On the Trail of "Blood Diamonds"

The Hague.

When British fashion model Naomi Campbell testified to the Special Court for Sierra Leone recently in the Dutch city of The Hague, she drew renewed international media attention to this sometimes forgotten UN tribunal. Perhaps not since the affair of the queen’s diamond necklace, one of the many instances of corruption that rocked the French monarchy before the revolution in 1789, have diamonds and celebrity been brought so closely together, to the delight of the television cameras and the popular press.

Campbell made it clear that she was not pleased at being subpoenaed as a prosecution witness by the Special Court, which is currently trying former president of the neighbouring West African state of Liberia Charles Taylor on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, notably in connection with his alleged role in the civil war in Sierra Leone that effectively wrecked that country in the 1990s. Before meeting Taylor, as she had done in 1997 in South Africa, and later being summoned to appear in The Hague, she had scarcely heard of Liberia or Sierra Leone, Campbell said, and she knew nothing of what had gone on in West Africa.

However, whether or not Campbell knew what she was receiving when she was given a gift of diamonds from Taylor in 1997, these being associated with the kind of “blood diamonds” that had fuelled the civil wars in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, she could have paid more attention to whom she was meeting and what she was given when she dined with Taylor, former South African president Nelson Mandela and others in 1997.

As anyone who has followed the Taylor case will know, as will anyone interested in African and West African affairs, since it was set up in 2002 the Sierra Leone court has uncovered a particularly distressing story of terrifying violence and social breakdown that implicates not only those responsible for the events in Africa, but also those dealing in the diamonds and weapons that fuelled them from abroad.

This is a story that involves everyone, not least because of the crimes, against humanity as a whole, for which Taylor and others have been or are being tried. While it is a pity that Campbell apparently did not see it that way in her appearance in The Hague, reviewing the circumstances of the UN tribunal’s foundation and the cases it was set up to try is a way of estimating the debt the international community owes the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone, whatever the outcome of the Taylor and other trials.

THE STORY STARTS in the early 1990s when the government in Sierra Leone, criticised for alleged corruption and mismanagement of the country’s mineral and other resources, became the target of a rebel movement in the country’s armed forces that put severe pressure on attempts to maintain law and order. A coup d’état from within the military followed in 1992, ushering in a period of growing instability as quarrels within the ruling group, together with the loss of the east of the country to Revolutionary United Front (RUF) fighters, plunged the country into a state of civil war, inviting significant intervention from outside the country’s borders and particularly from those keen to get their hands on Sierra Leone’s diamonds and mineral resources.

A further coup took place in 1997, again from within the Sierra Leonean armed forces, this time by a group calling itself the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The AFRC, allied with the RUF, occupied the capital Freetown, and it was apparently during this period that many of the worst atrocities of the civil war were committed. Civilians were routinely killed or mutilated, women raped, and children conscripted into the armed forces. Much of the country’s already fragile infrastructure was destroyed by looting, with atrocities against the civilian population being carried out both by the AFRC-RUF rebel groups and by the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) that opposed them.

It was only with the arrival of United Nations peacekeepers at the end of 1999, acting in conjunction with forces from ECOMOG, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group representing ECOWAS, a consortium of anglophone and francophone West African states, that order started to be restored. Further problems followed in 2000 when RUF forces in eastern Sierra Leone attacked UN troops, causing fragile peace agreements to collapse and the outbreak of further fighting between the rebels and the government. British forces intervened to end the crisis, eventually ending the civil war.

While a cursory account such as this cannot hope to capture the extent of the suffering visited on Sierra Leone during the decade-long period of internal conflict and intermittent civil war, it can draw attention to the role played in the conflict by foreign intervention. Few, perhaps, will want to argue that British military intervention was unjustified, given the atrocities then being carried out in Sierra Leone and the apparent failure of all other attempts at ending them.

Yet, the social and economic crisis in the country that eventually gave rise to the civil war could not have attained the gravity that it did, or led to such prolonged and bloody periods of military conflict, had it not been for certain essential ingredients from abroad. These came in the shape of the enormous sums to be made from selling off the country’s resources, in this case diamonds, and the concomitantly large amounts of money available for buying weapons.

While the television cameras at The Hague focussed on the nexus between diamonds and celebrity when Campbell appeared at the Taylor trial, in Sierra Leone itself the nexus was a somewhat different one. Here, there was a fatal link between the export of the country’s diamonds and the import of growing quantities of weapons, and it was this inward-outward traffic and the sums that it generated that fuelled the spiralling civil war.

It is also here that Taylor’s alleged role in the conflict in Sierra Leone becomes apparent. The UN tribunal, sitting in Freetown and in The Hague and set up by agreement between the UN and the government of Sierra Leone, has already tried AFRC and RUF commanders on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, convicting AFRC commanders Alex Tamba Brima, Ibrahim Bazzy Kamara and Santigie Borbor Kanu to between 45 and 50 years in prison and RUF commanders Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao to between 15 and 52 years.

Indictments against RUF commanders Foday Saybana Sankoh and Sam Bockarie were withdrawn following both men’s deaths. CDF leaders Sam Hinga Norman, Moinina Fofana and Allieu Kondewa have been found guilty on various counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international law committed during the Sierra Leonean conflict. A warrant for the arrest of Johnny Paul Koroma, former leader of the AFRC, has been issued, though he is still at large.

As far as Taylor himself is concerned, president of Liberia from 1997 to 2003, indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2003 and arrested by the Nigerian authorities in 2006, his role is alleged to have been that of supporting and directing the activities of the AFRC/RUF fighters, with a view to terrorising the civilian population of Sierra Leone and looting the country’s diamonds.

He is charged with crimes against humanity, violations of the Geneva Conventions and other violations of international law, notably with regard to allegedly directing or controlling killings, lootings, rapes, mutilations, abductions and use of forced labour and conscription of child soldiers that occurred in Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Taylor has pleaded not guilty to all the charges, at first contesting the jurisdiction of the court and later boycotting the proceedings.

Even aside from his alleged involvement in the conflict in Sierra Leone, Taylor had earlier played a leading role in Liberia’s own civil war from the early 1990s onwards, which had also gone a long way towards destroying that country. Having led a bloody rebellion at the head of National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) forces against the government of president Samuel Doe, itself installed following a military coup in 1980 and accused of atrocities, Taylor’s rule from 1997 onwards was marked by further instability and the looting of the country’s resources.

By the time Nigerian ECOWAS forces intervened for a final time in 2003, subsequently forcing Taylor’s exile and resignation, the country, like its neighbour, was effectively devastated. Summarising developments in the two countries in the 1990s prior to Taylor’s eviction from Liberia and the end of the conflict in Sierra Leone, British academic Paul Nugent writes that “the number of links in the chain between the producer of alluvial diamonds in NPFL areas and the cutter in [the European city of] Antwerp was surprisingly few, confirming much conventional wisdom about the impact of globalisation processes in Africa.”

“Taylor’s revenues were estimated at upwards of US$75 million a year [and he] used much of this money to purchase arms and communications equipment to remain in contact with the outside world, but at the same time many affiliated warlords and their commercial agents became fabulously wealthy. The quest for accumulation was not sullied by debates about the relative merits of capitalism or socialism,” an ideological struggle that had characterised earlier conflicts. “On the contrary, the NPFL exhibited an ideological agnosticism arising out of its attachment to a form of landborne piracy,” with the “quest for new sources of accumulation leading to the spilling of violence across borders,” in this case into Sierra Leone.

SITTING IN THE glassed-in public gallery of the Special Court for Sierra Leone housed in the Special Tribunal for Lebanon building in The Hague — alone, as it happens, following the flurry of media interest generated by the appearance of Naomi Campbell — one can be forgiven for turning this history over and staring at the defendant, shuffling through his papers, looking for all the world like some retired civil servant, and apparently unconcerned by events around him.

Funded by voluntary contributions from UN member states and, as usual, chronically short of money, the Special Court is supposed to have reached judgement in the Taylor case by August 2010, though clearly that has not happened.

Last month, following the appearances by Campbell and American actress Mia Farrow, both having had some involvement with Taylor in South Africa in 1997, there was a cross-examination of RUF commander Issa Hassan Sesay regarding campaigns carried out under his leadership in the late 1990s. Listening to his evidence across several days one got a clearer sense if nothing else of the horrors visited on Sierra Leone.

Sesay has already been condemned for his part in crimes carried out in the 1990s. Whatever the verdict in the Taylor case, in order that justice is done on behalf of the thousands who suffered so terribly during the civil war more is needed than simply handing down stiff sentences. By the time the conflict ended, tens of thousands of people had been killed, while tens of thousands of others had been left deliberately mutilated, with their arms, legs, noses or ears cut off.

This violence was fuelled by the export of diamonds and the easy availability of weapons, not made in Africa but bought in from outside using often illicit funds. In order to prevent the occurrence of further conflicts along the lines of those that took place in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and also to help stop those currently taking place, for example in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, there must, among other things, be serious implementation of the so-called Kimberley Process, set up by the UN in 2003 to police the export of so-called “blood diamonds”.

This set up an inspection system that requires all rough diamonds crossing international borders to be accompanied by a government-issued certificate attesting to their origin. Countries unable or unwilling to meet Kimberley Process requirements can find themselves excluded from international markets and unable to sell their diamonds.

Justice for Liberia and Sierra Leone requires not only that Taylor and others be put on trial in the legal proceedings that have taken place in Freetown and are underway in The Hague and that, if found guilty, they be appropriately sentenced. It also requires that Kimberley Process regulations be strictly adhered to and that money and appropriate technical assistance be made available to both countries for economic and social reconstruction and development.

How likely is it that these things will come about? Not everyone involved in the atrocities in Sierra Leone can be prosecuted, and it would not be appropriate to do so. The important thing is to ensure that those who played a leadership role or were in positions of significant responsibility are brought face to face with their crimes.

According to recent statistics, Liberia and Sierra Leone now figure towards the bottom of the UNDP’s human development index, indicators for life expectancy, educational attainment, health and well-being all being low. Both countries have significant natural resources, including of course diamonds, and yet the vast majority of each country’s population lives in poverty.

As for the Kimberley Process, this was set up in response to the lessons of the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and it has received the support of many NGOs concerned at the pillaging of resources, among them the UK-based organisation Global Witness. Invited to consult on the setting up of the Process, today this has mixed views.

Even with the safeguards of Kimberley Process certification in place, “the trafficking of conflict and illicit stones is looking more like a dangerous rule than an exception,” it says, holding out the prospect of further resource-fuelled conflicts on the pattern of those that took place in Liberia or Sierra Leone.

In a report released earlier this year, Global Witness stated that “the will and capacity of the United Nations and Member States to deal with natural-resource fuelled conflicts is weak. In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, civilians die on a daily basis because of a war that is stoked by the international trade in minerals. The conflict’s economic dimension and the identity of those fuelling it have been known for many years; yet increased awareness of the problem has not triggered effective action.”

DAVID TRESILIAN writes for Al-Ahram Weekly.