 15,000 soldiers.

Already before war broke out, diamonds were the most important resource of the country. In the 1960s and 70s, revenues from the diamond trade amounted to 70 per cent of all export proceeds of the country. So it was the obvious choice for rebels and the government to use the diamond trade to finance their war efforts. Yet, the rebels only occupied the diamond fields in 1994, which may indicate that their primary goal was not to quickly enrich themselves by selling diamonds.

The underlying cause for the civil war was indeed a widespread discontent with the entire state administration. Corruption and mismanagement had ruined the country for decades. This also included the diamond sector. In the early 1990s, Sierra Leone was one of the poorest countries in the world, and even today (2016), it is rated 181out of 188 of the Human Development Index. Young people were frustrated as a result of high unemployment and lacking future prospects. Many went to find some income as diamond miners. Sierra Leone is rich in alluvial diamonds that can be found near the earth's surface, often in river beds, and which make artisanal diamond mining relatively easy. Tens of thousands of workers came to the diamond fields with little capital and machinery to mine for the precious stones.

But working conditions were miserable and their income often insufficient. The lion's share of the revenues went to the pit owners and local as well as international traders. The RUF-fighters criticized the mining of resources as "the raping of the countryside to feed the greed and caprice of the Freetown elite and their masters abroad" (Ross, 2004).

In Sierra Leone, similar to Nigeria, there is also a connection between resource wealth and conflicts on the one hand and bad governance and lacking development in the respective extraction areas on the other. In both cases, corrupt officials and politicians lined their pockets with billions of dollars; in Sierra Leone in particular because a large part of the diamonds was smuggled out of the country. A lucrative business, as diamonds are not only easy to transport but, in the case of Sierra Leone, are also of very good quality and thus obtain a high price on the world market. Its average export value fluctuated between US $130 per carat in 2000 and up to US $260 per carat in 2008 (1 carat=0.2 grammes). With their multiple connections to diamond producing companies, government elites in Sierra Leone also profited from this (Smillie, Lansana and Hazleton, 2000).

Diamonds: Funding source for war

Both rebels and the government in Sierra Leone used diamonds as a means to finance the war. However, this only worked, because—in line with the principle of demand and supply—international buyers did not ask any questions and were prepared to pay a lot of money for the precious stones or to directly deliver war material in the shape of weapons, ammunition and other equipment.

RUF, for instance, received most of its financial support for its violent uprisings from Charles Taylor who secured his own power in Liberia through profitable diamond transactions. The government, in turn, used some of its funds to hire the private military company "Executive Outcomes" when the RUF rebels had advanced on the vicinity of the capital city Freetown. The Canadian–South African company DiamondWorks also lent financial support, which allowed Executive Outcomes to take control of the diamond fields of Kono in March 1995. In return, the government offered the company the prospect of a possible diamond concession (Koidu in District Kono).

The end of blood diamonds?

The nature of the international diamond market, too, facilitated the activities by criminal networks. The trade in diamonds is traditionally based on personal relations, trust and discretion—quite the opposite of transparency. It was impossible for consumers to establish which countries the diamonds actually came from. With increased public attention on the role of blood diamonds in the civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola, efforts from governments, civil society and industry started to bring some transparency to the diamonds trading chain. The Kimberley Process had begun (see link).

Following a UN embargo on diamonds (UN Resolution 1306), the government of Sierra Leone was forced to introduce a certification system that guaranteed that only diamonds that were legally mined were allowed to be exported. Legally mined meant that they only came from areas under government control. This scheme became operational in the year 2000—still during the civil war. The Kimberley Certification Scheme for rough diamonds took this as an example. The membership in the Kimberley Process was well worth it for Sierra Leone: Official diamond exports rose from US $10 million in the year 2000 to US $142 million in 2005. However valuable the certification scheme of the Kimberley Process may be, it remains to be said that it also has its loopholes. To counter the many challenges with regard to human rights violations in artisanal diamond mining, other solutions have to be found.

Sources and further information:

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